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.”