Tens of thousands of words have been penned about the venerable Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso. Among them you’ll have no trouble finding florid accounts of the exploits of buttoned-up, polo-playing British officers under His Majesty’s Raj, the crack of tipa wood on bamboo and the thundering of ponies’ hooves, rising through the camellia sinensis-scented air of lowland Assam.
Your author, however – to borrow and paraphrase Dr George Daniels – is but a humble mechanic and will leave such splendid details to other scribes. The history books are awash with the subtleties of the romantic account. What fascinates this author are the questions of how technical aspects and retention of the model’s purity of style have resulted in the Reverso sustaining such good value among collectors.
Much is made of the set of decorative skills that can transform the Reverso from an ordinary watch into a piece of art. Indeed, the Reverso, better than any other watch, presents the finest available blank canvas, upon which the owner and artisan alike may demonstrate their appreciation and patronage of high craft.
In its pure form, the Reverso’s back may, or may not, contain manifestations of the metal-crafter. Some collectors ascribe great value to the narrative that may flow from a simple monogram (for example, on The Duke of Windsor’s watch). The counter to this is that it renders the watch so permanently “yours”. The case back is virtually begging to be personalised.
As vivid as the personalisation can be, the beauty is there’s no need to have it permanently on display – unlike the flames painted down the side of your car, or that rather prominent tattoo. Render it visible to admirers with a mere press of a fingertip, and then flip it round again, safely and securely secreted away within an impenetrable metal sandwich. What more could one ask for?
The usual forms of decoration are those rendered by the deft twitches of the enameller’s delicate brush, sometimes with no more than a single bristle, as he or she urges molecules of crushed glass here and there over the back of a Reverso watch case until, out of the furnace, appears a miniature painting to rival the best full-size Renaissance versions.
Counter-point to the enamel are the bright cuts, varying width strokes, and daringly deep incisions of the engraver’s burin.
There is no other watch where these techniques can be so successfully used to imbue a watch with the owner’s philosophy because over time such markings on ordinary watch cases get rubbed and distorted, slowly eroding the owner’s metaphysical stamp.
Not so the Reverso. In careful hands, the only way that such craft might get damaged or erased is by indifferent watchmakers and restorers. At all other times, it’s safely tucked away out of harm’s way, flipped round for protection. Which is ironic, because it was, of course, originally the front of the watch that was intended to be flipped round.
It’s perhaps not generally appreciated that actual glass was used comparatively little through the 20th century for the protective fronts of watches. Many watches, especially those destined for tough environments (and let’s face it, there aren’t many environments tougher than a field of men on horseback chasing a ball with mallets), employed acrylic “crystals”. Plexiglass and Perspex, trade names for poly-methyl methacrylate, are tough, water-resistant, and somewhat bouncy. More bouncy than glass, so it became the material of choice from the 1930s onwards for watch crystals.
However, the strength-to-weight ratio means that very thin pieces, which are only curved or domed very slightly (as might be found on a flattish oblong watch like a Reverso) are actually quite troublesome as watch crystals. The material’s flex is quite pronounced in these thin shapes, meaning that a watch crystal made in this way could easily get squashed down inadvertently, but then bounce back, leaving no evidence of its failure mode other than the scarred watch dial and busted hands beneath.
So the Reverso (and other non-round watches) generally stuck with a proper piece of glass, a mineral crystal, to use the real parlance. No such bendiness here – provided the material is treated well.
Show, me, however, any valid interpretation of “being treated well” that also incorporates those men with mallets… hence the nascence of the Reverso in the first place.
Which brings us neatly back to the discussion about flipping the watch around so as to protect one side or the other. As originally, conceived, it was the glass front that was meant to be protected. Now, more than half a century since the demise of the British Raj and the concomitant decline in the numbers of polo players in white trousers wishing to protect their watches from the game’s destructive ways, we’ve discovered that the back of the Reverso is a fun place to put all sorts of interesting things. If miniature enamels and engraving aren’t your bag, then what about a whole other watch?
The Reverso Duo, and the smaller Duetto, are among the model’s most popular-ever iterations. Not quite “business at the front, party at the back”, it is nevertheless alluring because of the ability to have two entirely different watch dials in one Janus-like package. The typical choice is a silver dial on one side and charcoal on the other. The larger, nominally-gents’, version of the watch also has the ability to switch the time display in one-hour increments. This is perfect for travellers, because you can simultaneously track two time zones without the added clutter of a dedicated GMT hand.
