Following years of austerity after the Second World War, the 1960s saw new horizons at a time when anything felt possible. Politically, socially and culturally, from miniskirts to moon-landings, the world changed beyond all recognition and inevitably this infiltrated the world of design. While the 1950s focused on economic recovery, the 1960s looked to the future through the eyes of a new generation filled with hope and expectation. Travel, hobbies and technology were all within reach and Jaeger-LeCoultre’s avant-garde dive watch, the Memovox Polaris, was very much a product of that time… even down to the name.
Polaris began life as a nickname, but was a welcome replacement for the original “ref. E859” and immediately helped it stand out in a sea of unimaginative watch names. Like Top Gun’s Maverick and Iceman, whose aerobatic warfare would have been equally impressive, but a lot less memorable, if they had flown as Pete and Tom, Polaris and its macho, futuristic overtones had a powerful impact on the desirability of the watch, making it a gem that stood out for – at least at the time – the sheer awesomeness of its nomenclature.
The UGM-27 Polaris was a solid-fuelled, nuclear-armed, submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) built for the US Navy during the Cold War. Intended as a deterrent against possible attacks from Russia, the first of Britain’s four ballistic missile submarines, HMS Resolution, was launched by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 1966, when she paid tribute to “the miracles of modern science” that had gone into the vessel. With the belief that possibility for error was virtually non-existent, Resolution and Polaris were the great new hopes for preventing future warfare and became fully operational in 1968 – the same year the Memovox ref. E859 was launched.
Stéphane Belmont, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Director of Maison Heritage and Rare Pieces, says the name Polaris came from a US sales agent. Officially known in the States as the LeCoultre Memovox, the Polaris tag was only used in America and is not present in any European advertising from the period.
“America loved a twist,” says Belmont. “The Shark Deep Sea Chronograph, the Master Mariner Deep Sea Compressor Barracuda and the Polaris – they were all nicknames that came out of the US and are all names connected to something cool from the time.”
A Sound Development
The Memovox alarm function was born in 1950 with Calibre 489. You could say that it was the first smartwatch for businessmen, giving the hour, minute, date and an alarm to remind the wearer of a meeting or to wake him up. Even for diving it made sense to have an alarm rather than having to look at a bezel, leading to the launch of the first water-resistant Memovox in 1959.
That said, diving was not the most popular activity at the time and it was also not the done thing to wear a sports watch to work. The watch was big for the era and was an acquired taste in design. It was certainly not an everyday watch and Jaeger-LeCoultre stopped making it in 1969, which coincided with a shift in terms of aesthetic and technology.
“Electronic was replacing mechanical and designs were becoming crazy,” says Belmont. “Everything changed between 1968 and 1970 – we moved into new territory and we stopped traditional design projects. We came up with the Memovox Polaris II in 1970 with the third generation ‘Speedbeat’ automatic calibre. Today it screams 1970s design, but only 1,120 pieces were made due to it being a watch of such specific taste.”
Jaeger-LeCoultre had many competitors when it came to the alarm watch, with a host of movement producers developing their own alarm calibres, but the Memovox was superior for two reasons: firstly, it had a recognisable sound; secondly, it had a very distinct design with the remarkable alarm disc. Surprisingly, fewer than 2,000 examples of the 1968 Memovox Polaris were made, perhaps due to the competition at the time in the US. Both Rolex and Omega were strong in the market and Rolex, in particular, was investing heavily in the States to establish the standard for a diving watch. In many ways, Jaeger-LeCoultre was seen as a producer of classic rather than sports timepieces.
A Good Sport
Recent years have seen Jaeger-LeCoultre concentrate on developing its classic collections like the Reverso, the Master Control and the women’s line, Rendez-Vous, but the category that has been missing is sports watches – at least until January this year, when the Polaris collection was introduced at SIHH. Belmont explains: “We decided that it was time to come back with a masculine, technical focus and to create one elegant sports collection. It would be impossible to promote the many disparate pieces that we have with any real conviction, so we decided to put the other sports watches, like the Deep Sea, on hold and come out with one comprehensive collection. One of the watches most praised by our collectors is the Memovox Polaris from 1968, so this was the obvious piece on which to base our new sports family.”
Sounds of the Past
As Memovox was merely a function, it was decided to call the new family Polaris, with Memovox being just one piece in the collection – albeit the hero watch and the core of the new 2018 range. The original dial consisted of three concentric circles, with the central disc indicating the Memovox alarm complication and the rest of the watch built around that. The challenge for the 2018 team was to maintain this signature look while incorporating new and relevant functions.
During research for the new pieces, Belmont and his team were able to discover a host of Polaris models previously unknown to the current Jaeger-LeCoultre team. As well as the watch that most of the collectors already knew, others that were found included more classical versions with applied numerals and Dauphine hands, as well as prototypes from 1963 and 1965, examples from 1966 when luminous dots first appeared and models with luminous hour markers from 1968. Some of the models had only been sold in the US and, therefore, featured the LeCoultre logo.
“The diversity of design surprised us,” says Belmont. “In fact, the research opened our eyes to things that had previously slipped by. We realised that in the 1990s, we almost reissued a model that never existed based on a watch that had been repaired and had hands from a different model fitted. We had promoted it among collectors and the consensus was that it was a special issue for Italy. You have to be so thorough when looking at things that are rare or previously unseen. This is why our archive is so important to us. We think, based on the study of our catalogues, that we have now identified everything.”
Working with older models also revealed what Belmont refers to as “a watchmaker’s secret” – the outline of a diving suit and the word “compressor” engraved on the inside of the 1968 Memovox case. A symbol of the watch’s original function, this logo was taken and moved to pride of place on the caseback of two of the new watches as a way to connect the new collection with Jaeger-LeCoultre’s history.
