Turn of Fortune

Jaeger-LeCoultre addresses Reverso, the watch that redefined the company—twice.

By James Malcolmson

Photographs by Atom Moore

A few months after her appointment as Jaeger-LeCoultre’s first female CEO, Catherine Rénier announced a change in marketing direction to her staff. Reverso, the famous 1930s model with the swiveling case, would be receiving renewed emphasis at the company’s historic Vallée de Joux manufacture.

Her decision ran counter to widely observed trends in the watch industry. For most of the 21st century, sales of Reverso (along with other shaped watches) have gradually given ground to rounder, more modern models in Jaeger-LeCoultre’s arsenal. The functional idiosyncrasies of Reverso, along with its distinctively art deco design are worlds away from the bland features most Swiss watch executives believe will appeal to a global audience.

Jaeger-LeCoultre executives have, in fact, expended considerable energy adapting Reverso to global trends. “Over the years, we’ve watched it become rounded, waterproofed and superluminova’ed in the more active lifestyle Gran’ Sport edition of 1999, and then seen the swiveling case switched from a rectangle into a square with 2006’s Reverso Squadra. But more recently, the company has brought the model closer to its original design.

The current Reverso Tribute editions, including this year’s rich wine-red model, speak to its art deco heritage, representing a rectilinear countercurrent to the modern wave of rounded shapes. Overall, Rénier’s decision to trend toward more traditional forms amounts to an acknowledgment that the spirit of Jaeger-LeCoultre is inextricably linked to the history of the Reverso. After all, it was not merely a successful product for the watchmaker, but a force that redefined the company more than once.

In fact, Jaeger-LeCoultre, owes its very identity to the development of Reverso. At the beginning of the 1930s, the LeCoultre company was still very much the movement manufacturer Antoine LeCoultre had founded in Switzerland’s Vallée de Joux, a century before. His grandson Jacques-David, had parlayed the firm’s established technical bona fides into profitable collaborations with a number of Paris-based specialists, including the renowned French watchmaker Edmond Jaeger, who put LeCoultre movements into his creations for the top Parisian jewelers. LeCoultre’s technical capabilities, including design and case making, proved essential when Jacques-David was approached by his friend César de Trey with an offbeat idea for a swiveling, reversible watch.

“De Trey was a Swiss businessman who had managed to make a small fortune in dental equipment,” says Stephane Belmont, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s director of heritage. “He developed a keen interest in watches and was exposed to many wealthy people during his travels around the world.”

Stopping in India during the waning days of the British Raj, de Trey managed to mix with members of the polo set, an encounter that led directly to the heavily mythologized story about the need for protection from errant polo mallets leading directly to the complex Reverso concept. Jacques-David LeCoultre was able to turn to the considerable Parisian watchmaking resources he had developed and tasked engineer Alfred Chauvot with the job of designing and engineering a functioning prototype that was first patented in 1931. That Chauvot managed to not only capture the classic proportions of the period, but create a mechanical system that has endured for nearly a century—one of the great unsung feats of watch design.

While LeCoultre marshaled the resources to build the watches, de Trey’s enthusiasm and promotional abilities contributed much to their commercial success. With the model’s popularity apparent, de Trey set up a distribution company in 1933, marketing the watch first under the Reverso brand, while also supplying other brands like Gübelin, Tiffany, and Patek Philippe with the same design. Such was the interconnectedness of the Swiss industry at that time that LeCoultre, still seeing itself more as a supplier than a public facing brand, had few qualms about sharing the benefit of a potential hit. That, however, was about to change.

“After two or three years, in 1937, it was the distribution company that first carried the name Jaeger-LeCoultre,” explains Belmont. It was decided at that time that all the watches actually made by LeCoultre in Switzerland and Paris would carry the name Jaeger-LeCoultre.”

While the Reverso was an integral part of the very formation of the Jaeger-LeCoultre brand, it would not be the last time the company owed its continued existence to the swiveling watch. The popularity of the Reverso gradually declined in the years after its ’30s heyday. By the late 1950s, production of the style had completely ceased. A quarter-century later, the company—reeling like the rest of the Swiss industry from quartz competition—brought back Reverso, not as a mechanical men’s watch it was, but as a comparatively small-sized, quartz model intended primarily for female clients. Once back on the market, the idiosyncratic design ran headlong into a new group of European watch collectors who had rediscovered the appeal of traditional mechanical watchmaking.

