JLC's Classic Ebauche

The middle of the 20th century was very likely the peak of interest and commercial development for simple, handwinding time-only wristwatches. This was the era of Observatory Chronometer certification and competition for wristwatch movements (1944-1967), and the most famous and beautiful simple movements were designed by the manufactures to serve as platforms for the competitions, and as exemplars for their more mundane siblings. The dawning of inexpensive quartz-controlled watches in the late 1960s effectively halted this progress, and while there has been an explosion of interest and profit in mechanical watches in the last 10-15 years, there has been very little (if any) effort made to pick up the simple handwinding lines abandoned four decades ago: the few such recent movements are all relatively limited production efforts, and the prime European ebauche maker (ETA) is still relying on designs from the 1970s such as the Peseux 7001.

Certainly the most well-known historical example is the line of Omega 30mm movements which began in the late 1930s, and by the late 1960s had been produced in millions of high-quality pieces spanning 18 or so variations. While all but a handful were solid but relatively ordinary, a few (notably the 30T2rg and 30T2SCrg) were finished with exceptional attention to detail and subsequent beauty. Other notable efforts include Zenith's extraordinary Caliber 135 and the ultra-rare and competition-specific Peseux Caliber 260. Although the movements are far less familiar, the industry's most committed ebauche supplier, Jaeger-LeCoultre, developed their simple handwinding line over almost exactly the same period as Omega, and with a similarly bewildering 14 or so (mostly minor) variations. These are JLC's 12.5 ligne (about 28.5mm) movements, numbered variously from Calibers 449 through 494, and their relative unfamiliarity likely results from their far smaller production volumes, probably in the tens of thousands rather than Omega's millions. This, however does not make them of lesser quality, interest or beauty, and at least two rare variations are considered as desirable as the earlier-mentioned chronometers.

For this article I thought I would gather for comparison four watches developed using this ebauche, each of which I have also profiled individually. In order both of chronology and elaboration, they are:

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A few brief general comments: While the Cal. 479 used by JLC in their WWW is the earliest and most basic of this group, it is far from mundane. The bridges are beautifully striped and gilt, the blued-steel hairspring ends in a Breguet overcoil, and the overall finish of the parts is much smoother and finer than that of comparable Omegas. The anchor alone is a work of art!

The Cal. 488SBr is very similar, although the bridges are rhodium plated rather than gilt, and in the conversion to center-seconds an additional bridge and jewel have been added. Also, the unique lever for stopping the balance when setting the time (hacking) makes its appearance. The general level of finish is a bit higher, notably the screwheads and slots.

For the Geophysic JLC has abandoned traditional Geneva stripes for a radically simplified "technical" finish of curved lapping, and the bridge supporting the center-seconds pinion has been dispensed with. Similarly, the anchor is no longer beveled, but rather square-cornered. Nonetheless, the quality of the finish is a notch higher yet, and the regulator now sports a lovely swans-neck arrangement; the Cal. 478/BWSbr is fully adjusted.

Finally, in keeping with their tradition of adapting the ebauches of others (and specifically, JLC), Vacheron & Constantin have provided their top-of-the-line Chronometer with the finest finish I have seen on a simple production movement. The bridges have been entirely redesigned, with one large plate covering the winding wheels and mainspring, a traditional finger bridge for the center wheels, and an additional cock for the escapement, with a fabulous black-polished cap! All of JLC's advanced features are in place, and every surface simply glows; the swans-neck regulator is an incredible work of steel. The P1008BS is fully adjusted, bears the Geneva Seal, and like each of these fine movements, has a Breguet overcoil hairspring. Bear in mind that these watches are each between 40 and 60 years old!

In each picture below, the watches are arranged:

JLC WWW (479) - - - - - - - - - - JLC Mark XI (488)
JLC Geophysic (478) - - - - - - - - Vacheron & Constantin Chronometre Royal (1008)

Click the pictures for even larger!

The entire movements:

The balance, cock and regulator:

The anchors:

The supporting bridge for the center-seconds jewel (JLC 488 at left, VC 1008 at right):

Please check out the rest of my watch Articles and pics:

I hope you enjoyed this!

March 15, 2006

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