ThePuristS Interview Jerome Lambert
Directeur General of Manufacture Jaeger-LeCoultre


by Jaw
© March 2003

 

You have heard of this before: A young man of finance takes charge of a company full of experienced craftsmen. Conflict is foreseen, trouble ensues and one snickers at the naïve technocrat as he makes a fool of himself.

But after fifteen minutes with Mr. Jerome Lambert I realized that no one should under-estimate this talented and capable man. Despite not being fully at home with the English language, he manages to express his humility and honesty better than anyone else in the industry.

He is frank, bold and open in response to my relentless ‘interrogation’ and knows everything about his company and the industry. Mr. Lambert also possesses a clear understanding of the direction he has taken.

We chatted for more than two hours, and my respect grew steadily as the time went by.

Mr. Lambert has the right to be proud of himself. However, throughout the interview, he insisted on sharing the limelight and maintaining a ‘team’ stance, and with admirable consistency.

At a time when most seek personal honour, Jerome insists that the essence of Jaeger-LeCoultre is heritage, culture, human resource and the experience of others. He says this is what made Jaeger-LeCoultre the great company it is today.

I salute you, Mr. Lambert.


(Mr. Jerome Lambert - Manufacturer Jaeger-LeCoultre, Directeur General)



The Interview

TP: Before I begin, I would like to congratulate you for your great team of people in Singapore.

JL: Yes, a tremendous team, but not only in Singapore, all over the world.

TP: What do you think is the essence of JLC? What makes JLC special?

JL: I would say, first of all, its birth, and how it comes to life. 1833, the creation, LeCoultre, great grandson of Pierre LeCoultre in 1559. Our creativity from the beginning. From something as simple as a new way to produce pinions. Our roots lie primarily in our manufacturing, and also rooted definitely in the rich heritage of Vallee de Joux.

We are from the Vallee de Joux, you know? People struggled for survival in the early 16th or 17th century. At above 1000m sea level, agriculture productivity was poor, the area was poor. The only potential is to have pioneering spirit and a certain sense of community. The 3rd element is the factory itself, under the same roof from the beginning 'til now. JLC added a roof, developed new activities, knowledge, techniques, craftsmanship and technicalities and regular development, but still the same JLC. I could go on...

TP: JLC is still the very rare manufacturer using ONLY in-house designed movement

JL: You are well informed! We like to say we are a complete manufacturer; our watches begin with a block of steel and our watches must possess a richness that incites emotions. Not just slick marketing, we have the creativity, our products evolved. We have a sense of achievement, a sense of detailed attention as well as producing them with high efficiency. These are the only way we continue to inspire ourselves.

You are Janek's friend, you know him (Janek Deleskiewicz, Directeur Artistique & Design). When he works with watches and Philippe Vandel for example, they are the people who are totally immersed in their own work. When developing a new watch with Vandel, and working on a particular watch for example, very often they pause. They will walk to the workshop personally and go to someone who is just producing a small pinion. They will discuss the practicality in making a specific part and see if any changes are needed. Sometimes they walk from workshop to office many times a day to find the best way to do things.


(Philippe Vandel - Design Engineer)


(Roger Guignard - Design Engineer)

TP: Good exercise

JL: Yes, they lose weight while they are working hard (laughing) and all of them have good relationship with the workshop team.

TP: Do they work with computers?

JL: Yes they work with computers, but they utilize more of their experience and skill than their computers. They muster all of their own skills and judgments and we do not just depend on commercial partners like others. We are all things under one roof. The factory is like a small Vallee de Joux itself. When we develop something, we deliver.


(The 2003 Platinum No. 2 Tourbillon)


(Design diagram, The 2003 Platinum No. 2 Tourbillon)

TP: However, more and more brands are now also claiming to be manufacturers. Is JLC still special?

JL: The first way to differentiate us is to visit the annual Basel and SIHH fairs, and find out who makes new movements, not just technical evolution, or modification on 3rd party ebauches. But only true in-house design movement. Then you go back after six months, to see who is able to produce them in the quality and the quantity promised.

Even more important, take a look at their after sales service centre much later...and ask yourself it they are just marketing outfits or manufacturers that can produce reliable watches.

The main challenge of our job is to strike the right balance between our skills and creativity. We have not just a dream but it must be one that can be realized. A JLC watch must be a superb timekeeper that is reliable, for which the last details have been taken care of and is produced as close to perfection as possible. That is, produced in the most accomplished way.

We succumb to no time pressure, no market pressure, no technical limits, and our watches have to be top-notch yet suitable to our market. Our job is how to juggle with both water and fire, together. It is one thing to make one show-piece Tourbillon, another to be able to deliver 500 reliable pieces in a couple of years.

