Lebeau-Courally, the makers of most desirable, ultimate hunting arms in the world, also manufactures Swiss made luxury watches.
The story of Lebeau-Courally luxury watch brand uses a unique vocabulary: the lexicon of the watchmaker – borrowed from that other craft, the artisan arms maker. As a tribute to history and fine crafts, Lebeau-Courally is the only watchmaker in the world bringing both disciplines together again in a unique collection of exclusive watches, inspired by the brand’s rich heritage in bespoke hunting arms making.
Every Lebeau-Courally watch reveals the DNA of its origin, referring to the great tradition of bespoke manufacturing of hunting arms. The clef de fusil, the refined quadrillage on the crown and the ring-shaped case bear witness to the grand tradition of the house. They refer to the legend created by Auguste Lebeau in Belgium in 1865. In his workshop in Liège, he created the most desirable, ultimate hunting arms in the world, bespoke to fit the owner’s physique – handcrafted and engraved with meticulous detail. When Ferdinand Courally continued the manufacture in 1896, its masterpieces conquered the hearts of royalty throughout Europe and the Russian Tsars.
The Origins of Fine Watchmaking and Arms Making
In the valleys of Neuchâtel (Switzerland) and Liège (Belgium) in the early days of clock making, the fine crafts smiths that created the detailed and precise pillar plate for the world’s first clocks also meticulously crafted the pillar plates for the world’s most sophisticated arms. In both disciplines, the same ultimate precision and obsession with detail were required. Since the 17th century, the arms produced on the banks of the river Meuse in Belgium have gained notoriety across Europe. During the Enlightenment, the Principality was renowned for its great watchmaking expertise.
In a book published in 1917, the great historian of Swiss watchmaking Marius Fallet highlighted the similarities that exist between the gunsmith and the watchmaker. “The gunsmith – he writes – forging and crafting the pillar plates for guns and cannons, did the first drafts and the finishing.” Today, the two crafts preserve the memory of their long historical relationship through particular skills and common terminology such as calibre, lever, ‘platina’, detent, balance or barrel.
The first organised business appears in Liège at the end of the 16th century, where 32 “specialised crafts” were officially recognised. Among those, the specialists who manufactured firearms were recruited. The “makers of wooden muskets” were found in the guild of carpenters. The “cannon makers” belonged to the blacksmiths, and watchmakers created the ‘platina’ or pillar plate for the arms. Before concentrating completely on the armoury, Liège became a stronghold of European watchmaking in the 18th century. At that time, the city hosted nearly 900 highly skilled watchmakers, including the famous Hubert Sarton, the inventor of the automatic watch.
With the acquisition of the IMH watch manufacture in Le Locle (Switzerland), LebeauCourally brings the master crafts of fine watchmaking and arms making together again. With in-house expertise from a select group of high-end Swiss watchmakers, the Lebeau-Courally manufacture will focus on a few exceptional complications, celebrating the DNA of this house and its adherence to fine craftsmanship.
In 2010, Lebeau-Courally decided to produce luxury watches. For designing wristwatches inspired by the iconic LEBEAU-COURALLY guns, the company then approached Antoine Tschumi, the creative director of NEODESIS design studio in Le Locle, Switzerland. In 2011, the first Lebeau-Courally watch collection “Le Prince” watch launched. The brand won 3rd prize at the prestigious Concours International de la Chronometrie 2011 for its tourbillon watch.
Lebeau-Courally’s Watch Manufacture
Four years after launching its first watch collection, Lebeau-Courally acquired one of the Swiss watchmaking manufactures, capable of producing highly sophisticated luxury watches, from A to Z.
Presently Lebeau-Courally produces its timepieces in Le Locle, the beating heart of the Swiss horlogerie. All these watches are made with the same respect for tradition and craftsmanship as its Liège based (Belgium) atelier, where bespoke hunting arms are made, is renowned for.
The acquisition of the manufacture was part of the takeover of the IMH enterprise by the Belgian family owned luxury brand Lebeau-Courally. IMH has built itself a solid reputation in Switzerland ever since it started producing sophisticated watch complications and components for many renowned Swiss watchmaking houses. Not in the least, this reputation is amplified by its own Julien Coudray 1518 haute horlogerie brand. In fact, the house imposes extreme requirements on itself to create the highly complicated timepieces in this collection – all equipped with solid gold or platinum movements exclusively.
