Bigger is often better when it comes to many things but when you’re talking about an accessory that’s on your wrist all day, preferences usually go the other way round. Now the world of horology isn’t stranger to the idea of cramming a substantial amount of details into the space that spans an average of 40mm across (case in point: grand complication watches), but as innovations usually go, they never manage to stay on top for long. All but one has managed to keep its title as the world’s smallest mechanical watch movement since it was launched almost 90 years ago — the Jaeger-LeCoultre Calibre 101.
To put things into perspective, we’re talking about the very mechanism used to measure the passage of time, driven by a mainspring which must be wound periodically (as opposed to quartz watches which function electronically).
A little movement in a big world
The year 1929 might’ve marked the end of the Roaring Twenties for America after the Wall Street Crash, but Switzerland was experiencing a vastly different sentiment, where a tiny wonder was born within the sterile confines of Jaeger-LeCoultre’s watch laboratories. The Calibre 101 was inspired by the famous Duoplan movement, characterised by its division into two horizontal planes, one on top of the other. It proved that performance was not a compromise for size, and was specially created to fit within the trendy diminutive jewellery watches that were the rage back then. A neat rectangular structure was clearly the most versatile way to go.
So how small is this thing, you ask? The original version saw 78 parts that were fitted into a space of just 14mm long, 4.8mm wide, and 3.4mm thick. Now that number has increased to 98 parts within the same confines — Jaeger-LeCoultre had somehow managed to further shrink parts down. It weighs a negligible one gram and appears more likely to have been assembled in the crafting workshop in Lilliput than by giant human hands in Switzerland. It’s smaller than half a matchstick and more accurately, just about the size of a sharpened pencil tip.
Larger than life
The scale of operation (or ironically, lack thereof) means that only a handful of watchmakers have gone so far as to make it into the hallowed doors of the Calibre 101’s workshop. Each part has to be painstakingly tailor-made by hand, making each piece as unique as the next. Look closely and you’ll see that craftsmanship hasn’t been neglected, with detailed engraving work that would actually do more justice to be admired in watches like the Jaeger-LeCoultre Grande Reverso 101 Art Deco.
The icon has clearly come a long way, and having had evolved through the Queen Elizabeth II’s lifetime has its perks. The yellow gold watch she wore at her coronation in 1953 discreetly housed the Calibre 101, but was disguised as a slender diamond bracelet. Jaeger-LeCoultre later presented her with a similarly designed piece for her Diamond Jubilee in 2012, adding to the prestige and exclusivity that surrounds this world record movement. It’s literally fit for a queen.
It’s said that only 50 Calibre 101s see the light of day annually, and while the movement has never been a limited edition, production has always been finite because of the workmanship involved. So revered and unique is this movement, that other watch manufacturers looking to create similar jewellery pieces — such as Piaget — turn to Jaeger-LeCoultre instead of attempting their own version.
Bigger than ever
With the neo-vintage trend now back in full swing, there’s perhaps no better time for the brand to revisit the movement that started it all. The micro-engineering now manifests itself in two new timepieces, the Joaillerie 101 Reine and Joaillerie 101 Feuille. The former is a manchette-styled bracelet watch with an indulgent 110 pavé diamonds weighing 11 carats, while the latter sports 167 diamonds that total 10.3 carats. While the Feuille was previous fashioned in white gold in 2009, both models now come in 18-karat rose gold, a material that never used before within the collection. But perhaps the most exceptional quality — and a great conversational starter too — is that the diamonds here are actually bigger than the movement.
In a world where miniaturisation is often the name of the game, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Calibre 101 has managed to exude a presence and charisma far greater than its size. It’s a decade shy of a century-long record-breaking streak and has earned itself a place in royal history books. Yet the micromechanical beauty continues to be a benchmark of the skills and techniques mastered by artisans over years. Sometimes the best things come in the smallest packages.