TP: So your main focus is "reliability"?

JL: This is not only our focus, but is our basic duty to our customers. Lack of reliability is not acceptable to either JLC or JLC customers. Our main focus is keeping the right balance to insure that our creativity is sufficiently supported by our skills, capacity and reliability that we can guarantee. We always have a long term perspective.

TP: You have worked with Mr. Belmont and Mr. Blumlein?

JL: I joined the team 6 years ago. I remember when I first arrived at the car park on day one, and I asked myself, "What I am doing here?"

My own answers, "It is a good brand; it is a solid company and it is producing great products." I sensed an inner-strength in Mr. Belmont the moment I spoke to him. Immediately I felt his passions, warmth and the energy, and since day one, it has been a new learning experience everyday. There is not a week that I don't phone him up for advices even now. I always call Mr. Belmont when I need him and he has been our greatest supporter.

It is very important to learn from him and Mr. Blumlein and we are fortunate to be able to share their vast knowledge and experience. I am still trying my best to utilize our rich heritage and piggy-back their experiences to help me manage JLC's future.

TP: Now that Mr. Belmont is in charge of more than one brand, do you think his baby-JLC is still special to him?

JL: I think Mr. Belmont has equal love for all his children, although I suspect JLC will always occupy a special place in his heart. Together with Mr. Blumlein, this is the company that they revamped and propelled it to the success it is today.

TP: Does JLC listen to customers?

JL: We are always looking for input from our customers; you know the origin of the Reverso? It was created because JLC was asked for a way to make the watch tough enough to withstand the rough Polo game from our owner in India.

TP: I remember the 1991 60eme being the comeback piece of JLC, that was the time when watch collectors take note that JLC has transformed from just a movement supplier to a successful watch house.


(The legendary 60eme Limited Edition, launched in 1991)

JL: Definitely, one of the major turning points is when JLC decided to clean the product range in 1987 and of course the public first saw the transformation in 1991 in our 60eme launch, new GT size. We are also setting another standard with the Grande Reverso today, another major milestone for JLC.

TP: When you first took over JLC, what do you think was the expectation from you?

JL: I have always been asked what I have changed since. The right question should be what I should keep? With the rich heritage left behind by Blumlein, Belmont and thousands of JLC employees, you have to ask what I must keep before I change anything. I think I am expected to keep the heritage, the fundamentals and most of all its continuous success.

TP: We heard you are an incurable workaholic? How do you find time for your family?

JL: It is my passion and energy. I dedicate all my effort and I can work as hard or as leisurely as I wish if I think I have performed my mission to do the best for the company, to make the company more recognized, more successful and ready for any future challenge.

JLC family members are expected to have that glimmer in their eyes, not measured by how much hours they spend in the office. During Christmas, the factory is closed for our rest. I still have a family to attend and a lovely daughter to take care of. I have a daughter of 20 months; I played with her a lot.

Last Christmas (2002), I told her what a tic-tock (watch) is. Later, when I bought her a nicely crafted wooden clock, I repaired it and I gave it to her, 3 days later, she showed the same clock to me and said "tic-tock", she has successfully associated the clock with my watch.

TP: So you are dedicated, but not a workaholic?

JL: You said it (laughing).

TP: You are only 32 years old?

JL: I will be 34 years old soon, a nice age for JLC. Pierre LeCoultre arrived at Valley de Joux at 30, Antoine LeCoultre too and Jacques-David LeCoultre was promoted to the director of Research at the same age, it doesn't mean I can be compared to them, but at least it is not the wrong age for JLC.

TP: What are the pros and cons of being a young CEO like you?

JL: You can innovate and experiment because you don't have a psychological taboo. You are old when you speak more from the past than of the future. We should have more to do than reflect on what we have done. You can still do the same, like Mr. Blumlein did, when you are 60 years old, but for mortals like us, it is easier when you are in your 30s. We are not restrained by the past, we can be more innovative and open, and we can learn a lot more now. We can still behave the same way when we are 60, but again it is a lot easier to do the same now.

I have been part of the JLC team for 6 years, and my work is easier because I have confidence in my team and I have their confidence in return. Our guy in charge of quality for example has more than 40 years of working experience in JLC, and he knows and is able to provide all of the JLC history, experience and heritage to help us. I need more of that experience and I can learn more from them when I am younger. And being young helps me learn from many who have vast experiences in JLC. I think we have the strongest team in watch manufacturing today. You are a little older than me, Jaw?

TP: A lot older, not wiser though (laughter), but do you have any problem with experienced workers who assume they know much more than you?

