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History of Timepieces Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso: A Complete History

Jaeger-LeCoultre is a brand with a lot of history; it was founded in 1833 by Antoine LeCoultre. LeCoultre invented a machine to cut watch pinions from steel which led to him creating a watchmaking workshop.

In 1903, Paris-based watchmaker, Edmond Jaeger, challenged Swiss manufacturers to develop and produce the ultra-thin movements he invented. The grandson of Antione LeCoultre accepted the challenge and the collaboration eventually led to the official re-naming of the company in 1937 to Jaeger-LeCoultre.

Celebrating 85 Years of an Important Model

At 85 years, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Reverso is the iconoclast member of high horology’s pantheon. The word “icon” is the beaten dead horse of watch marketing, but the Reverso draws its power from a chameleon quality that defies rote rhetoric. Through nine decades of Reverso history, one constant obtains; the double-sided watch with innumerable faces defines the soul of Jaeger-LeCoultre.

Strictly speaking, March 4, 2016 marked the 85th anniversary of the original Alfred-Rene Chavot patent request for a reversible watch case. French “Brevet 159982” was the end-result of a chain that started in India and ended in Le Sentier, Switzerland.

Designed for Polo Players

Polo Players in India

Envisioned by LeCoultre brand associate César de Trey, the Reverso was born as a utilitarian solution to a practical problem: polo mallets and (then) glass watch crystals were an incompatible pair.

British officers on the subcontinent related the problem to de Trey, and upon his return to Switzerland, he engaged third-generation corporate chief Jacques-David LeCoultre to create one of the industry’s first true “sports” watches.

The ultimate solution was a rotating wristwatch with a solid-steel opposite face and stunning number of fathers.

Original Reverso Patent and Drawings

Design by Delegation

LeCoultre was a very different operation in 1931 than the integrated manufacture of today. In a chain of events redolent of cottage-era Swiss practice, de Trey posed the polo challenge to LeCoultre, he engaged his firm’s French instrument affiliate, Jaeger, to attack the engineering, and Jaeger, in turn, commissioned French engineer Chavot to execute the design.

First Release of the Reverso

A suitable Latin name, “Reverso,” was registered by de Trey, the case design was purchased from Chavot, and a new distribution outfit, “Specialités Horlogères,” was created to distribute the finished product. Cases by Geneva’s A.E. Wenger and Tavannes’ caliber 64 completed the technical package; LeCoultre had no shaped movement suitable for the 1931 debut model.

1931 Release of the Reverso

The Reverso’s launch drips with with retrospective irony; the flagship model of the future quintessential manufacture launched as a product of traditional Swiss “etablissage.” The name “LeCoultre” appeared nowhere on the dial of the 1931 Reverso.

Art Deco Inspiration

The sheer charisma of the Reverso design transcended details of parentage and resonated with the dawning Art Deco era.  With its striking rectilinear lines, near-“golden rectangle” proportions, and juxtaposition of vertical sweep with deep horizontal “triple gadroons,” Reverso captured the imagination of a watch-buying public increasingly in thrall of the surging Art Deco style.

From its early days as a design polemic by Italian “Futurists” to its mainstream arrival via the 1925 Paris “Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes,” Art Deco emerged in step with a world increasingly impacted by the power of machines and technology.

Art Deco Era Inspiration

Art Deco was, above all, a machine style that became ubiquitous in ocean liners such as the 1926 SS Ile de France, skyscrapers including 1930’s symbolically named Chrysler Building, and “streamliner” locomotives like the celebrated German “Flying Hamburger” diesels.

That these were turbulent times only served to spur remaining luxury consumers further from the tropes and tastes of the past.

Personalization of Watches

Red and Blue Lacquered Dial JLC Reverso

As a beguiling modernist novelty, the rotating Reverso captivated even customers with no interest in sports. Although LeCoultre actively promoted the Reverso as an active-lifestyle watch – contemporary ads touted suitability “Pour Les Heuers D’Activites Physique” – the watch found its true calling as a platform for personalized dedications.

