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.”

Blood Moons & Moon Phases

End of times? Let’s go shopping!

With the so-called “blood moon” happening tonight due to the longest lunar eclipse of the century, prophecies and conspiracy theories are predicting the worst. Now might be the perfect time to arm yourself with an extraordinary moon phase. Lasting an impossible to believe 103 minutes, the next total lunar eclipse of this length won’t occur again until 2123.

Feel the pull and predict your lunar energy within the confines of a dazzling complicated timepiece. Charge it now, enjoy, and wait for a new day to dawn. Visible from every country on earth except the US, at least you’ll be able to gaze upon wristwatch magnificence.

A round-up of some of our Moon phase favorites:

Patek Philippe Annual Calendar Moon Phase Ref. 5205G
Rolex Cellini Moonphase

A. Lange & Söhne Saxonia Moon Phase
IWC Portugieser Perpetual Calendar 
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar 
Vacheron Constantin Overseas Ultra-Thin Perpetual Calendar
Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Tribute Moon
Panerai L’Astronomo Luminor 1950 Tourbillon Moon Phases Equation of Time GMT

The Future of Watch Buying, According to Mr Porter

The website Mr Porter is best known for its selection of fashionable menswear, supplying modern shoppers with deftly chosen clothing by a range of labels, from Acne Studios to Z Zegna. It’s built a loyal following since launching in 2011. But recently, the site has been gaining recognition for offering designer wares of a different ilk: luxury watches.

“Our view on watches is the same as it is with fashion,” says Toby Bateman, Mr Porter’s managing director. “We’re trying to create a selection of brands that represents different aesthetics and different price points so that ultimately we’ll have something for everyone.”

Log on to mrporter.com, and you’ll find pieces from Montblanc and Baume & Mercier, starting at under $1,000, running up to investment-grade Piaget and Jaeger-LeCoultre. Mirroring the clothing side, which carries discovery labels such as And Wander and Herno Laminar as well as mainstays such as Gucci and Prada, insider watch brands like Ressence and Weiss are included in the mix.

Mr Bateman’s Rolex Explorer (Ref. 1016) with Boglioli blazer, Drakes shirt, and Prada trousers.
(Photo: Christopher Garcia Valle. Styling: Justin Arroyo)

All told, Mr Porter has hundreds of watches from more than a dozen brands. But the selection isn’t overwhelming. Like everything else on the site—and on its womenswear sister site, Net-a-Porter—what’s stocked is a concise, targeted edit instead of a scattershot.

“We’ve got buyers who can whittle down what can be a complicated and quite daunting shopping process for customers,” Bateman says.

His curation includes multiple iterations of classic pieces, quite a few exclusive styles and limited editions, the occasional desk clock, and even adventurous one-offs, like Bell & Ross with a transparent crystal sapphire case (priced at $480,000 and, as of this writing, still available.)

“We can talk about watches in the context of style . . . no one else in the market, online or offline, is really able to do that.” 

– Toby Bateman, mrporter.com

But unlike a dedicated jeweler or watch retailer, Mr Porter’s overall breadth of stock—in addition to clothes and shoes, sunglasses, briefcases, neckties, and jewelry—helps shoppers imagine how a timepiece could fit in with their wardrobe. Bateman sees this as a major advantage.

“We can talk about watches in the context of style, and pretty much no one else in the market, whether their online or offline, is really able to do that,” he says. “If you go to a jewelry store on Madison Avenue or on Bond Street, you just see watches—you don’t really [get] ‘This is how you wear that diver’s watch,’ ‘This is the one for the office,’ ‘This is the one for jeans and a T-shirt over the weekend.’”

The aforementioned one-of-a-kind transparent Bell & Ross BR-X1.

In terms of ushering high-end menswear into the e-commerce realm, Mr Porter’s has been a trailblazing force, and the site’s upscale look was crucial to its breakout success. Even judged by those lofty standards, timepieces get special treatment in terms of imagery and text. Every watch is photographed in-house with dedicated cameras; more details about each are included than would be with, say, a pair of trendy sneakers or a bomber jacket. Some pieces are even offered with multiyear warranties.

“When you actually see how professional and well-done Mr Porter is, it was a little bit of a no-brainer,” says Nick English, the co-founder of Bremont, the first brand to partner with Mr Porter when it began carrying watches, in 2013. “The whole experience is pretty amazing—they just do it really well. It’s the closest thing to going in there and talking to someone in a shop.”

Some watch companies view the site’s unique position—egalitarian and accessibilible, but still upmarket—as a bridge. Put simply, Mr Porter represents a medium to showcase items to shoppers from around the world that might be intimidated by a traditional watch store, or simply unfamiliar with their brand.