The first series of this model, in the late-1990s, had the switcher in the form of a little dimple that needs pressing with a tool, something like a classic date corrector. A later revision did away with the need to carry a separate tool (or to poke at your gold watch with a paperclip) by incorporating a blocky push-button in the side of the case. The latest model has the switcher built into a hidden slide at the bottom of the inner frame, only revealed when the watch is partially flipped.
The Duo is but one of a long line of inventive and successful Reverso watches that has included ladies’ models such as the Reverso Cordonnet from 1938 (recreated this year as the Reverso One Cordonnet), the astonishing Grande Complication à Triptyque, which presented a concerted perpetual calendar display spanning all three available surfaces of the watch, and the Gyrotourbillon 2, with its JLC calibre 174, which in 2009 won the precision timekeeping contest, Concours International de Chronométrie.
Even Her Majesty’s watch, the one she wore on Coronation Day, has been re-interpreted as a Reverso; in 1953, the young Queen Elizabeth wore a Jaeger-LeCoultre 101, still the smallest watch movement ever made. In 2005, the Calibre 101 was displayed as a “floating” movement within its diamond-set Grande Reverso 101 Joaillerie case.
Speaking of royal provenance, wearers of the Reverso are in further good company – a Reverso with Calibre 411 was the possession of HRH The Duke of Windsor, formerly King Edward VIII. And with all these wonderful associations, it may be easy to lose sight of just what a superb product the Reverso actually is. In engineering terms, that swivelling case utterly outstrips anything in its class, and requires quite staggering amounts of technical input.
As appropriate for a highly successful example of industrial design, all the hard thinking and work has been done long before the artefact arrives in the user’s hands. Think of a smartphone – the simpler it seems to use, the more thought the designers and engineers have put into it.
The same applies to the Reverso. The wearer has no need to know, nor likely ever will, of the setup jigs, heat-treatment processes, stamping and forging sequences, ball-bearing placement, tempering of coil springs, milling and shaving operations, and of course, the infernal troubles of keeping the thing square during assembly.
He or she also remains blissfully indifferent to the fact that all these extra processes make this wristwatch case perhaps three times more expensive to produce than an equivalent round-ish case. What matters to him (and you, and me) is that he can click it open, flip it round, and click it home again. The balance of the tactile and audible feedback is utterly flawless.
It is addictive, like popping bubble-wrap, carefully considered like the precise endorphin-inducing frequency at which a potato crisp disintegrates when you bite it (yes, that sound is most definitely engineered to give you a rush). It is infinitely satisfying, and yet so simple, so ethereal. René-Alfred Chauvot, the Reverso’s original engineer, certainly knew what he was doing.
In fact, I would argue that it was only LeCoultre, (eventually Jaeger-LeCoultre) that could even dream of producing a watch case as technical as this in the early-1930s.
During this burgeoning period of wristwatch development, the nascent watch-case industry had very little to go on when it came to style and technique. Most manufacturers did little more than go, “Honey, I shrunk the watch”, scaling down pocket watches and soldering wire lugs onto them. There are watches contemporary with the first Reverso that make sardine tins look sophisticated.
When most other wristwatches were cased in what amounted to little more than elaborate sweethearts’ lockets, the Reverso case was a pinnacle of technical ingenuity.
Jaeger-LeCoultre has been sensitive to the design cues laid down by the man who originally commissioned the Reverso, César De Trey. The grooved bands at the head and tail of the case have remained extant in just about every edition of the Reverso’s 85-year reign. People love to recall the Art Deco aspect of these rectilinear details. Indeed, you can see the synchrony with the grilles of 1930s Bakelite Zenith and Crosley radios, the serried rows of rivets on the pioneering aluminium airframes of the era – the very cross-section of the Reverso’s central frame is almost identical to the oblate cigar of that uniquely 1930s aviation icon, the Zeppelin airship.
With such powerful design cues and associations, the Reverso’s guardians have had to weigh their responsibility carefully, so as to preserve the spirit of the thing without transforming it into a pastiche.
This is one of the reasons why the Reverso has remained a reliable and rewarding watch, not only in its style, but especially in its value. Granted, most Reversos during the period of 1931 to the late-1990s were a very modestly-sized 23mm wide, and this somewhat limits the modern scope of when the watch might be worn, but conversely the later generation is not all that much bigger – the Grande Taille, still one of the best-selling ranges, is 26mm.
The Reverso is all things to all men – and women. It’s the epitome of Art Deco style, and yet not obnoxiously so. It is at once a high-precision instrument and a diverting toy, capable of captivating its owner and all whom he or she meets. I am not at all surprised that 85 years on, the love affair with the Reverso is as riotous as ever.