Via engraving, lacquer, and hammered gold leaf, the solid metal caseback became a canvas for family crests, initials, miniature paintings, and engraved tributes. Standout figures including King Edward VIII, Amelia Earhart, and Douglas MacArthur embraced the Reverso and its unrivaled potential for custom panache.

1930s – World War II

Ever a chameleon, JLC’s icon was in a state of flux from the outset. By 1933, LeCoultre had prepared its first family of dedicated shaped movements for the model. Led by caliber 410, the new movements heralded the first infusion of the manufacturer’s own savoir faire into a product increasingly tied to the company’s name.

Along with the new sub-seconds display, the name “LeCoultre” finally graced the dial. Lacquered dials in vivid colors were available by request, and a center seconds variant joined the lineup in 1935.

To further complicate the lineage of JLC’s standard-bearer, Patek Philippe, a firm with high-level business links to LeCoultre, licensed the Reverso for an eight-piece run of its reference 106 reversible watch. Others simply took what worked; Hamilton’s contemporary Otis reversible employed an ocean’s worth of buffer to skirt the original Chavot patents.

More than a seminal model in the history of Jaeger-LeCoultre, the Reverso is a saga whose path intersects the origins of the modern company. In 1937, after six years of success in the crucible of the Depression-era marketplace, the Reverso’s original “Specialités Horlogères” distribution outfit was reconstituted and registered as “Jaeger-LeCoultre S.A.”

But the original heyday of the Reverso was a short one. The cataclysm of World War II proved as sharp a break between past and future as the economic trauma of 1929. Art Deco was eclipsed by new styles and saddled with the baggage of its Depression-era associations. And thanks to wartime innovations, widespread access to thermoplastic (Plexiglas) crystals undercut even the Reverso’s sporting rationale.

Patek Philippe Reverso and Advertisement

Reverso from 1950s – 1970s

Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Reverso entered a production limbo during the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Infrequently produced from old stocks of materials and omitted from promotional copy, the Reverso was regarded as a retrograde anachronism.

By the time JLC’s 125th Jubilee year of 1958 arrived, the Reverso was a non-entity. While that year’s commemorative lineup celebrated the new Geophysic, Memovox Parking and World Time models, ultra thin flair courtesy of the reference 2233, desktop alarms, and even the Reverso’s 1930s contemporary, the Atmos clock, the Reverso was conspicuous only by its absence.

1960s Releases with no Reverso

The Reverso likely would have been consigned to historic footnote status if not for the agitations of a prominent vintage-Reverso devotee in 1972.

Resurgence of the Reverso

Italian Watch Market

Spurred by its Italian market distributor and Reverso collector, Giorgio Corvo, JLC permitted the last of the new-old-stock Wenger cases to be fitted with movements and sent to market in watch-mad Italy.

The immediate success of this enterprise and simultaneous onset of Quartz Crisis desperation drove Jaeger-LeCoultre’s management to pursue a resurrection of the model. By the company’s first major anniversary celebration since 1958 – the 1983 150th  – a new Reverso was ready for launch.

Evolving in the Quartz Era

The 1984 Reverso reboot proved that even an icon can evolve. Refinements abounded: this was the first water-resistant Reverso, the first with the ability to rotate at any point in horizontal case travel, and the most complex Reverso case ever with more than 50 parts.

For the first time in its then 53-year history, the Reverso could be called a “manufacture” product. With a case and movement crafted by the same entity, the Reverso was reborn in the opening phase of the new “luxury watch” era.

Design Trial and Error

Of course, it wasn’t a seamless re-entry to the market. Design dead-ends like the bizarre rectangular Reverso II, dissonant tweaks such as Roman numeral dials, and sacrilegious double-gadroon cases left enthusiasts cold.

JLC’s crash course in “remedial Reverso” also yielded a few period-inspired oddballs, including integrated Oysterquartz-style gold bracelets and jarring two-tone metal treatments. On the technical front, Reverso’s initial profusion of quartz movements amounted to a pander to the fashion-first 1980s milieu.

But even in quartz guise, Reverso again had a heartbeat, and Jaeger-LeCoultre once again had its rock.

