A Week On The Wrist: The Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Control Date With Sector Dial
One of the most-talked-about watches of the 2017 SIHH, the new Master Control Date adds a sector dial and tons of charm to an iconic Jaeger-LeCoultre archetype.
The annual Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) is, as the name would suggest, a show predominantly made up of watchmakers creating watches that represent the upper echelons of watchmaking. Six-figure price tags are a dime a dozen on the show floor. When I first saw the new Master Control Date with a sector dial at Jaeger-LeCoultre’s booth, I knew I wanted to get some time with it on my wrist, but when every conversation I had with collectors, journalists, and other industry friends kept coming back to a $5,700 time-and-date watch, I knew we had something special on our hands.
Openworked tourbillons and decimal striking watches are great, sure, but if we’re being honest, they’re show pieces more than anything else. Very few will ever be made, and very few will ever actually be worn out-and-about. I’m not saying I don’t like these kinds of watches – I find them endlessly fascinating and lust-worthy – just that I find watches like this Jaeger-LeCoultre far more compelling in the end. It’s a simple watch that offers real watchmaking inside, has a distinctive design, and comes in at a price that makes it affordable to a relatively large swathe of the watch-loving population.
Let’s look at how the new sector dial Master Control Date came about and then dig into the details of the watch itself.
Of Masters And Sectors
The Master Control collection made its debut for Jaeger-LeCoultre back in 1992. The idea was to create a line of watches that represented the values of pure, classic watchmaking, with a focus on simple aesthetics, functionality, understated technology, and long-term performance. Along with the initial collection of watches, Jaeger-LeCoultre started its “1,000 Hours Control” quality check program, which subjects finished watches to a six-week program of tests. This includes impacts, temperature changes, movement through six positions, water resistance, and more – it’s all pretty standard stuff now (though six weeks is a lot of time for something like this), but in 1992 this was basically unheard of.
If you’re paying attention to the dates, a 1992 release would make 2017 the 25th anniversary of the Master Control collection. The watch we have here is actually part of a trio that includes the three core complications that have been in the Master Control collection since the beginning: time and date, chronograph, and travel time. These aren’t really being labeled as a 25th anniversary collection, nor are they being marketed as such, but that’s essentially what these watches are and they’re only going to be produced for this one anniversary year.
I’m not going to go too in-depth on the other two watches in this collection, but the chronograph is still worth a closer look. While the time-and-date watch is the one that drew me in immediately, I know quite a few people who were over the moon about the chronograph. It’s a stainless steel chronograph with a two-tone sector dial for $8,000 – to get that in a vintage watch you’d likely be paying 10x, or even more. It’s worth noting that this model is 40mm, so not small, and it has a closed caseback, despite the automatic Jaeger movement inside. The lack of date and the bright blue accents really set this watch apart and make it awesome.
The last watch is the Geographic, which, I hate to say, just doesn’t do it for me. I like the Geographic in general (I’m a huge fan of travel watches), and I even like the 3-9-12 dial layout. But, there’s just too much going on here for a sector dial. You don’t get to enjoy the dial design because of all the information packed in.
Speaking of which, it’s probably worth defining here what exactly a sector dial is and where it comes from. Loosely speaking, a sector dial is defined by and takes its name from the so-called “sector,” which is the central ring on the dial with radiating markers at the hours. In addition to that, sector dials can have other nested registers marking out various increments of time, either outside the sector or at the dial’s edge. They’re often two-tone, with the coloration inside the sector and outside the sector differing slightly.
The history of these dials is a little hazy, and most of the big watchmakers produced them at one time or another (not a surprise, since most brands were using the same dial manufacturers). They originate sometime in the late 1920s or early 1930s and can be traced to two applications – officers watches for the military and scientific watches for laboratory use. It’s unclear which came first, but the style flourished in the ’30s and ’40s, for both pocket watches and wristwatches, with Patek Philippe, Omega, and IWC making some of the most lauded examples. Sometime in the late ’40s or early ’50s the popularity of sector dials began to wane before almost completely disappearing from catalogs.
