vintage reverso

Designing the perfect watch doesn’t occur by happenstance. Born at the height of the Art Deco period, the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso epitomised the spirit of the time. Also known as style moderne, a name derived from the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, held in Paris in 1925, the Art Deco era was a decorative arts and architecture movement that originated in the 1920s and developed into a major style in western Europe and the United States during the 1930.

It was here, at the nascent climax of the Industrial Revolution that the New York Times commented, “The trammels of tradition were to be removed and art was to be free in experiment in the service of civilisation which, in the article of mechanics, is so radically changed since most of the traditions of art were invented.”

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Indeed, consider how, on the cusp of giant machines and new materials like plastics, ferro-concrete and vita-glass, that a dress watch like the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso, so bold faced and unpretentious in its raison d’être as a functional yet dressy timepiece, was among the many key artistic developments that ended the old snobbish distinction between artist and artisan, by being able to adapt to the demands of modern living (and the rough weekend of a round of polo) and by being particularly adaptable also to the demands mass production (i.e. adopting steel in place of easier to machine noble metals) and embracing a new aesthetic language like rectilinear forms instead of the traditional curvilinear.

Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso: Where the line between artist and artisan blur

The Reverso’s adoption of the military officer’s watch was choice was not accidental but it was rather a confluence of societal upheaval that created a paradigm shift of a wrist-worn timepiece from being a feminine accessory to a masculine one. The advent of World War I challenged existing social prejudices when soldiers began to appreciate the convenience and usefulness of the ubiquitous wrist-worn trench watch. Back then, wristwatches were made “robust” with grilles over the glass or a pierced hunter case: as late as 1925, respected watchmaker and specialist horological author Bruno Hillmann commented, “the wristwatch was an aberration, nothing more than a passing trend.’ History proved him wrong.

The Reverso has arrived at a time when a tennis or polo shirt was also redefining what constituted appropriate dress and the modernisation of social attitudes had found champions in the Prince of Wales (who later abdicated becoming the Duke of Windsor) when he made it perfectly acceptable to wear his golding clothes to lunch at fashionable restaurants and right up till cocktail hour where the tuxedo was still de rigeur.

A Legacy For Craftsmanship

Indeed, there’s an allegory that can be found in the craft and construction of the Reverso. Face up, if you ignore the rectangular shape for a minute, it’s like every other dress watch. Face down, the blank metal flip side had begun as a purely functional solution for an afternoon of carousing with the boys while avoid damage to the dial, sounds like a polo shirt you wear all through till pre-dinner drinks where you then change into more acceptable attire.

Yet, the stoic metal surface was an ideal surface for personalisation with monograms, emblems or personal messages using lacquer, engraving or enamel: A personal decoration, hidden until released from its cradle so that its back becomes the front.

Among the examples from the 1930s in Jaeger-LeCoultre’s museum collection is a Reverso decorated with the emblem of the British Racing Drivers Club, a piece with the Eton College coat of arms, and a 1935 Reverso that commemorates the record-setting flight from Mexico City to New York by the aviator, Amelia Earhart.

Though changing mid-20th century tastes rejected ornamentation in all areas of design, one can still find Reverso exemplars at auction which bear family crests and assorted heraldry but truth is traditional artistic crafts such as enamelling, miniature painting and guillochage began to disappear but it is also here that the lines between artist and artisan begin to blur: the Reverso wasn’t special because it provided a canvas for art, it was special because it was the most technically integrated watch case of the time. It was a design dictated by mechanical functionality rather than gimmick. It is this rationality that was in line with the form-follows function ethos that later dominated the Bauhaus era that follow: the aesthetic restraint and linear decoration would not waver even during the face of the Quartz threat which dominated the 70s. Fortunately, these dark times were not to endure, the revival of mechanical watchmaking in the 1990s, sparked a renewed interest in these crafts before they were lost forever.

In the days before the dark times, when enamel watch dials were common, work was sectionalised: enamel powder was ground in one workshop, while another would create the white enamel base making surfaces on which the artists could paint and so forth. So the savoir faire was not lost immediately, and more like slow dissolution as many practitioners of individual metiers d’art retired or passed and each technique which contributed to the whole art form were forever lost.

In 1996, the Grand Maison released its first timepieces to be decorated with grand feu enamel in modern times. Crafted by Miklos Merczel, a former watchmaker at Jaeger-leCoultre who established the Manufacture’s in-house enamelling studio, the set of four Reverso watches each bore a perfectly reproduced miniature of a work by the Art Nouveau master, Alphonse Mucha. These were collectively known as The Seasons, painted in the original a century earlier. Reverso is latin for “I turn” and so, the rear of the Reverso, returning to its raison as the “perfect canvas” celebrating the joie de vivre alongside the marvel of mechanical ingenuity is every bit a turning point.

