Sitting confidently below the limelight typically cast upon the highest echelons of watchmakers such as Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Contantin, Jaeger-LeCoultre is doing just fine – mainly because it doesn’t have anything to prove. It makes watches for men and women who care little for brand recognition, but greatly for mechanical prowess. Last year during BaselWorld, I shared schnitzel and beer with three Patek watchmakers; all of them wore Jaeger-LeCoultre.
The Reverso is the brand’s most storied model – a rectangular watch that pivots on a hinge to reveal the backside of the timepiece without requiring the wearer to take it off. It has long been the preferred wrist-wear of the European aristocracy. Here’s why.
While visiting India in early 1930, a denture-magnate named César de Trey took in a polo match with some friends. After the test, de Trey ventured into a posh lounge where many of the players would celebrate with a libation. De Trey noticed the smashed crystal of the watch on one of the players’ wrists. It turns out this was a common problem among colonial polo players; there simply wasn’t a wristwatch suitable for the rugged game. De Trey approached his friend Jacques-David LeCoultre about the idea of a reversible watch, and by the holiday season of 1931, the LeCoultre Reverso was available for purchase by both polo players (who were often British soldiers) and civilians alike.
While the reversible case was designed for athletes, the higher strata of Euro-society quickly realised that the Reverso’s two-sided nature made for more than just a protective shield from an unwieldy polo mallet: it also did nicely for the engraving of family crests, initials, and various titles. Quickly, the Reverso became the wristwatch to own for members of society. At times, an engraved Reverso was a lesser-known grandee’s entrance into an elite setting.
Edward VIII wore a Reverso during his short tenure as king of the United Kingdom. His was marked with the crown of the United Kingdom, “Edward VIII 1937”. The then Prince of Denmark also wore a Reverso, and in fact took it on an expedition to southern Morocco. Upon his return to Copenhagen, he drafted a letter to the LeCoultre manufacturer touting its reliability on such a rigorous venture. Amelia Earhart was also a Reverso wearer, and hers was lacquer-filled with a map showing her flight path from Mexico City to New York, a feat she pioneered in May 1935.
By the time the second world war came around, Jaeger-LeCoultre focused its energy on simpler timepieces – the case of the Reverso was, and still is, very complicated and expensive to produce. It fell by the wayside until the 1970s when an Italian distributor noticed the unused cases at the Jaeger-LeCoultre factory in Switzerland. By the early 1980s, the Reverso was reintroduced and commercially available again.
2011 marks the 80th anniversary of de Trey and LeCoultre’s introduction of the reversible wristwatch, and at last week’s SIHH (Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie), we saw the welcoming of a new model, the Reverso Tribute to 1931. It boasts modern specifications (sapphire crystal, larger dimensions), but has been designed to remind us all of the very first Reverso born out of a colonial lounge eight decades ago. The dial itself does not even read “Jaeger-LeCoultre”, instead, simply “Reverso”, just like the original. This, as Jaeger-LeCoultre itself says, is a link to the brand’s history and now, even before the watch has reached retailers, has become one of the most sought-after timepieces in the world.
I was lucky enough to receive a preview of the watch before my trip to the SIHH, and the subsequent photos and video we published on Hodinkee have become fuel for a collector’s fire. The Reverso Tribute to 1931, with its ultra-thin case, simple, manually-wound movement and brand-less dial, has more or less instantly reached the pinnacle of watch collectors’ must-have lists – no easy feat in a world where complications and exotic metals rule the day.