Feature: 5 Reverso Facts That Will Blow Your Mind
Can you believe it’s been ninety years since the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso was first introduced? Feels like only a decade shy of a century ago. Of course, not being at least ninety myself, the genesis of perhaps Jaeger-LeCoultre’s most famous watch is not a memory I share—but nevertheless it turned out to be a pretty big moment for the watchmaker’s watchmaker. Here are five bonkers facts about the Reverso to celebrate.
The Reverso Was One Of Jaeger-LeCoultre’s First Watches
It’s a well-told tale how businessman César de Trey was challenged to find a watch suitable for the rigours of the game polo, but what’s less well-known is how the watch actually came into existence. We imagine he entrusted the work entirely to his good friend Jacques-David LeCoultre, but that’s not actually what happened. LeCoultre was predominantly a manufacturer of movements, not watches, and so Jacques-David was only tasked with designing the Reverso’s movement.
The reversible case that gives the iconic watch its legendary name was commissioned by de Trey to engineer Alfred Chauvot, and before Chauvot’s patent had even been granted, de Trey had purchased the rights. That’s because, being a savvy businessman, he had something of a hunch that stood to earn him a lot of money.
The 1930s had just begun, and the wristwatch was very uncommon. Luxury watchmaking was all about bespoke-made pocket watches built to a customer’s unique requirements. A luxury wristwatch wasn’t really a thing, never mind a mass-produced, off-the-shelf one. De Trey saw the Reverso as the next big thing, the watch that turned wristwatches from being something ladies wore to a desirable luxury purchase for men.
Jaeger-LeCoultre already had some experience making ladies’ wristwatches for Cartier, plus a few unique pieces, and so the company was at least capable of building de Trey’s vision. But this was the first proper luxury wristwatch series Jaeger-LeCoultre—then just LeCoultre—had ever branded as its own. The launch in 1931 was a new chapter for Jaeger-LeCoultre, to no longer be just the watchmaker’s watchmaker, but to become a watchmaker in its own right.
The Reverso Is Actually A Sports Watch
It seems crazy and yet somehow obvious to say, but the Reverso is a sports watch. It seems crazy because this slender, polished, delicate piece of Art Deco design looks better suited as a royal gift—which it has been, many, many times—than a tough bruiser.
But it’s obvious because that was the very origins of its creation. The challenge was to build a watch capable of withstanding the rigours of an impact sport. Mallets, balls, horses, other players, the ground—there’s plenty going on to destroy a gentleman’s watch, which is why the request came in the first place.
Quite specifically, de Trey’s challenge was issued in India, the player who issued it a high-ranking military official. The military was about the only place you’d see a wristwatch on a man in that period, and it was safe to say the offerings, many based on ladies’ wristwatches, were not adapted to survive a game of polo.
So that makes the Reverso a sports watch, but if anything more convincing was needed than that, it was also one of the first watches to offer not just a high contrast black dial—very, very unusual for the time—but also luminous markers. This was the realm of military tool, not luxury timekeeper, making the Reverso not only Jaeger-LeCoultre’s first proper watch, but also one of the first sports watches ever.
One Of The First Reversos Was A Patek Philippe
It was a tumultuous time for the watch industry, the 1930s, because whilst a few bright minds knew the wristwatch was on its way in, there were many manufacturers getting anxious about how the pocket watch was on its way out. Post-war and into the Great Depression, it was a shaky time for the kind of customer luxury brands such as Patek Philippe were invested in, and they needed a solution, fast.
As it so happens, Jacques-David LeCoultre was an administrator on the board of Patek Philippe at the time, and he and de Trey, keen to hedge their bets on this new Reverso, offered it to Patek Philippe as well. The idea was well-received, and eight pieces were made for Patek Philippe—these reference 106 were some of the first Reversos ever made, in fact.
A year later, Patek Philippe launched the Calatrava, its own interpretation of the modern, luxury wristwatch, and so the joint Reverso project was no longer required. But that’s not the only slice of bad luck Jacques-David LeCoultre experienced with Patek Philippe—that esteemed watchmaker was offered for sale to Jacques-David, an offer that in hindsight probably shouldn’t have been refused. Instead, the company was sold to the Stern family, who still own it to this day.
The First Reverso Didn’t Have A Jaeger-LeCoultre Movement
Okay, so this is where things start getting really wacky: de Trey knew time was short when it came to the release of the Reverso, that speed was very much of the essence. Getting to market first could be make or break for not just the watch, but the entire future of Jaeger-LeCoultre’s watchmaking business, if it were indeed to have one.
It was crunch time. Christmas 1931 was the deadline. Other watchmakers were hot on their tails. Chauvot’s case design was complete by March of that same year—all that was needed was for Jaeger-LeCoultre to build it and to develop a movement to place inside it.
Unlike that Patek Philippe reference 106 Reverso, which had a tiny, round ladies’ watch calibre from Jaeger-LeCoultre inside, Jaeger-LeCoultre itself wanted to furnish its own iteration with a movement more befitting its reputation. The rectangular case needed a big, rectangular movement, even if it wasn’t to be seen. The calibre 410 was the answer, built to the brand’s exacting standards and filling the case up as a good movement should.
But there was a problem: the calibre 410 wasn’t ready until 1933, two years after the Reverso’s launch. That meant, to meet the deadline, the first few years of Reverso production did not feature a movement from Jacques-David LeCoultre himself. A Tavannes calibre 063 was chosen instead, forever remaining an irony in the history of the watchmaker’s watchmaker.
Jaeger-LeCoultre Forgot How To Make Them
The 1931 launch of the Reverso was an enormous success. The watch was heralded as a design masterpiece of its time, and quickly became not only a sporting icon, but a canvas as well. The reversible case leant itself, quite by accident, to being the perfect medium upon which to engrave, paint and generally embellish, making the Reverso the gift of choice for esteemed members of society.
From enamelled portraits of the Maharajah’s wife, to a talisman bearing a coat of arms, the Reverso has become home to hundreds of individual customisations offered by the watchmaker. But this feverous interest wasn’t to last: the distinct styling of the Reverso made it just as unpopular as fashion evolved as it had been popular when it was of its moment, and it all but disappeared from Jaeger-LeCoultre’s memory.
That is, until 1972. The market was shifting again, but in a way never seen before. Quartz technology was threatening to eradicate the mechanical master entirely—if not for one saving grace: style. Italian distributor Giorgio Corvo had a plan: to revive the Reverso’s iconic looks and make it popular once again.
But there was a problem—Jaeger-LeCoultre had forgotten how to make them. There were 200 spare cases left, and that was it. Chauvot’s incredibly complex patent filed in March 1931, without context, was incomprehensible. But no matter; the brand cased up its remaining stock and never expected to hear from Corvo about it again. Except they did, because he sold them all in a month, and not just to any old Joe, but the likes of Gucci and Versace.
It was panic stations at Jaeger-LeCoultre to—and I’m sure they later saw the funny side—reverse engineer the Reverso. The man in charge of that unenviable task was one Daniel Wild, who succeeded not only in bringing the watch back to life, but also improving its reliability and ruggedness—albeit at the expense of using fifty-five parts instead of the original’s twenty-three.
So with that it’s happy birthday to the Reverso, the big nine-oh. In another ten years it’ll be a century, and that’s when you get a card from the monarch. Perhaps if the Queen’s still with us—a lady rather fond of a Jaeger-LeCoultre, it must be said—she’ll gift a little message on the back of the most appropriate medium I can think of: a Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso.
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