There’s a common refrain among the watch-collecting zeitgeist that the luxury sports watch genre kicked off in the 1970s, but what if I told you that happened as early as 1930? The fact is, long before the watch world had come to know of such a segment, César de Trey, a successful entrepreneur was already looking for that quintessential robust wristwatch: One that could endure the rigours of the polo field without being smashed.
Well acquainted with both Jacques-David LeCoultre and the Parisian firm of Jaeger SA, de Trey’s travels across India had made him familiar with the leisure time woes of the British army officers who were posted to the sub-continent. During the weekends, officers who indulged in a spirited game of polo would find that they had smashed their watches either through errant strikes of a polo mallet or from the inevitable collisions that resulted from high-speed horseback sprints and turns.
When asked if he could find a way to protect the glass and dial of their watches during matches, de Trey had the idea of a case that could be flipped over and of course, his thoughts ran to LeCoultre.
Working with French industrial designer, René-Alfred Chauvot, the patent for “a watch capable of sliding in its support and being completely turned over” was submitted to the Paris patent office on 4 March 1931. With the rights to Chauvot’s design in hand, de Trey registered the evocative moniker – Reverso.
Eager to get the revolutionary design to market as soon as possible, de Trey and Jacques-David LeCoultre set up a business partnership and began production immediately. The first pieces were on sale less than nine months after the patent application had been filed.
Design and Construction: The Making of a Reverso
A signature emblem of the Art Deco period, what the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso expresses in classicism was the literal embodiment of modernity in the 1930s. Think about it: A relatively straightforward idea accomplished in the most sophisticated of means — slide the watch case out from its cradle/carrier, flip it over, slide it back into position and sense the audible “click” of a watch head firmly in place. From that “reversing” to the winding, there’s no other timepiece better enjoyed in terms of tactility or visually than the Reverso. One cannot imagine the immense level of will to resist the urge to repeat the flipping gesture ad infinitum before the modern era of the fidget spinner.
It’s worthy of note that early “stainless steel” or acier inoxydable was a happy accident created by Harry Brearley in 1913 when he was trying to make alloys for rifle barrels. However, this “rustless” (as it was originally called) steel was not used for watch cases until the 1930s because it was too hard to be formed into watch cases by traditional means.
Stainless steel changed everything but on a timepiece with a “flippable” design, it was no longer practicable to make cases in the traditional way, by hand. The material was much harder than gold or silver and making the many welded or soldered joints required by the traditional methods was difficult in steel. As a material, steel was cheap but uneconomical to work with old school hand-turned bow-lathes.
It was in 1924 when 12:12 stainless steel — which was easier to work — and shape became an option. Containing 12% chrome and 12% nickel, it was quite “bright” and held polish finishing well. It was marketed by steel masters Thomas Firth & Sons under the name “Staybrite” and it was then Jaeger-LeCoultre took the pioneering step in adopting this material.
That said, early but not all 1930s Reverso were “Staybrite” editions and the Great Depression of the 1930s meant that precious metals became a commodity recovered by melting down watch cases, promoting the use of steel for timepieces of the period instead. The advent of powered machine tooling eventually saw the Grand Maison adopt acier inoxydable over acier staybrite but it was still the platform for great design and greater individuality with brightly coloured lacquer dials that could be made to order, and the reverse side of the case a great canvas for personalisation with engraving and lacquer.
Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso: An Aesthetic Emblem of the Art Deco Era
Born at the height of the Art Deco period, the Reverso perfectly epitomised the spirit of its time. Possessing a black dial with contrasting indexes instead of the silver dials which were de rigeur for that period, the black dial was described as having incredible legibility and was referred to as “the dial of the future”.
Almost immediately, aesthetic variations of equally high-contrast elements began to appear with notable-coloured dials. Introduced at a time when coloured dials were rare in watchmaking, made-to-order dials in bright red, chocolate brown, burgundy or blue lacquer made the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso appear even more modern and distinctive.
Built on the ancient Greek mathematical concept known as the “golden mean”, where the ratio of its length to width produced the most aesthetically pleasing proportion, the mathematically sublime dimensions of the original rectangular case were crucial to the success of the design; and so, even in its women’s guise, there was never any compromise on the core design elements that made the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso such a success.
From the horizontal gadroons that emphasise the rectilinear geometry of the case; the triangular lugs that appear to be a seamless extension of the case sides; and the case that fits so perfectly into its carrier that gives no hint of its architectural ingenuity, the Reverso became the defacto platform for the Grande Maison to demonstrate its prowess for women as well. Different case metals and re-sized models for women were offered to be worn on a cordonnet bracelet or transformed into pendants or handbag clips.
From its ingenious conception to its flawless execution – the Reverso is that rare synthesis of form and function, so deft in its purpose in serving an oddly specific need of British military polo players that 90 years on, one of the world’s most recognisable has transcended beyond its utilitarian purpose and served as a canvas everything from time only indications to high complications. No one considers it a sports watch today, but it was certainly an embodiment of the qualities of physical accomplishment and sophisticated civility that made it the watch of choice for Britain’s finest.