“In the eighties, the Reverso was a very different and interesting watch compared to the others,” said Stephane Belmont. “Later, it was the market that asked to combine Reverso again with the mechanical movement and to develop complications for it.”

This particular chapter in Reverso’s history is somewhat personal for Belmont. In 1985, in the midst of the model’s revival, his father, Henry-John Belmont, was appointed CEO of Jaeger-LeCoultre. Working in concert with his group director, Günter Blümlein, Henry-John wasted little time in developing an action plan. By 1988, the management team had settled on an ambitious plan to relaunch Reverso as a modern and complicated mechanical watch on the model’s upcoming 60th anniversary in 1991. The team planned a slew of models to drive home the point that Reverso and Jaeger-LeCoultre were back.

A new, much larger Reverso Grande Taille would recast the watch with the modern dimensions. Another 60th-anniversary edition would incorporate an exhibition back to display a finely decorated gold movement. Most ambitiously, a series of six limited editions would offer special complicated movements for Reverso’s rectangular confines. “Internally, they took the unusual step of showing everyone the sketches for the watches before they were built,” recalls Stephane Belmont. “Janek [Deleskiewicz, JLC’s head designer] sketched the watches, but nobody knew if it was feasible or if it would work. But for the employees, it was a question of survival. Whether it was feasible or not, they had to do it.”

The 60th-anniversary Reversos were launched in a large exhibition designed to reflect the inside of a Reverso case. While there were a few quibbles about the size of the Grande Taille, the watches were extraordinarily successful. The march of complications throughout the ’90s led to a progression of daring double-sided functions that effectively showcased the brand’s technical side and created a female audience for mechanical watchmaking long before other industry competitors could catch on.

The lessons of history are not lost on Rénier, who now presides over one of the most legacy-driven Reverso collections in the company’s history. “My take is that when you are authentic, in the codes and identity of the Maison, no matter the generation, people will understand and will be interested in your products,” she says. “I think our job is to share who we are, to be true to who we are, and not to try to make a story to attract a clientele.”

As Time Goes By

With its reimagined Kalpa collection, Parmigiani Fleurier introduces a new generation of collectors to an old standby of Hollywood’s leading men: the tonneau-shaped dress watch.

It is rarely absent from any list of the greatest films ever made, but Casablanca seems to possess few of the qualities considered mandatory in any modern production. The budget was minimal, the sets sparse. There is physical violence and passion, yet the quantities of both can seem sub-theraputic to any viewer raised on the bikinis-and-explosions style known—in its most enthusiastic excesses—as “Bay-hem” after the director who perfected it.

What, then, is the secret of Casablanca’s enduring appeal? Only this: glamour, in its purest form. We see it in the peerless, refined beauty of Ingrid Bergman, in a Morocco rendered alternately as unspeakably vital and irredeemably louche. Most of all, we see it in the world-weary Arctic cool of Humphrey Bogart’s idealist turned restaurateur, the man who “stuck his neck out for nobody”—until, that is, the right (or wrong, depending on your viewpoint) somebody walked into his gin joint. Not a gentleman in the traditional sense of the term, he nonetheless is to the manor born in shawl collars, Burberry coat, and carelessly tilted fedora. On his wrist, a tonneau-shaped wristwatch with no pretense of sport or military use, and an unashamed focus on form over function.

The stunning Kalpa Qualité Fleurier, part of Parmigiani’s latest collection.

Our decidedly glamour-free current era, in which volume serves in place of virtue everywhere from Hollywood to Instagram, has been decidedly unkind to the dress watch in general, and the tonneau-shaped dress watch in particular. If there are any expatriate-owned bars placed daringly at the crossroads of violently-contested war zones nowadays, their owners are probably wearing chunky dive watches or aviation-themed behemoths. Not to say there isn’t a market for a watch that remixes Hollywood glamour with haute horlogerie; it simply means that any potential player in that market will have to clear a higher bar than the ones that guard entrances elsewhere.

