If you were rich, but had absolutely no taste, you might buy a Hummer to tootle down to Walmart in. On your wrist would be the Rolex Patriot GMT – that 18ct, ruby, diamond and sapphire-bezeled monument to conspicuous consumption. If, however, you have taste and don’t want to shout about it, you will drive a Bristol 410 (not the brasher 411) and you will probably wear a Jaeger LeCoultre Reverso.
That’s the sort of brand JLC is. It’s sat there in Le Sentier since 1833, quietly doing bogglingly clever and tasteful horological things, waiting for people to get all the bling and bluster out of their systems. Spend some time with serious watchmakers and, more often than not, it’s a JLC on their wrist.
One can see why.
Where most watch companies could fill a couple of desk drawers for their old calibres, JLC needs a warehouse for the 1,242 they’ve racked up since Antoine LeCoultre set up shop. HM Queen Elizabeth II wore a JLC at her coronation. And not any old JLC, it was a diamond-encrusted cal. 101 – still the smallest mechanical movement in the world. Edward VIII had a Reverso and so did Amelia Earhart.
And this year, their most famous model – the Reverso – is 85. So last week in London’s Bond Street, JLC and QP Magazine threw a bit of a party to celebrate and show off the latest developments.
We’re pretty used to the Reverso today and almost take its presence in Watchworld for granted. But imagine back in 1931 when René-Alfred Chauvot, a designer, registered the brevet d’invention (the patent) for a watch that swivels and turns over in its own case…
Most watches were round and were still evolving from the idea of a ‘trench watch’ with its military heritage and slightly ungentlemanly undertones. Roamer were producing some deco-style oblong cased watches, Cartier started making the flippable Tank Basculante in 1933, But no-one else had a watch that caught the essence of Deco so purely or one that so simply turned over to show its caseback.
As Tim Barber, QP’s Editor, pointed out, it’s all about the gadroons. Sounding like a dodgy sort of pirate, a gadroon is actually a type of fluted carving. On the Reverso, the gadroons are the three fluted lines along the top and bottom of the watch case. And you’ll find them on every Reverso. You’ll also find them as a design motif in JLC’s new Bond Street boutique. They’re part of the whole Art Deco theme that the Reverso typifies.
But what about the polo? Every time someone talks or writes about the Reverso, they explain that the reason it’s flippable is to protect the crystal from carelessly deployed polo mallets. Hmm. Tim explained that, having spoken to JLC’s historian, there’s not a great deal of evidence to prove that the Reverso was a dedicated polo watch. Would you be checking the time when you’re sat on a nervy pony with four big guys galloping towards you swinging long-handled mallets? Why wear a watch at polo at all? But ads from the Reverso’s early days certainly show it being promoted as a sports watch, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be used that way. Despite the elegance, most Reversos aren’t exactly fragile.
For years, the Reverso sold strongly. But back in the 1960s and into the early 1970s, it nearly disappeared from JLC’s cabinets. Quartz was where it was at, not Art Deco mechanical finery. So, quietly, it just got sidelined and, after a few years, was pretty much dead and buried.
JLC only realised the Reverso could do a Lazarus when a far-sighted watch dealer bought up the remaining stock of 200 Reverso cases, had them fitted with movements and watched them fly out of the shop. Perhaps there was life in the old flipper yet.
By 1982, the Reverso was firmly back in the JLC lineup as the imaginatively-named Reverso II, but it was only in the early 1990s that the Reverso launched into a blizzard of special editions.
In fact, the Reverso has proved to be one of JLC’s most flexible models, housing everything from quartz movements to full-on, haute horlogerie micro-mechanical artwork.
There were waterproof Reversos, Reversos with dials (and movements) on both sides (just think about that for a second – we’ll come back to it later), There was even the Reverso Grande Complication à Triptyque with 19 complications – 19 – that uses a single movement to power three independent faces each with separate functions.
The Triptyque is a great example of JLC at its insane best. Imagine; On the first face, there’s the time and a day/night indicator. And in the bottom right is a tourbillon that runs an ellipse isometer escapement running at 21,600bph with a single pallet controlling the balance. This, of course, has its very own patent – one of six related to just this watch. And there’s a power reserve too.
Flip the case and you have sidereal time. Not especially useful for catching that train, but one hell of a feat of watchmaking bearing in mind this is all powered from a single movement. That means JLC’s watchmakers had to design a specific mechanism that converts ‘normal’ time into sidereal time – a daily variation of 3 minutes and 56-ish seconds. So the reverse-face’s dial rotates once every 23 hours, 56 minutes and 4 seconds. Oh, and you’ve also got a zodiac calendar and the times for sunrise and sunset.
Think about that last function for a second. Throughout the seasons the time for sunrise and sunset changes each day by a few irregular minutes. And JLC have built a watch you can set to your location that will tell you exactly when those times will be every day of the year.
And there’s an equation of time too, the sort of thing that makes most watchmakers weep it’s so foully complicated. On the JLC, it’s just calmly sitting at the base of the dial, doing its thing.
And so to the carriage – the base that holds the flippable watch case. Usually this is a piece of machine-turned metal with the strap attached. On the Triptyque, it’s home to a perpetual calendar. In the company of the watch’s other functions this almost seems banal. But think about its location – how is it powered, given that the movement is in the flippable part of the case? In fact, a series of cams and levers transmits power, just once a day, from the movement’s case into the carriage and the calendar changes.
When you hold a watch like this and see it working (there’s one still at Bond Street – even if I sold the dog, mortgaged the house and flogged my beloved ’66 Amazon 121 I couldn’t raise the purchase price) you get the sense JLC’s watchmakers do stuff simply for the sheer joy of being able to do it. Just because they can.
But it’s not all tourbillons and complication. The Reverso spans the chasm from the eyewatering, 75-limited-edition, platinum-cased Triptyque at around $530,700 to the Classique in stainless steel for around $5,550 new or $3,500 used. Not exactly pocket money prices, but you’re getting full-on manufacture movements, drop-dead elegance and a watch with nearly 100 years of history behind it.