There’s nothing particularly sexy behind the scenes of the Swiss watchmaking world, an arena characterized by technicians in white smocks hunched over worktables as they meticulously assemble tiny gears with magnifying glasses and tweezers.
Perhaps that explains why this trade—long on patience and steady nerves—has thrived in the isolated, mountainous region around Geneva, where fishermen pass the day on the placid Lac de Joux and cowbells jingle softly from the necks of heifers grazing on endless rolling hills.
Magali Metrailler, however, presents a starkly different image. Urbane, blond and vibrant, the 31-year-old Jaeger-LeCoultre designer is one of a growing number of women now infiltrating a creative métier long dominated by men. Her sleek, often daring designs underscore how she is bringing a jolt of modern aesthetics and industrial cool to the establishment. One of her watches, for instance, inspired by an Aston Martin, has a streamlined steel and titanium case and racing-style numerals that resemble a speedometer.
“I try to think beyond the typical paradigms,” says Metrailler, seated in Jaeger-LeCoultre’s headquarters overlooking the lush Vallée de Joux. “For me, the height of creativity is René Magritte’s painting of a pipe with ceci n’est pas une pipe [This is not a pipe] written beneath. A pipe can be a pipe, but why should it only be a pipe? It can be a million other things.” As she speaks, she twists her iconic Jaeger Reverso watch around her wrist. “It’s not about destroying the rules, but about seeing beyond typical appearances.”
Of course, at a major watch house, that process is highly collaborative. On each project, Metrailler works closely with both a master watchmaker and an engineer. “I’m just responsible for making it look good,” she says. Which is more easily said than done in an industry that has traditionally sacrificed exterior elegance for interior wizardry. “The watch world has evolved a lot recently,” she says. “There’s more interest today in what’s going on in the outside world of design.”