Enter Parmigiani Fleurier, a Swiss outfit that finds itself in dire need of an unmet challenge. No stranger to the timekeeping equivalent of Bay-hem—the most outlandish watchmakers often source components from Parmigiani’s five distinct factories and workshops—the company, and its founder, Michel Parmigiani, are equally versed in the rarer art of the non-sporting men’s watch. Having accomplished everything from a sub-four-millimeter self-winding tourbillon to pantograph-articulation hands, Mr. Parmigiani has set his sights on something at once simple and murderously difficult: re-engineering the tonneau for modern wear.

Two decades after the debut of his first shaped movement, the award-winning PF110, we have the new Kalpa collection. It consists of four pieces: the Hebdomadaire, the Qualité Fleurier, the Chronor, and the Chronomètre. Each casts a tonneau shadow befitting Bogart and his contemporaries, introducing the subtle felicities of a curved rectilinear case to a generation rarely exposed to anything beyond the dull, heavy pressure of the bathysphere-thick diver.

The Kalpa Chronor, which uses the world’s first solid gold integrated self-winding chronograph movement.

“I set out,” says Mr. Parmigiani, “with the ambition to create a watch that was comfortable and ergonomic for all wrists… I wanted to create a piece whose dimensions were as universal as possible. I was also keen that the watch should be felt comfortably when the opposite hand was placed on the wrist… You can hardly feel the watch, yet it’s most certainly there!”

To that end, there is hardly a straight line to be found on the timepiece, with the lugs emerging almost organically as ovalized protrusions at each corner, and bending to follow the contours of a human wrist. As a result, the Kalpa makes a notable amount of contact with the wearer’s body. All the better to lighten the weight from cases rendered in precious rose and red gold. For the flagship Kalpa Chronor, mass does increase, albeit courtesy of the world’s first solid-gold integrated self-winding chronograph movement. As with each of the four Kalpa models, the caliber itself mimics the shape and proportions of the enclosing case. Here, Mr. Parmigiani does not mince words: “When you consider the horological masterpieces of the past, you never find any discordance between a movement and its case.”

Manual-wind enthusiasts and long-term fans of the brand will adore the radical Hebdomadaire, with its power-reserve indicator occupying a sort of alcove above an oval inset dial. Meanwhile, the Qualité Fleurier offers a self-winding mechanism and the collection’s subtle visual presentation, its time-and-date-only dial and Hermès alligator strap a lesson in striking restraint. Both are sized at approximately 42 x 32 mm, while the Chronomètre is larger, at 48 x 40 mm. The latter is perhaps at once the most conventional-looking piece in the lineup and the most handsome. It nestles a 36,000 vph column-wheel chronograph movement (code name PF362) behind a deep sapphire-blue face, with luminescent hands and a three-numeral date indicator. The modest water-resistance rating of 30 meters, a deliberate choice by Mr. Parmigiani, is sure to bring smiles to the faces of cognoscenti, as will the heavily engraved 22-karat rotor, shining brilliantly through the sapphire backing.

Transparent backing on the Kalpa Chronor, showcasing Parmigiani’s solid gold PF365 movement.

Parmigiani Fleurier is venerated as being a complete manufacture, among the few to spring from the imagination of a single man in recent times. So the introduction of four mechanically diverse watches at the same time amounts to nothing less than a tour de forceparticularly given the intense challenges involved in creating a solid-gold movement to modern standards of durability and accuracy. At the same time, an extremely limited scope of production (the Chronor is limited to 50 pieces, and the entire Kalpa remains statistically nonexistent when considered against traditional, mainstream luxury watchmakers) will restrict the possibility of ownership to those customers who possess the nontrivial quantities of both liquidity and perspicacity. The man in the street might scoff at the lack of a rotating bezel or crown guard. But those who know—will know.

In a perfectly romantic world, these four Kalpa models would easily and naturally make their way to the ones who know, to adorn their wrists as they pursue affairs of the heart or participate in matters of international intrigue. But progress must be recognized. Keeping pace in the era of liquid-crystal afflictions, Parmigiani has also created a KALPA smartphone application, which promises an immersive, augmented-reality retail experience. The prospective buyer can “unlock the mysteries” of the new pieces by scanning photographs that appear on the Parmigiani website. It’s a neat trick, but if you can manage it, try meeting the collection in person. Because if the new Kalpa watches disappear from boutiques and you haven’t tried one, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.