A Test of Time
A model previously revisited, the Memovox Polaris was first reissued in 2008 on the occasion of its 40th birthday. A limited edition of 768 pieces in steel and 165 pieces in platinum, the brief then was to stick as closely as possible to the 1968 model. “It sold out immediately,” says Belmont, “and prices of vintage models began to rise. In 2000, they were selling for about CHF 3,250, then in 2008 they went up to CHF 20,000, now they can fetch as much as CHF 30–50,000 — not a bad investment on a watch that cost CHF 625 when it was released. Even the re-editions are now selling for well above retail at auction.”
As much as it is a nod to the past, the new Polaris Memovox is also a functioning reminder of how quickly technology is moving, allowing what was previously impossible to be executed. Back in 1968, there was only one go-to supplier for a compressor case – E. Piquerez SA – and Jaeger-LeCoultre worked with it to design the technical part of the case. “We had to have water-resistance but with a sound strong enough to be heard and not muffled by a dive suit,” says Belmont. “That’s why there is a triple caseback that was produced just for Jaeger-LeCoultre.” The old construction, however, was not adequate for current demands and so Jaeger-LeCoultre set about creating a new case in-house.
The crystal in the 1960s model was Plexiglas, which was again used for the 2008 reissue as the original domed shape was too difficult to reproduce in any other material. Ten years later, and with some minor adaptations to the case shape, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s engineers were able to use sapphire.
On the flip side, some of the techniques used on the original amazed today’s watchmakers with their complexity and could not be bettered a half-century later. “The dial, for example,” explains Belmont. “There are several different layers used for each section. From a distance, you just see a flat black dial but close-up you see that each zone has a different finishing.”
And this, says Belmont, is where the key to Jaeger-LeCoultre’s future lies: in its respect for the past. “For us, our heritage is something that gives us the know-how to go ahead,” he explains. “In the past 20 years, we have seen that clients – men, in particular – react better to something rooted in the past. Since we have such a rich history, we can connect to this. Everything from the Hybris Mechanica and Artistica watches to the Duomètre and Master lines pushes the boundaries of what is possible today, but if you don’t connect to the past, it is much harder to promote the products.”
The initial five models in the 2018 collection range from a simple automatic through to a chronograph and a worldtimer, all with dials that are a marvel of finissage, featuring three different types of finish on ever-decreasing rings. A grained outer disc runs into an opaline middle followed by a sunray centre. Applied numerals, indexes and logo are joined by hands filled with Super-LumiNova – white in three models and vanilla in two.
The cases have been redesigned to allow a domed sapphire crystal and now have a more streamlined shape with rounded bezels and large crowns, plus a mix of brushed and polished surfaces which continue into the new three-link bracelet and the folding buckle of the interchangeable alligator- or calfskin-leather straps. Three of the models feature exhibition casebacks.
The simplest, and likely to be one of the most popular pieces in the new collection, is the Polaris Automatic. The 41mm stainless-steel case features the signature twin crowns – one for time-setting and one for the inner rotating bezel – and is water-resistant to 100m. The piece is powered by the Jaeger-LeCoultre Calibre 898E/1 with 40-hour power reserve.
The most physically similar to the 1968 Memovox is the black-dialled Polaris Date, its 42mm case water-resistant to 200m and housing a Calibre 899/1 with 38-hour power reserve.
The 42mm Polaris Chronograph houses Jaeger-LeCoultre’s manufacture Calibre 751 with 65 hours of power reserve. The watch is reminisent of Jaeger-LeCoultre’s links to the dashboard instruments of classic cars and motorcycles. The outer dial features a tachymeter scale which enables the wearer to determine speed over a fixed distance. The twin chronograph sub-dials and absence of a date window to accommodate the large triangular indexes allow for greater legibility. As well as the standard steel model with black or ocean-blue dial, the watch is also available in rose gold – currently the only model in the collection made in a precious metal – with a contrasting anthracite dial. Both are water-resistant to 100m.
Reflecting the ever-growing demands of a global population, the Polaris Chronograph WT is the most complicated watch in the collection with Calibre 752 combining both an in-house chronograph and a worldtime function. In addition to the two chronograph pushers, there is an extra crown at 10 o’clock to set the rotating city disc (accommodated by the signature rotating bezel), which gives the time in all 24 timezones around the world. Taking into account the additional complication and the need for the city ring to be legible, the watch is 44mm in diameter. However, any potential bulk is offset by the fact that the case is less than 13mm high and made in titanium to ensure lightness. Blue- and black-dialled versions are available.
Finally, there is the limited-edition, 1,000-piece Polaris Memovox featuring the legendary alarm function made famous by the 1968 Memovox Polaris. Marking the half-century of the iconic timepiece that was the world’s first dive watch to be equipped with a sound signal to remind divers of the ascent time, the Memovox Polaris, has an alarm time indicated by an arrow – an important signature detail of the original.
The watch is powered by the Calibre 956 – updated but still directly related to the first automatic alarm movement from the 1950s. At the desired time, hammers hit a metal gong that is fixed to the inside of the steel caseback. This watch is built to contemporary standards, but stays faithful to Jaeger-LeCoultre’s classic design codes.
Although the collection is based around a specific timepiece from the brand’s impressive cache of vintage models, the range is so much more than a tribute to one watch. Instead, the brand’s designers have taken the Memovox Polaris and used it as the inspiration point for a whole new family that unites many of Jaeger-LeCoultre’s existing sporting nuances and re-imagines them in a familiar, yet new and chic range that is set to develop and grow in the decades to come.