Welcome to Watches You Should Know, a biweekly column highlighting little-known watches with interesting backstories and unexpected influence. This week: the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso.
The famed Swiss watch company Jaeger-LeCoultre was not always so-named — in fact, prior to 1937, Jaeger and LeCoultre were two completely separate firms, the former being a Parisian watchmaker, and the latter a Swiss watch manufacture. In 1903, Jacques-David LeCoultre, grandson of founder Antoine LeCoultre, accepted a challenge set forth by Edmond Jaeger for Swiss watchmakers to develop ultra-thin watches, but the two companies remained separate entities for several decades.
Then, in the early 1930s, British soldiers stationed in India found themselves with a unique problem — as acrylic crystals had yet to be invented, they were finding that their watches were getting damaged during polo matches, the glass crystals shattered by stray mallet swings and polo balls. Some of the officers petitioned César de Trey, a businessman and associate of LeCoultre, to find a solution to this problem.
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When de Trey returned to Switzerland, he spoke with Jacques-David LeCoultre, who in turn engaged French firm Jaeger’s help with engineering a solution. Jaeger then brought on board French engineer Alfred Rene Chavot to design a mechanism whereby a watch head could be flipped in reverse in order to protect the dial.
The name “Reverso” was registered by de Trey, the case design was purchased from Chavot, and a distribution outfit dubbed “Specialités Horlogères” was set up to distribute the watches. Cases were sourced from Geneva-based A.E. Wenger, and, as LeCoultre didn’t yet possess a shaped movement that would fit the debut model, watchmaker Tavannes’ calibre 64 became the beating heart of the original model, which debuted in 1931.
Ironically, the original design didn’t feature the name of either firm on the dial, but only said “Reverso.” Featuring an Art Deco-inspired design (think: triple gadroons, or the horizontal lines above and below the dial; the rectangular case shape itself), the Reverso’s patented flipping mechanism provided the ideal canvas for personalization. Customers could engrave or lacquer the watch’s case back with a monogram, family crest, map, or anything else they saw fit to include. Celebrities of the day, such as General Douglas MacArthur, famed pilot Amelia Earhart, and even King Edward VIII all personalized their Reversos.
In 1933, LeCoultre developed the first dedicated movement for the Reverso’s unique case shape, which it dubbed the calibre 410, and added a sub-seconds model in 1934 and a center-seconds model in 1935. By 1937, the Reverso’s success was such that Jaeger and LeCoutlre decided effectively merge, reconstituting re-registering “Specialités Horlogères” as Jaeger-LeCoultre S.A.
Following the merger, the name “LeCoultre” was finally placed on the dial of the Reverso, and lacquered versions became available by request. Weathering the Depression, the Reverso then came upon hard times during World War II. Art Deco fell out of favor, and the advent of thermoplastic crystals (plexiglass) meant that the Revero’s original raison d’etre was effectively negated — as plexi crystals were largely “unbreakable,” the ability to flip over one’s watch for protection was no longer necessary when playing sports.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the Reverso effectively languished in obscurity, Jaeger-LeCoultre having decided to focus on watches like the new Geophysic (released in 1958 in time with LeCoultre’s 125th anniversary), the sporty Memovox models and even the Atmos clock, a contemporary of the original Reverso. In 1972, however, an Italian watch dealer named Giorgio Corvo noticed a stock of unsused Reverso cases at the Jaeger-LeCoultre manufacture. Purchasing the entire stock and outfitting them with movements, he managed to sell out the entire run in Italy.
Corvo was thus confident that a revival of the Reverso would ultimately be successful, and convinced Jaeger-LeCoultre to revive production. In the early 1980s, the Reverso was reborn, and in 1984, it received its first water-resistant case, this time featuring the ability to rotate at any point during its horizontal travel and requiring over 50 different parts. Finally, the Reverso was a true “in-house” or “manufacture” product, with a case and movement made entirely by Jaeger-LeCoultre.
Many of these new Reversos featured quartz movements, which helped Jaeger Le-Coultre somewhat to weather the “quartz crisis” being experienced by the Swiss watch industry at large throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Still, the 1980s were a difficult time for Jaeger-LeCoultre, which was then packaged with IWC within German VDO’s “Les Manufactures Horlogères” subsidiary.
Under new leadership in the 1990s, Jaeger-LeCoultre set about rethinking its corporate image, with the Reverso at the forefront of this rebranding. Beginning in 1991 to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the model, Jaeger-LeCoultre began releasing a series of complicated models in precious metals, followed by limited editions. Around the same time, the manufacture began reviving its decorative department, using fired enamel to create beautiful works of art on the backs of Reversos. Personalized watches from the 1930s served as the inspiration for an entire department dedicated to enameling, engraving, gem setting and more.
Today, the Reverso line spans multiple sizes, complications, colors, case materials and more. They’re available in dedicated women’s sizes as well as in precious metals; with leather straps or on bracelets; and in countless different configurations. Perhaps fittingly, the Reverso also serves as a relatively affordable entry point into Jaeger-LeCoultre’s catalog (the Reverso Classic Small with quartz movement retails for $4,200) — amidst the myriad iconic timepieces produced by the manufacture today, it’s the Reverso that has the most storied history, and also the Reverso that is priced in line with with several “classic” iconic watches from other luxury brands.
With its legendary beginnings and enduring popularity, and despite many bumps along the road, the Jaeger Le-Coultre Reverso has stood the test of time.