However, recently, the style has become popular again and watchmakers are creating new takes on the vintage style. Whether it has anything to do with the mania for mid-century everything that’s cropped up over the last half-decade or not is another question for another time, but there’s no doubt that sector dials are hot right now. And this watch might be one of the hottest examples.
The Master Control Date
The Master Control Date is the foundation of the Master Control collection. It’s a simple watch with three central hands and a date window at three o’clock. Here the stainless steel case is 39mm across and just 8.5mm thick. This doesn’t make it an “ultra-thin,” strictly speaking, but the watch does feel very slim in comparison to most other watches being made today. The tops of the lugs and the curved bezel are polished, but the sides of the case are brushed, giving it a crisp edge and some added contrast.
What really makes this watch special though is the dial. The sector dial is two-tone, with an opaline finish in the center and a satin-brushed finish around the outer section. Both are technically silver in color, but in more direct light the center looks almost cream colored while the outside resembles the brushed steel of the case. Most of the markings, including the sector and the numerals, are black, with bright blue accents at the five-minute marks and on the date disc.
There are two details have have drawn criticism from others, and, in both cases, I’m actually on the side of the watch. The first, if you haven’t guessed already, is the date window. Purists be damned, I think it makes this a better watch for daily wear (and general industry sales figures would indicate that most watch buyers agree with me). I understand wanting a pure, date-less dial, and I certainly wouldn’t argue with it that way, but I think Jaeger-LeCoultre has done a nice job integrating it into the design instead of just cutting a hole in an already configured dial.
Second is the blued steel hand set. The seconds hand is slim and simple, but the hour and minute hands have an open syringe shape. They do resemble vintage hands with the lume missing – there’s no denying that – but I think they’re the right choice here. If they were plain, slim hands, they’d feel dull and be hard to read; if they were filled with lume, they would be too big and dominate the overall design. Here they’re broad, but light. They tell the time, but they let you admire the dial below. They’re unconventional, sure, but they’re also great.
Of course, since this is a Master Control watch, there’s an in-house Jaeger-LeCoultre movement inside. The JLC caliber 899/1 is an automatic movement with a 38-hour power reserve. It’s just 3.3mm thick and has 219 parts total, with a balance beating at 4 Hz. It strikes a nice balance between being beautiful and being utilitarian. The solid pink gold rotor is a great example of this, and finishing throughout is very nice. No crazy bevels or anything like that, but a seriously nice movement for a watch in this price range. In fact, it’d be tough to find a better one.
On The Wrist
This watch looks great in a case or on a table, but it’s when you put the thing on that it really starts to sing. The case size is just fantastic, and you really start to appreciate that 8.5mm height after wearing it for a bit. The watch almost seems to disappear on the wrist when you’re typing at your desk or just walking around the city. Comfort is something that doesn’t get talked about enough when evaluating watches, and this is one seriously comfortable watch.
But before I could really start enjoying this watch, I had to do one thing: change the strap. Packaged with the Master Control Date is a dark blue alligator strap with some padding up top and matching blue stitching. It closes with a simple pin buckle (major bonus points for not including a deployant here). However, I found the strap to be extremely stiff and uncomfortable, with the padding unnecessary and wonky. I’m sure it would soften up a bit after some wear, but the quality didn’t seem to match that of the watch itself. Easy fix though. I threw the watch on a textured grey calf leather strap (from the HODINKEE Shop, if you’ll allow an unintentional but shameless plug) and it immediately felt right at home.
Most of my friends are pretty used to seeing me show up places with some new watch on my wrist that I’m obliged to wear for a review (tough life, I know). Usually they don’t even take notice anymore, and very rarely do they comment on the watches. This watch though got tons of attention. For something relatively understated and small, the Master Control Date is extremely striking and, even to the uninitiated, it looks like something special. I even had non-watch friends asking to try it on, which never happens.