JLC 1980s advertisement

1980s & 90s Reverso

JLC reeled through a decade of identity crisis during the 1980s. Bundled with IWC inside German giant VDO’s corporate backwater “Les Manufactures Horlogères” subsidiary, the company battled for relevance in the post-quartz age.

The retirement of older watchmakers with complication and métiers d’art experience, quirky design choices within the Albatross, Odysseus, and Lyre model lines, and reliance on customer-caliber orders to keep the lights on had taken their tolls.

On the eve of the 1990s, JLC was a brand looking to rise off the mat – or lay down for good. Under the dynamic leadership of corporate chiefs Günter Blümlein and Henry-John Belmont, Jaeger-LeCoultre mounted an historic comeback, and yet another evolution of the Reverso led the product offensive.

Reverso Soixantieme

Becoming the Face of the Brand

JLC didn’t have much choice in the matter; Reverso had to be the platform for the corporate re-launch. All other signature achievements of the firm were intangibles. These included complications like the Memovox with established brand names but no “face,” customer-calibers quietly supplied to rivals, or rare crafts whose practice had been lost for a generation.

Despite its decades-long exile, the Reverso was a visually distinctive link to the company’s halcyon days, and it remained readily recognizable to collectors. Like its corporate cousin, the even scarcer pre-1993 IWC Portuguese, the Reverso was infrequently seen but universally associated with the brand.

From its first halting steps in 1984, La Grande Maison had come to embrace the Reverso as integral to the firm’s fabric and identity. The rotating watch was JLC’s Submariner No-Date, Royal Oak Jumbo, or Speedmaster Professional.

Unlike those cautiously curated Galaticos, however, there was no inviolate Platonic form of “Reverso.” The double-sided anachronism enjoyed unlimited license to assume new identities and adapt to the times without straining its core appeal. Liberated from its ancient polo sports logic, the Reverso became a double-sided showcase for complications, elaborate display casebacks, and craft arts.

Celebrating 60 Years

1991’s Reverso Soixantième – the 60th anniversary Reverso – was the first in a series of “statement” Reversos. Its elaborate 14-karat rose gold movement, compound complications, and enlarged “Grand Taille” case size were an exhibition of Jaeger-LeCoultre’s rejuvenated know-how.

Reverso Soixantième was followed by a rose gold Reverso tourbillon in 1993. Limited edition Reverso minute repeater, chronograph, GMT, and perpetual calendar models would arrive by the turn of the century. Each of these watches amounted to a re-learning experience for the JLC complications staff, but the “rose gold Reverso” series also broke new ground for the manufacture and the industry.

Continuing Evolution of an Icon

Innovation was a highlight; the 500-piece Soixantième serialized the full-gold movement at a time when, F.P. Journe, the future champion of this practice, remained in the tinkering phase and thirteen years removed from actual production.

The JLC manufacture flexed its rebuilt muscles with the Reverso Tourbillon’s sheer volume. At the time, its caliber 828 in 500 copies represented the largest production run of a single tourbillon design dating back to A.L. Breguet’s 1795 prototype.

Design landmarks arrived with the 1994 Reverso Repetition Minutes, which helped to advance the use of open display dials for complications other than tourbillons. And while the 1999 A. Lange & Söhne Datograph’s caliber L951 often receives credit as the first entirely new manual-wind chronograph caliber of the luxury watch era, the Datograph launch trailed the rose gold Reverso Chronographe Retrograde and its caliber 829 by three model years.

2016 jaeger-lecoultre_reverso_tribute_gyrotourbillon_assembly_2

Revival of Classic Techniques

In the genesis of these limited-run complicated Reversos, JLC’s manufacture rediscovered a facility with advanced watchmaking not seen at the firm’s benches since the pocket watch era. This technical fecundity laid the groundwork for the explosion of complications that has issued from Le Sentier since 2000.

More than an exercise in engineering, the Reverso rebirth also heralded the recovery of decorative techniques largely disused since the Art Deco age. In 1992, the aptly named Reverso Art Deco revived the craft of freehand movement engraving. While the sober dial offered few clues as to the watch’s true hook, a quick flip of the case revealed its astounding skeletonized and engraved caliber 822SQ.