“We felt this is a good opportunity to potentially connect with a new clientele in a very convenient way,” says Giovanni Carestia, North American President of Panerai, which has been carried on the site since last year. “This is great way to raise the bar.”

Mr Bateman’s own Jaeger-LeCoultre Deep Sea Chronograph, with Oliver Spencer jacket, Prada sweater, Gitman Vintage shirt, Blue Blue Japan jeans, and Common Projects shoes.
(Photo: Christopher Garcia Valle. Styling: Justin Arroyo)

Nearly five years in, Bateman describes the site’s watch business as being “in its infancy.” He says a Luxury Watch Guide expansion is planned, and Mr Porter did stock the new Cartier Santos when it launched in April. Still, the site’s catalog largely leans away from formal dress watches, emphasizing versatility. Zenith, IWC, and Nomos Glashütte are featured heavily. TAG Heuer and Montblanc smartwatches have been popular thus far, but—ironically, for a digital-only retailer—a broader range of tech watches will be added only if they fit well into the overall mix.

(Bateman: “It will depend on what comes to market and whether it’s got a good U.S.P. [unique selling point] that we can talk about with our customers.”)

Regardless, he says timepiece category has already helped broaden the site’s customer base. And whether or not Mr Porter becomes a major player in the luxury watch market, Bateman believes that it’s positioning the site as a more holistic retailer for the shopper of the future.

“Having watches on the site has enabled us to reach guys who don’t consider themselves to be ‘fashion guys,’” he says. “They come to Mr Porter and see the watch selection, but in the process they’re discovering Mr Porter. What they then see is that we create really great content which isn’t overly fashion-led—it’s quite lifestyle—and we have a very diverse product offering across all our categories. [Those shoppers] hopefully will become Mr Porter customers in other aspects.”

The Hero Family Behind Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Watch Straps

Inside a modest workshop on the western outskirts of Buenos Aires, four men are hard at work.

They measure patterns and heat irons over an open flame, methodically whetting and polishing and hammering. The tables are covered in awls, spurs, wrought-iron pincers. Rolls of exquisite calfskin and horsehide are stacked waist-high. Rows and rows of hardwood shoe lasts line the shelves.

Welcome to Casa Fagliano, a bastion of traditional bootmaking. The workshop first opened in 1892, across the street from the Asociación Civil Hurlingham Club. The latter establishment grew into the nation’s equestrian sports epicenter, hosting Abierto de Hurlingham, one of the world’s most prestigious polo tournaments. Casa Fagliano found an eager clientele. English-style polo boots became a specialty.

Germàn, the Fagliano clan’s youngest member, shows off his wares.

Four generations later, the operation remains a family affair. Rodolfo, the 86-year-old patriarch, cuts leather and welts soles alongside his sons, Eduardo and Hector, and his grandson, Germán. To them, “mass-production” is a four-letter word; these guys make each boot by hand, one at a time. Order a bespoke pair with matching kneepads and wood trees, and you can expect to join a six-to-eight-month waiting list—albeit one that includes Prince Harry, Tommy Lee Jones, and the Sultan of Brunei.

Also Jaeger-LeCoultre. The Swiss watchmaker first collaborated with Casa Fagliano seven years ago, commissioning straps for a limited-edition Reverso Tribute to 1931. Now, the two firms have teamed up again, this time on a special version of the Reverso Tribute Duo, which features a Cordovan leather strap, designed and handmade in the Fagliano workshop. According to Geoffroy Lefebvre, deputy CEO of Jaeger-LeCoultre, the continued partnership is a matter of values and pedigree.

Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Tribute Duo (Casa Fagiliano strap), $22,900; jaeger-lecoultre.com 

“Both our realms share a passion for the product, respect for expert craftsmanship, meticulous attention to detail and the pursuit of perfection,” says Lefebvre. “The Reverso was originally created in 1931 for British Army officers in India who were anxious to protect the glass of their watches while playing polo…. Therefore the relationship between the inventor of the polo watch and the most prestigious polo boot manufacturer was natural.”

The two-tone Fagliano band complements the Duo’s pink-gold case, which, as ever, features two dials. The main face is sun-brushed satin gray; it swivels and tucks away to reveal a secondary dial, silvered with Clous de Paris guilloché detailing and a day-night indicator. Both sides have formal dauphine hands, gold-plated hour markers, and run off a manual, in-house movement, offering a 42-hour power reserve.

Just 100 examples of the Reverso Tribute Duo will be offered on a Casa Fagiliano Edition strap, an order that took the leather-workers an entire year to fill. But, unlike the previous Tribute to 1931, which was exclusive to American stores, this new watch will be available at Jaeger-LeCoultre boutiques worldwide—and, yes, that includes the Buenos Aires store.