“International Geophysical Year” sounds, to the modern ear, about as sexy as a road accident, but despite the dull name, that year and the events surrounding it gave birth to a watch that many collectors today think is one of the sexiest of all time: the Jaeger LeCoultre Geophysic. The Geophysic is a true connoisseur’s collectible –it has absolutely nothing externally flashy about it and indeed, both inside and out, this watch –first made to celebrate the 1958 International Geophysical Year –eschewed flashiness with a vengeance. The original was small –merely 35mm in diameter –with a dial stripped of just about anything that might distract from its pragmatic use as an instrument. Inside it was just as leanly purposeful –the movement was extremely cleanly finished but devoid of any superfluous decoration and had been designed to be as reliable and accurate as the watchmaking technology of 1958 could make it.
The IGY began as an evolution of the International Polar Years which had preceded it in 1882 and 1932, and which had had as their goal a cooperative international effort aimed at better understanding the Earth’s polar regions. The IGY, however, had a broader mandate –cooperative international research, under the auspices of the ICUS (International Council of Scientific Unions, one of the world’s oldest non-governmental science research organizations) aimed at better understanding terrestrial geophysics –but aided by the latest scientific advancements, including rocketry and submarine exploration. The IGY lasted from July of 1957 to December of 1958.
The use of sounding rockets and satellites to explore the upper atmosphere, and take the first steps into outer space, were being made and most notably in October of 1957 the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, embarrassing the United States into jump-starting Project Vanguard. Vanguard was a PR disaster –the most spectacular failure was the explosion of Vanguard TV-3 (test vehicle 3) on the launchpad, after it achieved the somewhat underwhelming maximum altitude of four feet (the USA had as a specific goal the orbiting of a satellite during the IGY.) Better luck was had by the United States, however, in August of 1958, when the USS Nautilus —the world’s first nuclear submarine –successfully found her way under the polar ice cap to the geographic north pole, simultaneously making navigational history and, not incidentally, signaling the USSR that it wasn’t going to have everything its way (and moreover that the northern borders of the USSR, long thought secured by the impassible Arctic ice, were impassible no longer.) But there was a lot more to the IGY than super-power standoffs –among other things, critical evidence confirming plate tectonics was gathered, and as well, the activities of IGY participating nations (there were 67 in all) led to an explosion in Antarctic research.
The original Jaeger LeCoultre Chronometre Geophysic, 1958
The first Jaeger LeCoultre Geophysic, then, was designed primarily as an explorer’s watch –its priorities were to be highly accurate, highly durable, and capable of tolerating environmental extremes. One of its most notable features was its ability to resist magnetic fields, and the original Geophysic had a soft iron dial and inner case that gave it the ability to resist magnetic fields up to 600 gauss. It also had a thermally stable and magnetically resistant Glucydur balance, an anti-shock system for the balance staff, a swan’s neck fine regulator, and a Breguet overcoil balance spring, as well as a stop-seconds mechanism. The movement was the hand-wound caliber 478BWSBr, with indirect center seconds, which was based on the famous Jaeger LeCoultre caliber 488SBr that was used in the Mark XI series of pilot’s watches.
It was made in very small numbers –Jaeger LeCoultre only made 1038 in stainless steel, as well as 30 “Deluxe” gold models, before the Geophysic was discontinued –after only about a year –and replaced by a self-winding model known as the Geomatic. It’s not hard to see why it’s become such a coveted collectible –the very high level of quality in the movement, combined with the (for the time) large case, and clean-but-distinctive dial, have made it a grail watch for any serious Jaeger LeCoultre collector. It was even worn by two US nuclear submarine officers –Commander William Anderson of the Nautilus, and Commander James Calvert of the Skate (the lead boat in the Skate class, which improved on the extremely noisy and vibration-prone design of the Nautilus, which shook so badly at flank speed that her passive sonar was rendered useless –the Skate also crossed under the Pole, and was the first ship to successfully surface there, only a week after Nautilus.)
USS Skate on the surface at the North Pole, 1958; image, Wikipedia Commons
All this and more was explained to us by Jaeger LeCoultre’s US president, Mr. Philippe Bonay, and a special guest of honor at the launch of the Geophysic in New York at the Explorer’s Club, Rear Admiral David Oliver; the latter served on a number of submarines (nuclear and diesel) including Nautilus and rather fascinatingly he avers that she was at first considered something of a death-trap –during the three years he served on her, he told us, she had over 1,000 fires, and Operation Sunshine –the polar crossing –was considered a virtual suicide mission. His hair-raising descriptions of life on the first generation of nuclear submarines emphasized the sometimes enormous risks taken by explorers as recently as the second half of the 20th century –and of the extremely challenging environments in which the original Geophysic was designed to work, and work well.
The original Geophysic as seen at the Explorer’s Club, NY; behind, the new version in gold.
To re-issue such an iconic watch is obviously a perilous undertaking and with expectations naturally very high, every aspect of the original Geophysic was considered. For several reasons, it was decided to use a modern, self-winding movement, in order to stay true to the spirit of the original –using a best-of-class caliber was deemed essential, and the new Geophysic 1958 uses the self-winding caliber 898/1, with a winding rotor carried on ceramic ball bearings and a power reserve of 43 hours. The case was ever so gently upsized –from the original 35mm to a more modern but still discreet 38.5mm. We’re very, very pleased to say that one of the original defining features of the Geophysic remains present in the new watch: it is fitted with a soft iron inner case and dial for resistance to magnetic fields, and its water resistance rating is now 100 meters.
Geophysic 1958 Boutique Limited Edition in platinum
Geophysic 1958 in gold
The new Geophysic 1958 is being offered in three versions. A boutique-only limited edition of 58 pieces, in platinum, will be offered at $32,000. There will also be a rose gold version, limited to 300 pieces world-wide (which unlike the original gold Geophysics is also anti-magnetic) and which is priced at $20,800. The platinum version’s dial is, enticingly, the closest of the three new models to that of the original steel watch; it has no cross-hairs on the dial (which both the gold and steel models do have.)
Life Magazine cover featuring Nautilus’ Commander, William Anderson, and the Geophysic 1958 in steel.
We think, however, that the real pur sang model is the stainless steel version –the subtle but beautiful alternating brushed and mirror-polished surfaces of the case have a restrained beauty that really shines in this utilitarian metal. And it’s priced at $9,800 (with a total of 800 available globally.) Our first impression is that this is a really well done, extremely careful reincarnation of a much beloved classic, which remains true to the spirit of the original while giving up nothing functionally to any modern watch. Versatile, distinctive, and handsomely masculine, it’s available starting in October of this year but we don’t expect it to last for very long.
PS: Many thanks to the staff at the Explorer’s Club of New York for their hospitality, and for an extremely diverting tour given by Executive Director Mr. William Roseman, former bush pilot and first-class spinner of tall tales. A sample: “Now this gentleman (pointing to a portrait on the Club wall) is known as the father of modern taxidermy. A leopard tried to maul him once –he killed the animal while it was attacking him by jamming his fist down its throat and suffocating it.” Thank you sir for a succession of some of the most diverting tales I have ever heard!
Mr. Roseman at the Explorer’s Club, one of the most fascinating social clubs in New York or the world for that matter; find out more here.