This lead the company to solicit top-skilled watchmakers, integrating 40 different and rarely found artisan skills under one roof such as enamel ‘Grand Feu’, miniature painting and the art of engraving. The expertise of this fully integrated manufacture now shapes the heart and engine of Lebeau-Courally’s entire watch spectrum.
From The First Sketch to Pre-Production: The creative journey of a Lebeau-Courally watch starts in the design office. It all begins with an idea or specifications, by which the watchmakers design the movement and the visual appearance of the watch. All its components are calculated and modelled in 3-D graphics stations. Once the design is complete, the development of a large folder begins, gathering all the plans necessary for the manufacture of these elements. The file is then handed over to the technical engineers. They check the feasibility of producing the watch, integrating the perspective of the different in-house crafts that will be involved in its manufacture. A prototype is then built and tested by the prototype developers. Next, a pre-series is produced to test the watch’s qualities on a larger scale. After this last test phase, the project is validated and the production of the watch can be launched.
Component Manufacturing: The Lebeau-Courally manufacture fully embodies the concept of an integrated manufacture. From the smallest pin to the most complex mainplate or escapement part, nearly each component of its watches is designed and produced in-house.
In a first stage, this production is made with hand-operated machine tools and CNC lathes to achieve the precision required for the final production. Depending on the specific watch model, this precision allows for a maximum tolerance of 2 to 3 microns (for comparison: a human hair is between 40 to 100 microns thick). The parts are then subjected to a range of thermal or mechanical treatments, designed to harden or stabilise the metals and to give them their lustre.
At the end of manufacture, each component will have undergone 5 to 15 different operations or treatments, and a quality control between each different stage. On top of that, a final inspection validates the impeccable quality of each watch component.
Watch Decorations and Embellishment: When the components are validated, they are ready for their next phase: decoration. Perlage, circular graining, snailing, sunray decorations, Geneva stripes: all these watch embellishment techniques are applied in the traditional way with small semi-automatic machines operated by Master craftsmen. Laser engraving is used for some small parts, such as needles or crowns.
In high-end watches, the majority of visible surfaces are subjected to a particular finish, designed to create a fascinating play of light through the movement. The Lebeau-Courally manufacture applies two traditional techniques to obtain this result: angling by hand and the so-called ‘poli bloqué’ or mirror polishing. Hallmarks of authentic haute horlogerie movements, these finishing techniques are extremely delicate and time-consuming. They are done entirely by hand, by highly skilled craftsmen. The embellishment and treatment of a single piece often requires a (long) day of work.
Engraving, Grand Feu Enamel and Miniature Painting: For the creation of its most exceptional timepieces, the manufacture hosts two workshops where artisans pursue the continuation of a rare craft – only few people on Earth have this knowledge and set of skills. The engraving of art, entirely done by hand, offers unlimited possibilities for customisation of the movement of the watchcase, or dial. Etching can be applied on Grand Feu enamel. A very small number of watchmakers still practice this in-house art craft and Lebeau-Courally is one of them. Grand Feu enamel is a most challenging watch decorating technique and extremely difficult to achieve, but it allows for unalterable dial patterns with a rare level of refinement.
Among all Grand Feu enamel techniques practiced in the manufacture, the most refined one definitely is the miniature painting. This alchemy-related technique involves heating different metals at 800°C, and the accuracy of the artist’s brush to create true miniature paintings, rich in detail and with great depth.
Watchmaking Workshop: Assembly and Settings : When all components have been meticulously finished and decorated, they are bundled in a kit and sent to the watchmaking workshop. The assembly of the movement and its casing are entrusted to master watchmakers. At every stage of their work, they carry out adjustments and careful checks to ensure the highest quality of the timepiece.
Due to the fact that the manufacture produces its own escapement – of which all components are made in-house, carefully assembled and thoroughly tested – this task is massively important. The quest for perfect timekeeping is the culmination of the long manufacturing process that results in the birth of an exceptional timepiece.
Turning its back on any productivity logic, the Lebeau-Courally manufacture adopts a philosophy that is all about taking time to create excellence. It’s not about producing «time machines», but about the «human time» that craftsmen spend on perfecting their work. This labour-intense method of manufacture has its price, of course. It is the price of impeccable quality.