A Legacy For Innovation

The Reverso Soixantième in 1991 coincided with the rebirth of mechanical watchmaking that followed the quartz crisis. Celebrating its 60th birthday, the Reverso embraced its potential to be much more than a time-only watch. Featuring a new movement with baseplate and bridges rendered in gold, it was also the first time that the Reverso was equipped with a sapphire caseback – no longer a functional protective plate with opportunity for decorative embellishment but as a stage for the mechanical marvels which the Grand Maison would once again become known for.

For six decades, the Reverso had been time-only watches but henceforth, It would become the vehicle through which the Manufacture would redevelop its expertise in high complications, despite the added challenge that rectangular movements dictate an entirely different architecture from that of the round movements that had traditionally been used for complications.

Considerably larger than the svelte high complication Reverso timepieces you would recognise today, the Calibre 824 was developed especially for the Reverso Soixantième, incorporating a date indicated by a central hand and a power reserve indicator; arguably kicking off Jaeger-LeCoultre’s 2nd golden age of fine watchmaking.

Over the course of the years leading up the the 21st century, the Reverso Tourbillon would follow in 1993– the Manufacture’s first wristwatch tourbillon. Then came the Reverso Répétition Minutes in 1994, the first time Jaeger-LeCoultre had miniaturised a minute repeater for a wristwatch, Calibre 943 was the world’s first rectangular minute repeater movement. In 1996, La Grande Maison introduced the Reverso Chronographe Rétrograde, with an intricate display on the reverse side that solved the problem of how to arrange the chronograph counters within a rectangular frame. This was followed two years later by the Reverso Géographique and, coinciding with the Millennium, the Reverso Quantième Perpétuel.

While the advent of computer aided design and CNC machines have rendered us somewhat inure  to the existence of high complications, one must look in hindsight that these technologies were not available as the new Millennium dawned. “There was zero simulation, no simulation software, and no #D construction, everything as in 2D,” recalls movement constructor Philippe Vandel, “we drew them by hand before imagining the third dimension.”

Yet, innovation continued unabated in Le Sentier: developed for the Reverso Septantième and released in 2002, Calibre 879 provided an 8-day power reserve – very rare at the time. The Reverso has also housed Jaeger-LeCoultre’s unique bi-axial flying tourbillon, first in the Reverso Gyrotourbillon of 2008 and again in the 2016 Reverso Tribute Gyrotourbillon. And in 2012, Jaeger-LeCoultre introduced the Reverso Répétition Minutes à Rideau, in which the chiming mechanism is activated by the movement of a pair of theatre-style curtains as they reveal and conceal the dial.

Reverso Tribute Duoface

Now, consider the slim dimensions of the Reverso case which was never envisioned to house complications and the ingenuity required to martial every millimetre of space for additional gear work and complication: a challenging endeavour in ordinary watch architecture, nigh impossible in a thin, straight sided timepiece. In many ways, the Grand Maison has outdone itself with the creation of the Duoface.

Echoing the codes of a model dating from the 1930s, the Reverso Tribute Duoface watch embodies timelessness with its understated stainless steel case on the front and reverse alike, but where it is best understood in context, is that its very development has served as a platform for greater, more impressive, I dare say – horologically epic expressions. Take for example the Reverso Grande Complication à Triptyque, on its face, a somewhat sombre time only dial with day night indicator and subsidiary seconds and what appears to be a traditional one-minute tourbillon; but what it is, is really the sum legacy of the collection’s 75 year history, combining displays of mean, sidereal, and perpetual times in one grand complication literally requiring the talents of 14 different technicians and approximately 700 components.

The French word triptyque translates as triptych in English, “an ancient Roman writing tablet with three waxed leaves hinged together, or a picture or carving in three panels side by side, or something composed or presented in three parts of sections, It is a hint that where the Duoface had two, this Triptyque had three.

Quite impossibly utilising every aspect of the unique Reverso case in order to house its eighteen complications properly: where one would usually encounter the perlage or circular graining inside of the cradle, what we see is an extremely legible perpetual calendar including a retrograde digital date and moon phase powered by a module located within the caseback itself.

 

Imagine what the Reverso could be on its 90th anniversary? As the most recent releases of Reverso models suggest, the creative possibilities with almost no limits.

(Images: Jaeger-LeCoultre)

This editorial was written with supplementary information gleaned from the book, Reverso, launched in collaboration with luxury publisher Assouline. A richly illustrated tome which traces the story of one of the world’s most recognisable wristwatches through archive images and original photography, together with evocative text by noted author historian journalist and horological specialist Nicholas Foulkes.
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