Classic Watches: Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso

The Definitive Reverso?

The Definitive Reverso?

Permanently situated in the pantheon of all-time greats – for its originality, its iconic status and its longevity – is Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Reverso. It’s not so much a watch as a tradition, and it keeps company with very few other timepieces, for only a few can boast the same achievement: Patek Philippe’s Calatrava, the Cartier Tank, Breitling’s base-model Navitimer and certain Rolex Oysters such as the Submariner. That’s pretty much it – the most exclusive club in horology. And don’t even think of applying for membership before you reach your 50th birthday.

OK, so the Reverso’s production has been interrupted on occasion, but it’s hard to ignore, say, the matter of World War II. Leaving aside commercial realities, we’re only a year away from the Reverso’s 75th Anniversary, born as it was in 1931, and this article is as much an alert to what Jaeger-LeCoultre surely must be planning, as it is a celebration regardless of the forthcoming festivities. We’re expecting Jaeger-LeCoultre to announce something very special at this year’s SIHH in Geneva. But it was the 60th birthday, occurring as it did precisely at the dawn of The Great Mechanical Wristwatch Revival of the 1990s, that brought the watch back not just in all of its swivel-hipped glory, but as a family of watches.

Jaeger-LeCoultre, one of the industry’s true manufactures before the term became a form of validation, developed its most-famous model in response to the demands of ‘sporting gentlemen’. We take shock resistance for granted, but in 1931, watch-saving incablock protection and its variants (and rivals) were nearly two decades away from commercial viability.

So what could a watch company do to protect its timepieces in a decade that – irrespective of the Great Depression – was notable for the exuberance of the wealthy? It was a decade remembered for the excess of its automobiles, the flamboyant fashions, America’s end to Prohibition – and for the young man-about-town and his passions for golf, tennis and other sports more vigorous than billiards. More precisely, it is said that the watch was designed ‘to meet the sporting requirements of British officers serving in India by standing up to the hard knocks involved during their polo matches.’

Although shock-resistance was not going to be among the solutions, there were still concerns to attend to beyond the security of the movement per se. What Jaeger-LeCoultre addressed was the matter of their clients’ watch crystals scratching or breaking if worn while playing the aforementioned sports. Suffice it to say, if Jodie Kidd had been around back then, she’d have been a prime candidate for Reverso ownership.

What Jaeger-LeCoultre did was to develop a rectangular watch case which the owner could flip over to protect the glass, and by extension the dial and hands. It was so simple and so clever that it’s embarrassing. Inevitably, other brands made their own flip-over watches, but the Reverso was the first and remains the best. An added, unexpected benefit emerged when it was realised that the case back – which obviously became its front when in reversed mode – was an ideal place to engrave a coat-of-arms or family crest, initials or other personal symbols.

In recent years, Jaeger-LeCoultre has taken this a stage further by offering the services of its master enamellers to Reverso owners. As long as I live, I will forever dream about the quartet of Reversos shown at the Geneva fair in 2003 – but never produced for sale – with miniatures of Tamara di Lempicka paintings enamelled to perfection on the back of four Grand Taille models….

Photo by Ken Kessler of Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso with Tamara di Lempicka painting, never issued

Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso from 2003 with Tamara di Lempicka painting, never issued

Since its rebirth, the Reverso alone has repositioned Jaeger-LeCoultre as one of the most desirable names to wear on your wrist. The company has created a vast range, encompassing everything from small ladies’ quartz models to assorted mechanical models with dedicated, fitted movements, to limited editions bearing all manner of complications. The range is comprehensive, allowing the Reverso-phile to consider models in most metals, with or without gems, dual-dial models, diving versions with rubber straps, minute repeaters, chronographs and tourbillons. For the purist, though, the basic men’s mechanical model in steel (£3700) will suffice.

And just how iconic is the Reverso? Like any quality watch, it can boast celebrity owners, but saying that Elton John owned one hardly does it justice: discretionary consumption is not amongst his more notable qualities. Jeanne Moreau? Too French. So let’s look to Hollywood. Leonardo di Caprio wears a Reverso – so young, but such good taste! Val Kilmer wore a Reverso in Batman Returns, and – for continuity – Christian Bale has one on his wrist at the end of Batman Begins. To convey the sheer style possessed by his character, Pierce Brosnan donned a Reverso for the 1999 remake of The Thomas Crown Affair. And so it goes. Even QP’s own, supremely elegant Maria Doulton has been seen Reverso’d.

Jaeger-LeCoultre Grande Reverso UT 1931 from Batman

But one teensy fact supports an argument that the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso is the first watch to receive icon-level adulation in the current, post-quartz era: it is, to the best of my knowledge, the first individual model wristwatch – rather than a whole brand – to inspire and justify the creation of a massive, episode-laden, data-rich history. In 1991, before similar volumes charting the sagas of specific Rolexes, the Omega Speedmaster Pro, the Panerai, the Cartier Tank and others earned their own dedicated single-model tomes, Reverso – The Living Legend, by Manfred Fritz, was published. That’s not just momentous: that’s seriously cool.


Cartier Santos 100 (from £2500)

Like the Reverso, Cartier’s Santos has both a long history and a sporting heritage, and it has been the subject of sensitive updating by its producer. To mark its first century, Cartier upsized the Santos, preserving its looks while making it more appealing in an era where 40mm watches are considered ‘mid-sized’. Square with rounded corners, bearing screws through its bezel – a detail copied to great effect by Gerald Genta for the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak – the Santos 100, without an object nearby to betray its size, is a dead-ringer for the original. We like the all-steel W20073X8 housing the Cartier 049 self-winding calibre and offering water-resistance to 100m. If something more dressy is required, Cartier offers all-gold and gold/steel variants. The most pleasant surprise of all? The watch looks and feels even better in its modern, larger form.

Rolex Prince (£6740 for yellow or rose gold models; £7390 for white gold models)

Unlike Jaeger-LeCoultre and Cartier, Rolex has a peculiar take on its heritage. It seems as if the Giant of Geneva has a marked abhorrence for anything that smacks even slightly of ‘retro’, so you can imagine the sense of a bombshell dropping at the 2005 Basel fair when Rolex announced the return of the Prince. This rectangular model had become, during the decades since its demise, one of the company’s most coveted Rolexes amongst the more discerning collectors. But the new line bears only one thing in common with its predecessors: a rectangular outline. That’s it. Inside is a magnificent, all-new manual-wind movement. Outside, four cases and dials that address the watch’s roots, but only in their deference to the Art Deco styling of the original’s era. At the time of writing, examples have yet to reach the shops, and the order books are overflowing; expect Rolex’s revived Prince to be among the hottest watches of 2006. Oh, and QP uncovered a teensy scoop: there’s reason to believe that the production versions will not say ‘Cellini’. Thank goodness.

(QP Issue 17, 2006)

© Ken Kessler 2005