Rectangular watches were popular starting in the 1910s when Cartier created the Tank. Before that, watches could have one of many shapes, for example oblong, circular, or oval. The Tank created a new trend and became something of the Art Déco tradition which, according to some, only indicates that it was different that what preceded it. (Referring here to the hard-to-define artistic movement.) Even though today rectangular watches are still popular, they are more often than not seen as being dressier timepieces. But was it actually the case at the beginning?
In this article we’re going to look at the history of the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso and what made it unique more than 100 years ago as much as it does today. The Reverso is one of these iconic watches that have had an undeniable influence in the world of horology and that collectors still covet to this day.
The First JLC Reverso
It all began when César de Trey, a Swiss business man and watch collector, took a trip to India and witnessed the multitude of wrist watches getting broken during polo matches organized by the British Army officers. This happened during the winter of 1930-1931. The story goes that César de Trey was challenged by the British officers to design a watch that could survive the polo matches. He got the idea of creating a reversible watch so that the face of the watch could be protected from fatal impacts. de Trey discussed the idea with Jacques-David LeCoultre who was into the movement manufacturing business.
LeCoultre got the firm Jaeger S.A to produce the case mechanism that would make the Reverso famous. Whilst Lecoultre was an expert movement manufacturer, Jaeger was a designer and watch retailer who had previously designed ultra thin moments that LeCoultre produced for them. The pair then asked French designer René-Alfred Chauvot to design the reversible case. It took four parties to design and manufacture the Reverso which was officially launched in 1931, only nine months after that Chavot registered the design.
What Makes the Reverso Unique
As you may have gathered already, the Reverso is unique in that the case can be flipped on itself so that the dial can be protected during strenuous activities. For the most part of its existence, the Reverso has had a solid case-back on which JLC’s artists would engrave unique designs or paint them. This allowed the owner to have a personalized watch that would double as a piece of jewelry and personal expression. And case-backs could be engraved to commemorate unique human achievements. There are certain case-backs that have become famous, for example one being painted with the figure of an Indian woman or fully set with jewels.
The Reverso is also an elegant timepiece that has exceptional dimensions. The first model from 1931 had a case 24mm wide, 38mm long, and 6mm high. (Remember the connection with Jaeger that designed ultra thin movements that LeCoultre manufactured?) This is not too distant from modern references that have cases of 24.4mm wide, 40.1mm long, and 7.56mm thick on average. The case of the Reverso also has unique design features, for example the gadroons or lines engraved at the top and bottom of the dial.
Evolution of the Reverso Collection
For the first 60 years of its existence, the Reverso only came with a solid case-back. Although this meant that lots of artistic things could be done with it—painting, enameling, and setting jewels—eventually JLC started offering different types of case-backs, for example see-through ones, and eventually the famed Duoface which appeared in 1994. In other words, the Reverso comes with two dials to either show time in two different ways (styles) or to show two different time zones. This offers intricate complications and various use cases if you are traveling or wanting to switch things around.
Now the Reverso collection comes with multiple models and complications. There are Tourbillons, GMTs, and chronographs amongst others. It seems that the most popular model is the Reverso Tribute which displays the gadroons that are symbolic of the original ones. My personal favorite is the Tribute in small size, as it preserves the design ethos of the original and remains small and thin, two attributes of a good dress watch in my book.
I spent the first few years of my watch collecting journey not caring for dress watches and rectangular ones. While I would regularly see photos of the Cartier Tank and JLC Reverso on Instagram, I would just not budge and go to the point of convincing myself that I would never be interested in such watches. But we must never say never and here I am today, wanting to share a few tidbits of history about an iconic timepiece that has been, for the most part, in constant production since 1931—given a 20-year hiatus.Featured image: www.jaeger-lecoultre.com