Interview: Catherine Rénier, Jaeger-LeCoultre CEO

Gulf Business sat down with her to chart the direction in which she’s steering this Swiss watchmaker

Jaeger-LeCoultre CEO Catherine Renier

Jaeger-LeCoultre, a 185-year-old Swiss watchmaker operating out of the Vallée de Joux, is responsible for bonafide cult-level creations like the Reverso and the Gyrotourbillon series.

At the SIHH 2019, the Gyrotourbillon 5, with its soulful Westminster chimes and mechanically avant-garde perpetual calendar function, was one of the breakthrough timepieces at the fair. Helming the brand is Catherine Rénier who was appointed as CEO last year after spending nearly a decade-and-a-half at Van Cleef & Arpels.

Rénier hit the ground running. She ensured Jaeger showed up at the SIHH with a portfolio full of novelties including several within the Rendezvous collection, and she has focused on rapidly expanding Jaeger’s global footprint across the world.

Part of that latter strategy included the opening of a new boutique in The Dubai Mall in March that will serve as the epicentre through which it expands its business across the Middle East.

What went through your mind on the first day of the job?

My first thoughts were how big, important and impressive the manufacture was. I’m not a person of marketing strategies that are made up for the sake of today’s objectives. I believe strongly in protecting the heritage, developing this history and bringing future innovations. I love working as a team which is very strong at Jaeger-LeCoultre – there’s this collective spirit of the manufacture where you cannot do anything alone. It didn’t take me long to think I can do this, I can be a part of this team.

Last year, the number of watches exported from Switzerland decreased, but the collective value of those watches increased. Are the average prices of Swiss watches going up?

It’s a big industry and highly depends on what the individual players are doing. As for Jaeger-LeCoultre, definitely, our high watchmaking Métiers Rares are very important to us and have been very strong in the past few years so this means higher price points. On the other hand, our Reverso, Rendezvous and Master lines have also been very positive. Overall, we want to sell more pieces and share our high-end creations too.

Jaeger-LeCoultre Boutique in Dubai Mall
The new Jaeger-LeCoultre boutique in The Dubai Mall

Tell us about this new boutique in The Dubai Mall.

It’s an important store for us to develop the awareness and visibility of our maison. We went to great lengths to bring a part of our know-how and heritage to this salon. We’ve displayed calibres, the Reverso universe, the stories behind the collections, historical tools that we’ve used in the past for watchmaking, and even visuals of a typical forest in the Vallée de Joux.

The decoration in the boutique is clearly inspired by the art deco touch you find on the Reverso – so the straight lines and symmetry. We also wanted this space to feel like a home – so we have libraries, objects and a table for the Atmos. It’s not just a store displaying watches.

Give us an overview of JLC’s global retail presence.

We have roughly 100 stores around the world. We have a presence through stores or distribution in over 150 countries. We’ve got markets that have great potential like a few in Southeast Asia and here in the Middle East which is why we’ve opened this new boutique in Dubai. We’re looking at Australia as well and there are a lot of places in Europe where we want to connect or reconnect with watch aficionados.

Of these many markets, which are Jaeger particularly bullish about?

Well, clearly Dubai. We have opened this boutique here and we will have more to come in the region. We want to continue to invest here in the Middle East and connect with both feminine and high-end collectors.

We’re still extremely successful in Asia. In Japan, we have boutiques in Tokyo and we’re looking for other cities. Europe is a historical market, a very important market for us from day one and I really want to bring Jaeger-LeCoultre back to the forefront. Our presence is more scattered in the US and Canada, but over the next few years we will bring more high-end watchmaking to those countries as well.

What role does e-commerce play in your business model?

We were one of the first to sell online and through our platform. E-commerce is important because it meets the client’s needs in terms of the way they discover the brand, the way they decide to buy a watch from their sofa at night because they went to the store during the day and they’re only making up their mind in the evening or maybe they’re in a rush to buy something because a birthday is tomorrow and there’s no time to stop by a store.

We have no reason to say, ‘Oh! We don’t want you to buy online because we want you to come and see the store.’ No way. I believe the way things work is two fold – a lot of people go online to do their research and then come to the store. A lot of people also walk around boutiques and then decide to buy online.

Jaeger-LeCoultre

The Master Grand Tradition Westminster Perpetual, aka the Gyrotourbillon 5, was one of the biggest stars of the SIHH 2019. What were some of the challenges involved in its production?

It’s one thing to take a calibre and add a module on top of it – like a perpetual calendar module, for example – and link it all together. That can be complex in itself but it is nothing like having a white page on your screen and saying, ‘Now I’m going to do the Gyrotourbillon 5 with all these lists of complications and I’m starting from zero. So I can invent any element of the movement which will then be made in the manufacture.’

There are no constraints. Of course, you don’t want it too big or too thick – those are constraints you place on yourself.

In the Gyro, they decided to make the gyrotourbillon smaller and it was like writing a new book. It took five years of hard work and expertise from the constructors, the designers and the watchmakers that finally assemble the watch to make the Gyrotourbillon 5.

What has been your strategy in learning from mistakes?

We are very pragmatic. We don’t have a big ego where we think that everything we do is the best. If something is not working, we’ll change, no problem.

What is it that you think people don’t really know about your manufactures in Switzerland?

We’ve got key aspects of what we do in Métiers Rares – for instance, gem setting enamelling and engraving that we want more people to know about. I feel there are a lot of people who don’t know that we do all our engraving in-house, that we do our enamelling ourselves, that we have micropainting abilities in the manufacture and we have gem setters in-house working on our Rendezvous. Knowing this gives our products a feel of reliability.

Today, what we talk about in the manufactures are creations that are due to come out in 2025 and we have to discuss those today because if we don’t start now, it will not come to life in time.

What is your message to collectors from this region?

We welcome all the watch collectors from the Middle East to come and visit our manufacture. You will have a complete immersion in the field of watchmaking. We open our doors as widely as its possible for anyone who dares to come to Geneva and drive to Vallée de Joux and spend a few hours with us.

What will it take to look back a decade from now and say to yourself, ‘job well done’?

I hope that in the future when I start to look back at my time in Jaeger, I will be proud of the teams that have been developed in Jaeger and the knowhows that were protected. Clearly, I would have made it if people say, ‘Jaeger-LeCoultre is a high watchmaking maison meeting both men’s and women’s expectations making very uncommon watches.’

I would also want people to know about our many signatures collections – not just Reverso – but also the Atmos, the Duométre and the high complications and that the brand continues to be recognised as a high watchmaker which we’ve been for nearly 200 years.