JL: It is not a problem, there are many who know more than I do, and I certainly hope there are even more of them to help me! I don't have to know everything. We just set the strategy and I do know who can do a particular job better. Certainly JLC is lucky to have many who have vast experience they can impart to me.


(MJLC factory in 1833)


(The MJLC factory today, still on the same ground)

TP: Richemont bought LMH (Les Manufactures Horlogeres, encompassing Jaeger-LeCoultre, Lange and IWC) expensively, what do you think is the expected return from this huge investment?

JL: Prices are relative, LVMH tried to buy Gucci at a higher price. There were many bidders for LMH up to the last stage of the take-over process, so the market did view the price set as a fair one. For JLC at least, JLC provides a good watch-making tradition, and being able to bring new resources to the group as a whole.

TP: How autonomous is JLC with regards to control from Richemont?

JL: We have strong mutual respect, and Richemont understands our history, work and achievements. This is a long term Richemont vision that coincides with the long term interest of JLC, and this is the reason why they bought JLC. We discussed a great deal with Mr. Rupert, Mr. Cologni, Mr. Perrin etc, once a business strategy is set, they don't interfere much with our operations. Of course, they will expect results from JLC, but more in terms of long term brand strategic development than just the absolute profit figure.

TP: You are a financial man yourself, could you be too preoccupied with the bottom line and compromise on quality?

JL: You have to get the figure right to run a company, I know how I can leverage our strength, achieve the target set, prepare our strategy, decide where I can put my capital for optimal return. You make better quality products at a reasonable price by knowing your bottom line. If you don't know your figure, you may not be doing your job. Yes, we do have responsibilities to our customers, shareholders and more than 1000 of our employees.

TP: But doesn't this pressure JLC to produce more, if necessarily at the expense of watch quality?

JL: We have to develop the brand, and we will not sacrifice long term brand image for short term gain. There is no situation where we have to compromise quality. Because for every management decision, we always look at the long term implications for our brand. Whenever a conflict arises, we will definitely choose to develop JLC for the long term.

TP: I love the annual Pink Gold Reverso Limited edition pieces; these are some great watches. However, there is a feeling that 500 pieces each are too many, and last year the Septantieme was in 2 x 500 = 1000 pieces, where is the exclusivity?

JL: 500 are not too many because we do sell all of them. We started with 500 pieces in 60eme, and we continue with the same with every subsequent model, if we suddenly reduce the number, it would not be fair to the previous customers. For Septantieme, it is the first in Grande Reverso, and we decided to produce another 500 of the Platinum pieces. This year, our Platinum 2 Tourbillon will still be 500 pieces. If we don't continue to do the same, we may not be able to supply all our customers and some of them may be disappointed. We are still trying to buy back the limited 60eme, tourbillon, etc... from the secondary market without much success.


(The 2002 Platinum Septantieme)


(The 1993 Limited Edition Tourbillon, first shaped in-house Tourbillon movement?)

TP: The Minute Repeaters were still in retailers' shelves as late as last year

JL: Sometimes, our retailers may keep a few pieces, but we do know they are finally sold. I have not seen our Tourbillon in the market for some years. Minute Repeaters were a little slower because of the specific complication.


(Janek Deleskiewicz - Directeur Artistique & Design)

TP: Based on my personal inspection, finishing of Septantieme movement is very fine indeed! Can we expect this to be the new JLC standard and be applied to all future JLC watches?

JL: Septantieme sets a new standard for the Reverso, and the decoration has to be the best. You will see equal, if not better finishing in our 2003 Platinum 2 Tourbillon and the new Master 8 days. But finishing in ALL JLC watches will be satisfactory. We manually finish all our watches, even our more accessible pieces.

In SIHH 2003, you will see completely new movements. An exciting new breakthrough for our Atmos clock, I can't finish describing this revolutionary clock to you within 2 hours. This Atmos will have the most interesting complication. You will appreciate the number of barrels, a wheel which turns one round in 120 days. And this will be an extremely accurate clock for the 75th anniversary of the Atmos. A most exquisite piece-unique clock will costs more than 1 million euros, but also launched together with a more affordable regular model with the equivalent features.

TP: Let's talk about your Big Date mechanism used in Lange, why is the Big Date mechanism used in Septantieme again different?

JL: That Lange Big Date is meant for Lange and Mr. Blumlein decided that it will be used in Lange. Out of respect, we are not using the same mechanism again. The one in the Septantieme is completely new.


(The 2003 Reverso Grande Date)


(2003 Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Grande Reserve)

TP: Can you tell me more about the Big Date mechanism used in both A Lange & Sohne and the one used in the Septantieme?

