Taking things apart I’ve always been good at; it’s the buildy-repairy bit that flummoxes. Destruction, not construction
I've never been good at fiddly things, let alone anything that resembles engineering or surgery. My track record with the board game Operation was so bad I was pre-emptively struck off by the BMA, aged eight. You can imagine, then, the trepidation that preceded a watchmaking masterclass – in the windows of Harrods – as part of Jaeger-LeCoultre's 180th birthday extravaganza.
Judging by the presentation on the flatscreen TV, depicting the structure of a watch, its interlocking layers, its incestuous wheels and pivots, I wasn't going to have a hope in hell of understanding how the Jaeger-LeCoultre Calibre 822 mechanism, for its Reverso Grande Taille, went together. And when I say 'went together', I don't mean a few interlocking dials and screws: the Calibre 822 has over 130 separate parts. (A Maserati engine, by contrast, has around 800.)
Once watchmaker Jean-Yves Adreani had finished his tour of the watch's engineering, with me none the wiser (not his fault, of course), he took us four students through the first stage of disassembly of the mechanism.
In a vice
Dispatched back to our benches for the first section of removal, in full view of Brompton Road's finest outside and those browsing handbags inside, the mechanism held in a gentle vice, I grasped the screwdriver in the prescribed manner – index finger lightly on top, thumb, middle and ring most of the way down the barrel – and set it on top of a screw's head whose minuteness you can see in the photo above. Once three had been removed, I lifted off the bridge and gently plucked out some vital innard.
The next section required removing another cover and then two tiny wheels. Except I removed three: the two correct ones and a third golden wheel. The fact that I had to perform what generations of Swiss watchmakers have called 'a yank' should have told me it was not yet for my tweezers. When Jean-Yves came round to inspect my work, he declared that it was broken. Oh dear.
Thank goodness, I have to say, that I broke that and not the shock absorber (£34) or – heaven forbid – the balance wheel (£170), a tiny thing with a spring that refuses to hang still.
Putting it together
Now, taking things apart I've always been good at; it's the buildy-repairy bit that flummoxes. Destruction, not construction. That's why the second half of our two-hour class – making the watch mechanism start ticking again – felt so daunting.
It's one thing to remove a screw, which only required you to put the screwdriver in the right place and turn; for this part, you had to pick up the fiddly screw with tweezers, drop it into the hole and then twist it in with your screwdriver. Any excessive movement would send the screw pinging onto the desk or, worse, onto the floor, where it became unrecoverable except by the Borrowers.
Several pingings later, I had lowered the golden wheels – each much smaller than a 5p piece – back into place and reattached two pieces of the bridge. To see if it was working so far, I reached for the crown (the winding bit at the side). If nothing happened, it meant I had to retrace my steps, remove once again the minute pieces and start over. This would take forever.
The tiny wheels whirred and clicked with each other – only for a second or so, but it was enough. I felt a surge of joy, almost like a (sometimes) nicer version of Victor Frankenstein, because I had made something go from inanimate parts to cranking, spinning life. It was really a much stranger, more unexpected feeling than I had anticipated, different in quality from baking a nice cake or sketching a fine drawing.
Next went in the balance wheel, the vital final component, which had to slip beneath one of the golden wheels. Jean-Yves seemed sceptical about me having got it in, but smiled when he saw that it sat level. He wound the crown and I waited for more motion, but there wasn't any. (This made me feel slightly less like Frankenstein and a bit more like his monster.)
With a quick adjustment, Jean-Yves made it tick once again and I was able to retire – with a certificate too! So if your Jaeger-LeCoultre with a Calibre 822 mechanism ever needs repair… well, I probably wouldn't bring it to me.