A brief profile of an oddity from JLC
Introducing one of the strangest watches ever produced by Jaeger Lecoultre: The Master Quartz LED, also referred to by JLC as the Master Quartz Digital. It features a quartz movement that displays the time using a light emitting diode (LED) display.
With it’s oval case, integrated mesh bracelet, and trapezoidal crystal it possesses a style that is almost unique, and certainly a product of its’ time. I’m sure someone in the 1970’s thought that the styling was futuristic (note to the past: It isn’t). Even when compared to its’ contemporaries it is oddly styled. The only 1970’s watch I can think of that is even close would be the Patek Philippe Golden Ellipse. At 39mm wide and 35mm high at least the size of the Master Quartz LED is somewhat modern.
The Master LED features two action buttons and a recessed pusher. The button at 2:00 activates the time display and if it is held down the display switches to a seconds count.
The button at 8:00 displays an abbreviated day of the week and date. When it is held down the display switches to the numeric month and date.
The pusher at 3:00 is used to activate setting mode and trigger between the different fields that require input (month, day, hour, etc).
Early LED displays used a comparatively large amount of power. As a result early LED watches required two batteries. The Master LED has two screw open covers for the battery compartments so that the batteries can be replaced with relative ease, a nice feature considering how fast the watch burns through batteries.
Compared to the liquid crystal displays (LCD) that became common only a couple years later the LED displays are extremely inefficient. With most LED watches the batteries require replacing after approximately six months (sooner if the display is activated frequently). With a LCD watch the battery can be expected to last for years, even while constantly displaying the time. The short battery life of LED watches, combined with having to push a button to display the time are what resulted in the rapid adaptation and eventual dominance of the LCD display.
As inefficient as it is, the quartz LED movement is what makes this watch so very interesting to me. Part of the appeal is the red glow of the numbers. They just look cool. The other interesting thing about the LED movement is how it fits within the brand’s history. I’m sure that most of the readers of this post are familiar with JLC’s history as a great manufacturer of watch movements. What makes the Master LED an oddity for JLC, and therefore fascinating, is that it contains a movement that was completely outsourced. They just bought it as an off the shelf component. There was nothing unique to JLC about it. In fact, the exact same movement can be found in numerous watches from other manufacturers. The ubiquity of the movement is actually a plus these days since it makes finding a replacement movement for a watch with a dead or damaged one relatively simple.
Here one can see a Benrus LED watch that I bought as a source of a spare movement. Other than the color of the plastic this is the same basic movement as the one used by JLC.
This is the movement and its’ plastic holder removed from the JLC:
Here is the front of the movement with the display.
The movement JLC chose for the Master LED was manufactured by Hughes Aircraft.
What I find to be most amusing was where it was made. I think it is safe to say that the Master LED is the only JLC watch ever released with a movement made in Mexico!
Earlier in the review I mentioned the styling as being somewhat unique. The reason that I couldn’t call it unique is due to the fact that it wasn’t. The same basic case was also produced by or for Wittnauer. JLC also produced a version like this Wittnauer that had regular lugs for a strap in place of the mesh bracelet. Unfortunately an example of the JLC version continues to evade me. I thought I had found one, but macro photography revealed that it was, in fact, yet another Wittnauer.
It is common for both the Wittnauer and JLC LED watches to have lost the printing on the crystal’s face over time, leaving a difficult to see “ghost image”. The first example of the JLC Master LED that I obtained suffered from the same problem. I was thrilled to have recently acquired a nearly mint example with the printing intact.
The fact that Wittnauer versions exist raises an interesting question about these watches’ provenance. Just who produced these? Were they produced by JLC and did they sell some to Wittnauer? Were they produced by Wittnauer and did JLC just slap their name on the front of some? Were they produced by a third company (like the movement)? I don’t currently have the answers to these questions. None of the books I have even acknowledge the existence of the Master Quartz LED, and information on the internet is sparse.
I hope you have enjoyed this brief profile of an oddity from Jaeger Lecoultre’s (and Wittnauer’s) past. Should anyone have any further information about these models I would love to hear it. In the meantime I think I need to put on my Master LED, break out a polyester shirt, bell-bottom pants, and platform shoes and head out to the disco!