One would think that wearing a mechanical watch during a vigorous polo match would be a fool’s errand and best avoided. But a British army officer wore his timepiece during a match in the winter of 1930 in India. Predictably, either by an errant ball or a wayward mallet, his timepiece was damaged. Or so the story goes.
Swiss entrepreneur and watch dealer Cesar de Trey was also at that match.
The officer showed him the broken watch and asked if he could design one that could be worn during a polo match. A less ingenious man would have told the officer to stow away his watch when on horseback. De Trey, however, returned to Paris and approached Jacques-David LeCoultre with this engineering conundrum. The duo turned to French industrial designer Rene-Alfred Chavot, who came up with an elegant solution – a watch with a dial that could be flipped. Before a polo match, the wearer could turn the fragile glass crystal case around so that the more robust steel back faced the front. After the match, he could reverse it.
In 1931, the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso was born.
The original iteration of the Reverso was a hit, partly because of the extra real estate on the back of the dial. A Reverso was engraved and lacquered to commemorate Amelia Earheart’s famous non-stop 1935 flight from Mexico to New York. King Edward VIII of England had his name and a crown stencilled on the back. And General Douglas MacArthur, the mastermind behind America’s victory in the Pacific during World War II, had his initials (“D MAC A”) monogrammed.
Rise and fall
Today, while the Reverso remains one of the most popular models in Jaeger-LeCoultre’s portfolio, few people know that it actually fell out of fashion in the 1950s. Customers favoured the round sports watches of the day. The Reverso’s Art Deco design philosophy, with its rectangular case, minimalist aesthetics and geometric lines, did not resonate with the post-war baby boomers.
Then, in 1972, an Italian watch dealer Giorgio Corvo visited the watch manufacture and noticed the unused Reverso cases. He bought all 200 of them, installed movements and they sold out within a month in Italy. Convinced that a relaunch of the Reverso would be a success, Corvo implored the maison to recreate the timepiece. It did, first with quartz movements before dispensing them for mechanical variants instead.
Jaeger-LeCoultre finally brought the production of the case in house and assigned one of its engineers, Daniel Wild, to redesign it to modern technical standards. In 1985, the brand unveiled a new water- and dust-proof case with a new flip mechanism and redesigned lugs and carrier. The fresh case comprised 55 parts, more than double the original, which only had 23. However, it remained unchanged stylistically.
Over three decades later, the Reverso has expanded and become a well loved collection. Any watch collector worth his or her salt will have at least one Reverso in their collection.
There is the Reverso Duoface. Created in 1994, it featured the local time on the front dial and the home time on the reverse. Three years later, Jaeger-LeCoultre designed a feminine interpretation and called it the Reverso Duetto. There are Reverso watches with tourbillons and skeletonised dials as well. And another that was designed in 2012 and tied in with the popular Mad Men TV series. This writer’s favourite, only 25 were made.
These examples reflect the profound and indelible impact the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso has had on watchmaking and popular culture. Passing through two World Wars, universal suffrage and a plethora of other global and societal movements, the iconic rectangular shape of the Reverso remains unchanged. It’s a testament to the watch’s timelessness.
This year, the Reverso celebrates its 90th anniversary and Jaeger-LeCoultre has lined up a series of releases and activities to celebrate the nonagenarian.
And, yes, despite all this time, polo players still wear the Reverso watches during their matches.
(Related: Highlights from LVMH Watch Week 2021)