JL: Actually, Jaeger-LeCoultre patented a big date mechanism in Germany, under the number 4127825, under the names of R.Guignard, engineer at the Manufacture since 1976 and G. Blumlein, director of LMH. In this system, the unit disc has 10 digits only. The disc of tens and the disc of the units are regulated by a third element, called "program wheel". In 1992, the patent is extended to the whole of Europe.

In 2001, MJLC invented a new large date device and made a patent request under the number 01122867.3. In this simplified system, there is no more "program wheel". The unit disc is directly geared into the tens disc. The most significant improvement, due to our master watch maker Philippe Vandel, is the design of the dents of the tens disc outside of the units one. This innovation enabled us to use a thinner disc.

At the same time, it was really important for us to have a device adapted to a rectangular movement, as we take pride in designing calibers specifically for a case. The previous devise was for a round case, and this one was designed especially for a rectangular Reverso case. That device is the one used in the Septantieme, limited edition and will be used in the Reverso Grande Date, released in SIHH 2003.

TP: I think JLC watches are of good quality and provide the best-value-for-money as compared with any other brand with in-house movements. Yet there is a feeling that the average prices of JLC watches has been rising, will that damage the market positioning of JLC?

JL: Yes and no, take our Master Compressor Memovox. An in-house automatic watch with alarm and water resistant Compressor mechanism for less than 6000 Euros. This is extremely competitive.

TP: That is for the steel version, but would you say the average price of JLC watches have gone up?

JL: Yes, but this is mainly due to our change of product-mix, for example we have more very fine jewelry watches now, which should be more expensive. Our manufacturing efficiency has always been to ensure the affordability of our watches and we continue to give good values to our customers. You will see some very competitive new products in SIHH 2003 in April.

TP: I am a great admirer of your master enameller, Miklos Merczel.

JL: I think he is the one of the three best enamellers in the world.


(Miklos Merczel, Master Enameller)

TP: You are comparing to Patek's and Vacheron's enameller?

JL: Yes.

TP: I would venture to say that Miklos miniature enamel portraiture has the best details, even compared to the other 2 you mentioned.

JL: Thank you very much! And you will be excited that Miklos is now working on a new theme, it will be based on the work of a famous painter and this time it will be done on the Grande Reverso size! The enamel watch will continue to be an important range of JLC products that incites emotions amongst our collectors.

TP: Who is the painter?

JL: She is a famous painter between 1920 and 1940 and her work is particularly suitable for miniature art.

TP: JLC has always been very competent and able to produce complicated watch with useful features; however, there is a feeling that JLC lacks a technical break-through piece.

JL: Wait for our new Atmos this SIHH, you will change your mind.


(Reverso Quantieme Perpetuel, the limited edition in 2000)

TP: Is JLC culture more Swiss or more French?

JL: Our culture is traditionally purely Vallee de Joux and definitely Swiss.


(Platinum 1 Skeleton)

TP: You are French-French yourself?

JL: Yes, but I live in Switzerland and I like Vallee de Joux more than some of the people who were born and live there. (laughter) We are different from those in Geneva for example, but we are where Pierre LeCoultre decided to establish himself, in Vallee de Joux.


(Antoine LeCoultre)

TP: The watch industry is increasingly dominated by big groups like The Swatch Group, Richemont and LVMH, do you think this is healthy?

JL: You forgot Rolex who represent a major market share! All we can say is that we are more comfortable in a group setting. We are able to consolidate our position which enables us to sell better watches to our customers.

TP: Mr. Hayek announced that Swatch will no longer supply incomplete movement in the near future, how do you think this will impact the industry? Will smaller players be wiped-out of the industry?

JL: I won't over-estimate the impact of this possible move. In the end, it will be a case of willing-seller, willing-buyer.

TP: You will still need the Nivarox 1 [hairsprings] you use? Or will you use the one allegedly produced in-house by Lange? At least according to the industry rumour?

JL: Don't believe all the rumours you hear! (laughter) It is true that in this industry, no one is truly self-sufficient, not even the Swatch Group or Rolex.


(Jacques-David LeCoultre)

TP: What are your hobbies, and how do you relieve stress?

JL: My most important hobby is to spend time with my wife and my daughter, my secondary hobby is horseback riding, I love it when you need to focus completely on jumping over the next obstacle, and this relieves all possible stress that you may face. At certain times, I like stress as the adrenaline will keep me going to enjoy my work.

TP: What do you feel about ThePuristS.com?

JL: I was pretty amazed by the quality of discussion on the forum and the quality of information you can find there. It is a wonderful tool to share the passion of timepieces. That's when you feel the power of internet to create virtual communities of collectors from all over the place. Congratulations to the founder, Thomas, and all the contributors, like yourself!

TP: Thank you very much for your time!

JL: Thank you!


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