Inspiration from Original Models

Reverso’s traditional solid caseback “canvas” also played a central role in the revival of enamel at JLC. By the mid 1990s, company watchmaker Miklos Merczel had advanced his experiments with fired-enamel dials from private trials to management-blessed fine art.

By focusing on the recreation of acclaimed miniature paintings inspired by personalized 1930s Reversos, Merczel created a baseline for a revived enameling department within Jaeger-LeCoultre.

By the 1997 passing of Reverso patron saint Giorgio Corvo, the reversible icon was preparing to hit its stride. Restored to prominence and glorified by high horology enhancements, the Reverso was leading the resurgent Jaeger-LeCoultre on a convergence course with eventual corporate parent Richemont Group.

Platinum Reverso Septantième_ Jaeger-LeCoultre,

Modern Strides: 2000 – Present

The Reverso narrative of the 2000-present Richemont era has been one of startling variety, staggering complications, and ever-larger cases. 1990s brand savior Belmont passed the reigns of the manufacture to former JLC finance officer Jerome Lambert in 2002, and the company’s focus shifted from reconstruction to revolution.

Fortified by the influx of Richemont dollars and distribution channels, Lambert sought to make a splash. For Reverso, the tale of the 2000s was one of miracles and monsters.

Gold and Platinum Milestones

Miracles arrived in the form of unprecedented splendor. 2001’s aptly named “Reverso Platinum Number One” marked the historic premiere of its namesake metal in the Reverso family. A skeletonized and engraved caliber 849SQ of foil-like 1.85mm thickness declared the manufacturer’s immense progress in this art since 1992’s Art Deco.

While visually stunning and well timed to coincide with the Reverso 70th anniversary, the Platinum Number One was only a warm-up for the true “Platinum Jubilee” bombshell. So intent was JLC to cement the Reverso’s haut-de-gamme credentials that the debut of the platinum and rose gold 70th anniversary Reverso Septantième models was delayed a full year solely to perfect their 18-karat white and rose gold eight-day movements.

Larger Cases

Launched in 2002, the “70eme” opened the floodgates to the massive innovation and commensurate case sizes that characterized the Reversos of the 2000s. At 46.5mm lug-to-lug, the so-called “XGT” case dwarfed the former size leader, 1991’s 42mm Grand Taille. And while the 70eme’s 18-karat caliber 879 remained exclusive to the anniversary Reverso, brass variants quickly proliferated throughout a Reverso line suddenly given to size and complexity.

Sizes of JLC Reverso

Having joined the decade’s oversized watch movement, the Reverso returned to its ancestral sporting role with 2006’s Reverso Squadra lineup.

True monsters in every sense, the rectangular Squadra family dwarfed even the Septantième. At over two-inches from lug-to-lug, the Squadras became Reverso’s answer to the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore and Hublot’s Big Bang.

Oversized cases slung from metal bracelets and packed with complicated automatic movements were the hallmarks of the Squadras, and the associated marketing campaign built upon sports imagery was redolent of testosterone.

Modern Technologies in Watchmaking

Ironically, the men’s Squadra line never succeeded in stealing market or mindshare from its oversized rivals, but the Squadra family became an unqualified hit with female customers of the manufacture. As of 2016, the Reverso Squadra line exits exclusively to serve this clientele.

Beyond the Tourbillon

JLC

Technical miracles arrived in step with cavernous cases. The 2006 Reverso Grande Complication à Triptyque and 2008 Gyrotourbillon 2 pair elevated Jaeger-LeCoultre’s signature watch into the Olympian ranks of contemporary heavies including the Patek Philippe 6002, Vacheron Constantin Tour de L’Ile, and the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Concept series.

Triptyque & Grand Complications

JLC’s Gyrotourbillon 2 fused the manufacturer’s 2004 sensation, the multi-axial “Gyro” tourbillon, with the evergreen Reverso platform. Designed by a pre-Cabestan Eric Coudray, the hypnotic tumble of the Gyrotourbillon was showcased to maximum effect by the double-sided virtues of the Reverso case. Despite its immense proportions, the ethereal expanse of the open Gyrotourbillon created the impression of miraculous lightness.

