Welcome to Watches You Should Know, a biweekly column highlighting important or little-known watches with interesting backstories and unexpected influence. This week: the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso.
It’s 1930 and you’re a British Army officer in India. What do you do to wile away your spare time? Why, you play polo of course. But the sport of kings is a little tough on any piece of timekeeping equipment that might be strapped to your wrist.
Enter César De Trey, an executive of the soon-to-be-established company “Specialites Horlogeres,” which would subsequently evolve into Jaeger-LeCoultre a few years later. In 1930, De Trey was in India on business, attending a polo match in his spare time. He was approached by a player who held up his broken watch and asked (or challenged — history is unclear) De Trey to make a watch that could withstand the rigors of the polo grounds. (Why players didn’t simply leave their wristwatches in the locker room, history did not record.)
Back home in Switzerland, De Trey thought about the problem and discussed it with his friend Jacques-David LeCoultre and the French firm Jaeger S.A. The work was entrusted to Jaeger, who then enlisted the services of French designer René-Alfred Chauvot. Chauvot developed and patented a case mechanism that allowed the watch to be flipped over while on the wrist. Thus, the Reverso was born, and wristwatches all over the polo fields of India were protected from the strikes of errant polo mallets and balls.
What this enterprising team of watch designers and makers had also unknowingly done was create an Art Deco icon the form of which would not be altered significantly from 1931 to today. To be sure, over the years the Reverso has seen countless versions, alleged patent squabbles, clones and wannabes from both sides of the Atlantic, a brief suspension of production, and perhaps even a flirtation with quartz. The use of quartz movements was ultimately decided against, even though the majority of the JLC line was quartz powered in those days (early 1980s).
Production remained low during World War II and in the subsequent decades, and the watch briefly fell out of production in the 1970s. Legend has it that the Italian JLC distributor Giorgio Corvo, who was also a connoisseur and collector, discovered a small cache of cases during a visit to the JLC manufacture in Switzerland in 1972. He persuaded the company to sell him all 200 cases, had them fitted with mechanical movements and took them back to Italy, where all 200 watches sold within a few weeks. The legend, which JLC has never confirmed, adds that Corvo was instrumental in convincing the manufacture to resist the quartz temptation and use only mechanical movements in the Reverso.
Reverso à éclipses
The dial of the Reverso à éclipses is really a curtain that conceals a secret dial beneath. This curtain parts vertically in the middle and retracts to each side, just like the curtain at your favorite theater. It’s driven by a miniature chain mechanism and actuated by a partially exposed second crown integrated into the upper right corner of the case. The idea was first patented in 1910. It was originally used only in large-sized pocket watches to conceal and reveal secret dials. The new case has 271 parts, including 192 in the miniature chain mechanism alone.
It’s perfect for hiding your favorite racy nude Renaissance painting from one of the Dutch Masters.
The case has changed little over the years: it’s been enlarged and redesigned for better water resistance and mechanical performance (the current case has 50+ components vs. the original’s fewer than 30). Several movements have been used, with updates and complications added, but the basic Reverso has remained almost alarmingly unchanged since its introduction 82 years ago. The case’s height-to-width ratio has maintained the so-called “golden ratio” of roughly 1.618 since production began (the golden ratio is a geometrically derived ratio that often occurs in nature — flower petals, animal bodies, spiral galaxies, hurricanes, faces, DNA molecules — and is said to be especially pleasing to the human eye).
The angular lugs and the sets of three horizontal grooves above and below the dial — classic Art Deco design features — are still there, just as they were in 1931. And in further testimony to the timelessness of the Reverso design, all four case sizes that have ever been in production over the last nine decades or so are, in fact, in production today.
There were versions of the Reverso made by other companies during the 1930s as well; all, apparently, were done with the permission of César De Trey and Jacques-David LeCoultre. In the winter of 1931-32, eight cases were sold to Patek Philippe (Jacques-David LeCoultre was then an administrator of PP). The movements Patek installed in those eight cases were round, and although they were supplied by LeCoultre (who was a Patek supplier in those days), the watches were signed Patek Philippe. Two of these, a man’s version and the single ladies version, reside today in the Patek Philippe museum in Geneva.
Other versions of the Reverso were sold by Hamilton, Favre Leuba and Vacheron & Constantin. Flattering imitators also appeared, including an interesting prototype of a two-sided chronograph which Movado produced in 1939. Interestingly, one Vacheron example also bears the name of venerable Canadian jewelry store Birks.
The Hamilton Otis, which still pops up on eBay from time to time, was manufactured from 1938 to 1941. There is some internet debate on just why production of the Otis ceased. Some say it was the war, some say it was a renewed interest in round watches (which were easier to manufacture), and of course, some say there was a lawsuit or cease-and-desist order issued by JLC. No copy of a legal filing has been found, and JLC isn’t talking. Likely there was nothing more than an undiscovered licensing agreement which simply expired.
Because it was the 1930s and the Art Deco design movement was in full swing, the Reverso was an instant hit. This is particularly due to the fact that, while the reversing “flip” feature was — and still is — a conversation starter, the unintended genius of the watch was the blank back side of the reversing module. A typical case back has miscellaneous information engraved upon it: the brand, model name, case or serial number, perhaps water resistance information, and so forth. The back of the stationary portion of the Reverso case had such information too, but the back of the reversing module was gloriously blank.
This blank canvas was quickly seized upon by those who owned the watch. Because of its timeliness and Art Deco styling, the watch was quickly adopted by the rich and famous. King Edward VIII of England wore one. His bore an engraved illustration of his crown and title (before he abdicated), as did that of the Prince of Denmark’s watch. Amelia Earhart’s Reverso featured an enameled map of North and Central America, commemorating her historic flight from Mexico City to New York on May 8, 1935. Today, you can go to the JLC website and design an engraved or enameled back for your own watch. Even (M)ad man Don Draper of the fictitious Madison Avenue agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce wore a Reverso to symbolize his newly minted partner status in the second season of the AMC hit period drama Mad Men. The event was of such significance that JLC issued a 25-piece limited edition, the Grande Reverso Ultra Thin 1931 Tribute to Mad Men with the SCDP logo engraved on the reverse.
Finally, in 2006, the Reverso Squadra was introduced at SIHH. The Squadra features a square dial, and most models in the line are a bit thicker, allowing for additional complications. Notably, also in 2006, a patent application from JLC was rejected by the patent office on the grounds that a similar patent had already been awarded — the 1931 patent of René-Alfred Chauvot.
The story goes that during this process, JLC either discovered a previous patent, or rediscovered that the drawings for the Chauvot patent featured illustrations of a square Reverso. This was the genesis of the Squadra. According to JLC, designers were working on a square Reverso right alongside the rectangular version in the 1930s, but decided not to release the watch because of the “uncompromisingly modern proportions”. Apparently, 75 years later, the time was finally right.
These days there exists a wide range of versions in the Reverso line, including a tribute to the 1931 original. Many have two dials, which of course takes an engraved or enameled back off the buyer’s options list. In fact, in 2006, JLC released a limited edition, the Grande Complication à Triptyque, which had three, count ‘em, three dials — all powered by a single movement. Incredible.
Ah, to be a polo playing British Army officer in 1930s India… lucky for us, at least we can still buy (pretty much) the same watch they launched around 90 years ago thanks to a complaint about a broken timepiece.