Omega Attacks! The Return of #SpeedyTuesday

Watch out! 

A monster of a surprise has struck an unsuspecting watch-buying public once again…

(when you found out the #SpeedyTuesday Speedmaster was sold out)

The event occurred Tuesday, July 10, at approximately 6 a.m. Absolutely no one (and no wallet) was declared safe. Because, on this average summer day, Omega quietly snuck a new #SpeedyTuesday Speedmaster Limited Edition 42mm “Ultraman” under the radar, capturing watch enthusiasts off-guard. Tensions were high as collectors the world over debated how to avert this intense emotional decision. To buy or not to buy? Sadly, the Monster Attack Team was unavailable to aid in this crisis. The clock was ticking. What to do?

How did we get here? Flashback to 1967, when Japanese television introduced the science-fiction program “Ultraman.” A phenomenon of epic proportion, the show went on to reach mythological status, inspiring countless sequels and spin-offs. Among them, “Return of Ultraman” from 1970, in which the black-and-orange Omega Speedmaster was featured as an essential piece of the Monster Attack Team’s kit. Fact and fiction merged, the kaiju (“giant monster”) genre flourished, and the Moonwatch became part of Japanese sci-fi history.

Ultraman battles Oxter (Buffalo Monster) in Episode 30 of Return of Ultraman. 

This new 42mm Speedmaster is a fitting tribute; sci-fi design references abound. Ultraman’s superhero mode lasted approximately three minutes, indicated by a trio of orange markers on subdial at three o’clock. The strap-changing tool, made to look like Ultraman’s Beta Capsule, also holds an ultraviolet light; when illuminated, it reveals Ultraman’s hidden image on the nine o’clock subdial. The Speedy’s familiar caseback engraving (“FLIGHT-QUALIFIED BY NASA FOR ALL MANNED SPACE MISSIONS * THE FIRST WATCH WORN ON THE MOON”) is complemented by a unique serial number and #SpeedyTuesday etching, plus a vintage Omega logo and an orange-striped NATO strap, which matches the Monster Attack Team orange uniforms.

Still debating on how to handle this unsought and unsolicited pressure? Crisis averted. As of 8:15 a.m., all 2,012 pieces of the limited-run #SpeedTuesday Ultraman collection (retail: $7,100) have already sold out.

Gomen’nasai, tokei wa kanbaidesu. So sorry, the watch is sold out.

But! Like any good reoccurring installment, you won’t have to wait long: Netflix recently announced a new animated Ultraman series, slated for 2019. Chances are #SpeedyTuesday #3 will someday be appearing on a monitor near you.

Farewell, Ultraman! (for now).

https://youtu.be/kwOKA6mkUU8

Big in Japan: Hunting World Luggage

Like Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, Robert M. Lee was ahead of his time. In the mid-1960s, Lee, an outdoor enthusiast, and businessman, designed and fabricated a line of clothing and equipment explicitly created for life on the Serengeti. Working with sailmakers in Angola, he swapped out heavy canvas for a new polyurethane-coated nylon. The material, called Battue, brought lightness and waterproofing to traditional shoulder bags and duffels, with a shock-absorbing foam core and a snag-resistant jersey inner core. He returned home to New York and set up shop. Thus, Hunting World Inc. was born.

Bob Lee, founder of Hunting World. His New York Times obituary describes him as an “excellent rifle shot and fly-fisherman.” Also a marketing wiz; author of many books; explorer and natural scientist with museum accreditation; and a classic car and antique gun collector nonpareil.

Lee’s little gear company soon offered a big selection—distinctive luggage, leather goods, apparel, sporting goods, even watches. Battue bags became an underground status symbol, especially in Japan. By the 1990s, Hunting World was running full-page ads in The New York Times alongside Barneys and Bergdorf. But Hunting World was relying on a reputation—clever, stylish, durable—that it could no longer live up to. Customers who encountered this generation of product in person were surprised. Many of the great designs from Hunting World’s core line had been replaced or disappeared entirely. Even the names of the styles and patterns—“metallic tweed,” “mystical shade,” “encompass jacquard”—were tacky.

I was one of those customers.

It was only after I started buying vintage catalogs on eBay, and researching the brand through Japanese sites, that I discovered Hunting World’s fabulous history and more curious product experiments.