The hulking Triptyque simply was a monster. In the platinum Tryptique, JLC created the firsttrue Reverso grande complication. Weighing over a pound (450g) and occupying the wrist area of two-and-a-half 1931 Reverso cases, the Triptyque dwarfed even the largest Squadras.

Manufacture-2006-REVERSO-GRANDE-COMPLICATION-A-TRIPTYQUE-1

On the Triptyque’s primary dial, a deadbeat-seconds tourbillon with direct-impulse isometric escapement transmitted its force through silicon components to a free-sprung balance. While such an assembly could have been a show-stopper by itself, on the Triptyque, the tourbillon merely headlined the catalog of 18 complications.

As the first and only Reverso to feature three dials (the third in the case chassis itself), the Triptyque conveyed civil, sidereal, and perpetual calendar time scales simultaneously. It remains the most complicated Reverso ever built.

Jaeger-LeCoultre closed out the 2000s with a final flourish of colossal cases and engineering might. The 2009 launch of the time-only Reverso 976 and dual-time 986 brought the mightiest mainstream Reveso case sizes into the mainstream of JLC pricing and cemented the full-size Reverso case as the model line’s new normal.

SIHH 2011 Influences

Reverso Répétition Minutes à Rideau

For Reverso, the 2000s came to a close in 2011. That year’s SIHH showcase celebrated the model line’s 80th anniversary with a combination of decadence and discretion. The former, in a final flourish of the previous decade’s exuberance, delivered the skeletonized Reverso Répétition Minutes à Rideau.

A 75-piece limited edition, the sliding-curtain Rideau highlighted JLC’s staggering progress since its first tentative steps toward recovery in the early 1990s. The Rideau’s exquisite tone, volume, and sustain arrived courtesy of trebuchet repeater hammers and crystal-welded gongs; the aurally challenged Reverso Répétition of 1994 was celebrated simply because it worked at all. Symbolically, Reverso’s rehabilitation had come full-circle.

In real sense, the Rideau brought Reverso’s delirious 2000s to a close just as the first rays of light dawned on a new era of refinement. Reestablished at the apex of collector esteem, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s icon was liberated from extravagance and free to explore the aesthetic essence of its appeal.

Staying Power, Powered by Heritage

Since the 2011 80th anniversary, the entire Reverso line has taken a sharp turn towards neo-classical design language. While the 60th and 70th anniversary Reversos were baroque showcases for complications and decorative arts, 2011’s installment in the series, the Grande Reverso Ultra Thin Tribute to 1931, was true to its name.

The 1931’s dial amounted to a scaled and refined revival of its unbranded historic namesake; while broad, its slim case shed the bulk that had characterized the Reverso lineup since the oversized “XGT” Septantième of 2002.

JLC’s paradigm-changing 2011 “Tribute” established the current aesthetic norms for the Reverso family.

History, Homage, and the future

The intervening years have seen these conventions take hold in the form of the Grande Reverso 1931 Rouge, the Grande Reverso Ultra Thin Duoface Bleu, the Grande Reverso Ultra Thin 1948, and 2015’s Grande Reverso 1931 Seconde Centrale. Recent limited editions for the U.S. and U.K. market have maintained the new rhyme scheme with variations on the 1931 theme.

For 2016, the Reverso range receives a makeover in the spirit of its recent reversion to a vintage vibe.

An unconventional icon, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Reverso defies such traditional collector pastimes as declaring a “definitive” style or anointing an “essential” model. The Reverso triumphs as a vessel for its own vast history and a vehicle for change.

JLC 85th Anniversary Models

This article was written for Govberg OnTime by Tim Mosso, Watch Specialist and Media Director at WatchUWant.com.

About Tim Mosso
Tim Mosso is a lifelong watch enthusiast and historian. He is an active member of the online watch community and his passion for watches is second to none. As a self-proclaimed watch nut, he loves to bring his knowledge of horology across all different platforms.

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