And that watch was a Cartier.

Jaeger-LeCoultre is a hugely important watchmaker from a historical perspective. Earning monikers like “the Grande Maison” and “the watchmaker’s watchmaker”, JLC have always been movement manufacture specialists that have supplied calibres for the most esteemed Swiss brands, including the likes of Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin and Audemars Piguet. But JLC as we know it might not have been born at all without the backing of one pivotal client, and a contract to produce movements for one particular watch.

Although JLC proudly proclaim their year of founding as 1833, in truth this only marks the establishment of a small watchmaking shop in Le Sentier by Antoine LeCoultre, a far cry from the Maison as we know it today. In 1866 Antoine and his son Elie LeCoultre expanded their business into a full-fledged manufacture called LeCoultre & Cie, employing upwards of 500 people. But the Jaeger part of the company name didn’t come along until much later, and it started with a contract by French jeweller Cartier for ultra-thin mechanical movements in 1904.

LeCoultre & Cie Manufacture Postcard

Brazilian aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont was living in Paris at the time, designing and testing aircraft to compete in three French aviation competitions: the Archdeacon Prize, the French Aeroclub Prize, and the Deutsch-Archdeacon Prize. He met and befriended Louis Cartier during his stay in Paris, and complained to his friend about the impracticality of timing flights with a pocket watch while handling the controls. In response, Cartier designed the very first pilot’s watch, a flat wristwatch with a square bezel that later became known simply as the Santos. Alberto Santos-Dumont’s celebrity status drew attention to the novel wristwatch, and Louis Cartier saw an opportunity to create a collection of Santos watches for the general public.

Alberto Santos-Dumont and the 14-bis biplane

Cartier put out a contract for the supply of ultra-thin mechanical movements to create this new collection that same year. Parisian watchmaker Edmond Jaeger had designed and patented ultra-thin calibres that could fulfill Cartier’s contract, but he lacked the facilities to produce them in sufficient volume. He met with Jacques-David LeCoultre (Antoine’s grandson), the production manager at LeCoultre & Cie at the time, about a partnership to fulfill Cartier’s contract. This collaboration led to Cartier signing an exclusivity agreement with Edmond Jaeger to supply all their watch movements for a period of 15 years, a huge financial win for both Jaeger and LeCoultre.

Edmond Jaeger (left) and Jacques-David LeCoultre (right)

Edmond Jaeger went on to acquire the patent for the Atmos clock from its inventor Jean-Léon Reutter and licenced LeCoultre to manufacture it from 1936, another important piece of intellectual property that would come to define the brand. The collaboration proved so successful that the company was finally renamed to Jaeger-LeCoultre a year later in 1937. Would this event have ever occurred without the Cartier Santos? If Alberto Santos-Dumont had stayed in Brazil, and never met Louis Cartier, perhaps the Grande Maison as we know it would never have been born.

Article first posted on Hailwood Peters