In old press photos, Lee appears in impeccably tailored outdoor clothing, riding a camel on a conservation expedition in the Chinese Pamirs or shooting clay birds with the Duke of Valderano. The accompanying ad copy espouses his philosophy: “Mr. Lee designs for function first, believing the aesthetics will follow. He tests his gear personally and also equips others who are going into the field, asking for their feedback. After all, if a bag can withstand rugged conditions in the field, it can easily cope with the rigors of Tokyo, New York, or Paris.”

It’s easy to be distracted by the lifestyle accessories, which range from zebra-skin magazine caddies and springbok hassocks to safari-styled Danish “supercube” furniture. (Available with genuine zebra tops. Naturally.) But late 1960s era Hunting World field bags are what you really want to collect. Among them, the Versatote from the 1968 “Out of Spain” line is a standout.

Vintage hunting world field bag from the author’s personal collection.

Produced by a small saddlery shop in the Spanish mountains, which Bob Lee supposedly discovered on a hunting trip, these bags are hewn from a unique, regional leather. It embodies everything great about early Hunting World wares.

Despite its latter-day speed bumps, Japan’s interest in the brand never waned. Hunting World has now been revived, with a line designed by Yosuke Aizawa, showing full collections in Milan since last year and developing limited-edition pieces especially for Dover Street Market in Ginza.

Are the new bags more technically sophisticated? Sure, and you can still get a modern approximation of Bob Lee’s designs through Brady, a luggage maker in Birmingham, England, whose models retain the same names. But where’s the fun in that? Instead, grab an old catalog, hit the vintage markets, and get to hunting.

Less, But Better

Products need only last as long as a glimpse at Instagram, so what does good design mean now? For Dieter Rams, it has always been about purity, ever since he started his industrial design career during the mid-1950s. Rams, who recently turned 86, served as the Chief Design Officer of Braun from 1961 until 1995; his famed “Ten Principals of Good Design,” and its influence on everyday objects, especially technology and electronics, remains unparalleled. An upcoming auction at Wright in Chicago (July 12th) celebrates the German’s prolific career and continued legacy, sending more than 130 of seminal products by Rams’ and his Braun colleagues across the block.

Nearly everything in this collection, sourced from Los Angeles connoisseur-and-dealer JF Chen, is fascinating. Here, Watch Journal narrows the scoping, picking out a few favorite lots to illustrate Rams’s “Ten Principals.”

Dieter Rams: The JF Chen Collection, Chicago, July 12, 2018; wright20.com

Good design is innovative

Lot 105 – Chronotimer Rennsport Reunion VI Limited Edition by Dietrich Lubs, 1987. Estimate $100-$150

Good design makes a product useful

Lot 142 – Phase 2 alarm clock by Dietrich Lubs, 1972. Estimate $75-$100
Lot 110 – AB 314 Voice Memo alarm clock by Dietrich Lubs, 1995. Estimate $75-$100

Good design is aesthetic

Lot 168 – DW 30 digital wristwatch by Dieter Rams and Dietrich Lubs, 1978. Estimate $200-$300

Good design makes a product understandable

Lot 156 – ET 22 Control calculator by Dieter Rams and Dietrich Lubs, 1976. Estimate $100-$150

Good design is unobtrusive

Lot 178 – AW 10 wristwatch by Dietrich Lubs, 1989, Estimate $300-$500

Good design is honest

Lot 185 – SK 5 Phonosuper radiogram by Dieter Rams and Hans Gugelot, 1958. Estimate $1,000-$1,500

Good design is long-lasting

Lot 202 – AW 10 wristwatch by Dietrich Lubs, 1989. Estimate $300-$500

Good design is thorough down to the last detail

Lot 118 – Nizo 4056 Super 8 camera by Dieter Rams, Robert Oberheim, and Han Gulgelot, 1978. Estimate $150-$200

Good design is environmentally friendly

Lot 114 – ABW 21 clock and barometer by Dietrich Lubs, 1980. Estimate $300-$500

Good design is as little design as possible

Lot 138 – PC 3 SV turntable by Wilhelm Wagenfeld, Dieter Rams, and Gerd Alfred Müller, 1956. Estimate $200-300