Until recently, most Swiss watchmakers focused their energy entirely on new watches. Apart from purchasing the occasional watch at auction to augment a collection or delving into their archives to create a model inspired by brand history, they all but neglected their vintage timepieces.
As the pre-owned market began to heat up over the past decade, however, the value of a strong reputation among vintage-wristwatch collectors has become more apparent. “Your iconic vintage pieces are one of the most powerful drivers for your brand equity,” said Oliver Müller, founder of LuxeConsult, a watch consultancy based near Lausanne, Switzerland.
On Jan. 25, Jaeger-LeCoultre — a 190-year-old brand based in the village of Le Sentier, in Switzerland’s Vallée de Joux, the cradle of Swiss watchmaking — put that understanding into practice when it introduced the Collectibles, a selection of 17 timepieces it introduced from 1925 to 1974.
The company, nicknamed “the watchmaker’s watchmaker” for its long history of building movements for other brands, including Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin, sought to create a collection that “represented the spirit of invention of Jaeger-LeCoultre,” said Catherine Rénier, the brand’s chief executive.
“One reason we did so is that we could,” Ms. Renier said. “We have everything to repair and restore these watches. We have made all the calibers of these watches in the exact same place where they were made. So, in a sense, they are coming home.”
Only 12 of the 17 wristwatches selected by the brand for the Collectibles were available for purchase initially because, the brand said, not every model could be found in the desired condition.
The collection, which is being sold online, was devised to evolve as additional pieces are acquired. (Just a couple of days after the debut, half of the available pieces had sold, many to loyal Jaeger-LeCoultre collectors.)
“The hunt was a game of patience,” said Laurent Kervyn de Meerendré, the brand’s heritage manager. He has the task of finding the models, most of which have been purchased at auction or from well-known vintage dealers.
“What we aimed for was condition, condition, condition,” he added. “We wanted pieces as close to their original appearance — dial, case and caliber — as possible. All have been disassembled and restored, but we didn’t polish cases.”
Mr. Kervyn mentioned one of the 12 current pieces, a 1968 Master Mariner Deep Sea Barracuda, which has a steel case with a satin-brushed finish in a tonneau, or barrel, shape. “Had we polished it, it would have lost a piece of its history,” he said.
While the Collectibles include a chocolate brown 1933 edition of the brand’s most recognizable timepiece, the rectangular Reverso — so named because it swivels in its case, allowing the wearer to choose between two faces — many of the models may be unfamiliar even to hard-core horology fans.
“The idea was to look at this golden age of watchmaking,” said Matthieu Sauret, the brand’s director of product and heritage.
He singled out three models that he said were “not the most known but are in their own right extremely interesting,” such as the Futurematic, an early automatic watch manufactured from 1951 to 1958 that has been identified for the collection but was not part of the initial offer. It is notable for its lack of a crown (“It will wind itself, giving the watch perpetual motion as long as you wear it,” Mr. Sauret said).
There also is an antimagnetic watch known as the Geophysic, introduced in 1958 to honor the International Geophysical Year; and the Memovox Polaris, a 1967 dive watch with an alarm function.
The collection’s most idiosyncratic take on the alarm watch is a 1961 Memovox Parking watch, which features an alarm designed to ring when a parking meter’s time has expired, while the grooviest may be the 1969 Memovox Automatic Calendar, which has a lapis lazuli central dial ringed by turquoise-colored lacquer.
Every Collectibles timepiece comes with an extract from the Jaeger-LeCoultre archives, a new watch strap and box, a two-year warranty and a copy of a book devoted to the collection. (When available, the original box and papers and the original strap or bracelet will be included, too.)
Prices range from $16,300 (for the 1963 Geomatic, a steel spinoff of the Geophysic, or the Memovox Speed Beat GT) to $60,000 (for a 1967 Memovox Polaris or the Geophysic).
“It’s the price of the quest and the effort,” Ms. Renier said. “We bring a lot to the table.”
And while buyers may pay a premium for a vintage watch blessed by Jaeger-LeCoultre, the initiative is about more than moneymaking, said Mr. Müller of LuxeConsult.
“It won’t create huge revenues,” he said. “It takes a lot of work to bring vintage pieces into shape when they are leaving the factory for a second time. But it’s a very powerful message you are sending to your clients: In 100 years, your heirs will have something of value.”