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.”
Still, Metrailler admits that she is often most inspired by the miniature technical feats Jaeger-LeCoultre achieves with its watches. “The challenge is size,” she explains. “Each millimeter counts. I try to bring out the beauty intrinsic in each mechanism.”
She achieved just that earlier this year when Jaeger-LeCoultre introduced the Master Compressor Extreme LAB, a watch so advanced it runs without grease or oil—a stunning technological accomplishment in the Swiss watchmaking domain. To accent the piece’s heady mechanics, Metrailler opened up the face with a floating bridge and added an unexpected red crown—not exactly your grandfather’s stodgy gold watch.
The Swiss-born Metrailler, an industrial design graduate of Milan’s Institute of European Design, forged a career in horology after a freelance gig at a small Swiss watchmaking firm taught her the joys of enhancing machinery with design. “I was instantly intrigued,” she says. “I am Swiss. Watches must have been in my blood.”
Metrailler joined Jaeger-LeCoultre in 2002, the first female designer in the 174-year-old history of one of the field’s most venerable names. (Progress has come swiftly. Today, of the seven designers Jaeger-LeCoultre employs, four are women.) Though she admits to early difficulty in finding her footing, Metrailler quickly earned the respect of the top brass by giving the company’s most intricate devices the kind of chic, contemporary facades coveted by collectors.
Case in point, for those with a techy side: the recently issued Gyrotourbillon, a flamboyant timepiece with a multiaxial rotating system and nearly 600 components. Metrailler framed the tourbillon’s spherical cage, making the complex mechanism’s movement even more fascinating.
Considering her industrial design background and particular artistic leanings (she’s a great admirer of furniture designer Verner Panton’s graphic, futuristic style), it’s little wonder that Metrailler prefers to design men’s watches—an inclination that initially surprised some of her colleagues. “When Magali arrived, I thought she would design these superfeminine, glamorous watches,” says Janek Deleskiewicz, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s artistic director. “Actually her designs are a bit macho.”
Those words delight Metrailler,who admits to an aversion to women’s diamond-dappled watches. “I’d much rather design for men,” she says. “Why not? Aren’t most of the great women’s fashion designers men?”
Magali Metrailler in the Jaeger-LeCoultre atelier. Jaeger-LeCoultre’s titanium watch, $9,450, and stainless steel watch, $9,950, jaeger-lecoultre.com. Jaeger-LeCoultre’s stainless steel watches with calfskin bands, $7,950, $5,300 and $4,800, jaeger-lecoultre.com