If you’re a longtime HODINKEE reader, it probably comes as no surprise that I really dig this watch. As someone not-so-mildly obsessed with things like classic Richard Neutra buildings and old Leica cameras, a modestly-sized watch with a clean, minimalist dial inspired by mid-century functionalism is right in my wheelhouse. But, even if you can’t pick a Case Study House out of a lineup, the Master Control Date’s design should still be appealing. It’s easy to read, comfortable on the wrist, and the subtle contrasts on the dial make it something you can look at repeatedly, discovering something new each time.
And then there’s the price. At $5,700, this watch presents better value than any other watch I saw at the SIHH. When I first saw the watch in a vitrine, I honestly thought the price would be somewhere around the $8,000 mark. When I was told $5,700, I thought there might be a mistake. Sure, $5,700 is still a serious amount of money (even when we’re talking about watches), but for what you get here, it’s much more than a fair ask.
When looking at what other watches might compete with the sector dial Master Control Date, the obvious choice is…the Master Control Date. There are a few versions of the watch in JLC’s current catalog. Strangely, they’re all actually more expensive than the version with the sector dial, at $6,350. Technically the watches are the same, so maybe this is a by-product of price increases over the years or something similar. To me, the main appeal of the new Master Control Date is that sector dial, but I guess if you like everything else but want a more classic dress watch this could be one way to go.
But what if you’re definitely looking for a time-only watch with a sector dial? The first watches that come to mind are the new scientific dial Erwin and Felix from Habring². They’re very similar, with two-tone dials and blue accents, with the former having a jumping seconds complication too. Priced at $5,900 (the Erwin) and $4,900 (the Felix), these watches fall squarely in the same range as the Master Control Date. Personally, I like the dial on the Jaeger a lot more, but you do get something different mechanically from Habring², and, in the case of the Erwin, a jumping seconds complication. What really makes the case for these watches are that they’re really your only options in the same price range with sector dials.
Now, if you’re willing to up your budget, that’s when you start to get more options. But I’m not talking about an extra $1,000 or $2,000. The Patek Philippe ref. 5296G with a sector dial will set you back $26,990. It’s made of white gold, it has a more complex sector dial, and it’s got an automatic Patek movement inside – it’s sort of a strictly upgraded version of the Master Control Date we have here. However, the two aren’t really competitive in my opinion – most people aren’t comparison shopping one watch against another watch that costs nearly five times as much. Or, rather, they shouldn’t be.
Then there’s your last major option: vintage. In the 1930s and ’40s (and, sure, a little before and after), tons of brands, from the high end to the low end, were making sector dial watches. At the higher end, things can get really crazy, like with the Patek Philippe ref. 530 chronograph seen above, which fetched $1,237,777 at Christie’s in May 2016. But, you can also find sector dial watches from the likes of Omega, IWC, Longines, Eberhard, and others, for much more reasonable prices. For something good, in a 35-38mm size, in steel, you’re still looking at more than $5,900, but you could still pick something up for under $10,000 in today’s market.
Do be wary of re-dialed vintage watches with sector dials. Especially right now, while the style is hot, there are shady characters out there trying to turn something basic into something special. In many cases, even if the dial is original, it’s been retouched to make the finer markings really pop and look incredible.
I probably don’t have to tell you by now that I really like this watch. And I mean really. If you had told me going into SIHH less than two months ago that my hands-down favorite watch would be a sub-$10,000 watch with three hands, I’d likely have assumed you’d never heard of the SIHH before. But here we are and here I am wishing I still had this watch on my wrist.
The new Master Control Date offers something truly unique in the market today. It’s a reasonably-sized, reasonably-priced watch with a distinct design sensibility, a technically-sound movement, and a nod to coveted vintage watches, all while being extremely contemporary and wearable. It’s a watch that a lot of people could (and likely will) wear everyday and enjoy for a very long time. And, to me, those are the best kinds of watches.
The Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Control Date with sector dial is priced at $5,700. It is not a limited edition, but will only be produced for one year to celebrate the collection’s 25th anniversary. All three new sector dial models should be arriving in boutiques beginning this summer.
For more, visit Jaeger-LeCoultre online.
Video/Photos: Greyson Korhonen
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