Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso: The Story of an Icon

Cutting across a vast expanse of rolling green hills and sparkling blue lakes, the narrow road to Vallée de Joux snakes through 10 tiny towns that make the world’s most expensive watches. Home to legends like Audemars Piguet, Vacheron Constantin, Blancpain, Breguet, Patek Philippe and Jaeger-LeCoultre, this valley was once dominated by farmers who took up watchmaking as a lucrative pastime during dreary winters.

Today, the farms and barns here are far and few between, with hamlets like Le Sentier and Le Brassus representing Switzerland’s cradle of high watchmaking. About an hour’s drive north of Geneva, the picturesque village of Le Sentier is where Jaeger-LeCoultre’s original workshop was established in 1833 by Antoine LeCoultre.

Jaeger-LeCoultre’s manufacture in Le Sentier, Switzerland.
Jaeger-LeCoultre’s manufacture in Le Sentier, Switzerland.

By 1888, LeCoultre’s tiny workshop had expanded to become one of Vallée de Joux’s most respected manufacture — “La Grande Maison,” which employed over 500 watchmakers and artists and had several patents to its credit. Masters of micromechanics, Jacques-David LeCoultre and Parisian watchmaker Edmond Jaeger started collaborating on ultra thin watches in 1903. The two established their proficiency in miniaturization with the creation of the Duoplan, the world’s smallest mechanical movement in 1925. However, the watch that actually sealed their longstanding bond and paved the way for manufacture Jaeger-LeCoultre as we know it today was the Reverso.

Antoine LeCoultre
Antoine LeCoultre
Edmond Jaeger
Edmond Jaeger
Created in 1929, Jaeger-Lecoultre’s Calibre 101 is the smallest mechanical movement ever made and is in production to this day
Created in 1929, Jaeger-Lecoultre’s Calibre 101 is the smallest mechanical movement ever made and is in production to this day

Born on the polo fields of India, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s revolutionary idea of a wristwatch with a swiveling case turns 90 this year. The Reverso was conceived as a sports watch with a rectangular sliding case that could slip the watch out of its socket and reverse it to face inward. Jacques-David LeCoultre and Caesar De Trey created this robust watch with the help of French designer René-Alfred Chauvot, who envisioned a perfectly rectilinear case, which in the words of patent application No. 712.868, filed at the French Ministry of Trade and Industry on March 4, 1931, “can be slid in its support and completely turned over.” True to its Art Deco aesthetics, the Reverso with its baton- shaped hands, dart-type indexes, Arabic numerals and the swiveling case with three decorative gadroons on top and bottom, turned out to be a runaway hit.

With the approval of both both César de Trey, who had already registered the name Reverso, and Jacques-David LeCoultre, who was on the Board of Directors of Patek Philippe at the time, eight Reverso cases were sold to Patek Philippe between December 1931 and April 1932. Two of those watches, signed as Patek Philippe, are still displayed at Patek’s famed museum in Geneva.

Between December 1931 and April 1932, Jaeger-LeCoultre built a handful of Reversos, eight in total, badged as Patek Philippes, with Jaeger-LeCoultre movements inside. (Image: le-monde-edmond.com)
Between December 1931 and April 1932, Jaeger-LeCoultre built a handful of Reversos, eight in total, badged as Patek Philippes, with Jaeger-LeCoultre movements inside. (Image: le-monde-edmond.com)

A Timeless Design

By the 1930s, functional elegance started emerging as one of the primary criteria for men’s watches. As sportswear like knickerbockers found patrons in the likes of the then Prince of Wales and tennis player René Lacoste’s practical, half-sleeve shirts made headlines for their comfort and style, trends in wristwear too began to change. “The tennis or polo shirt was a crucial catalyst in changing attitudes towards what constituted appropriate dress, and its modernizing effect can be likened to the impact of the wristwatch,” says renowned author, historian and watch expert Nick Foulkes. “The Reverso’s design was dictated not by a desire to be different but by mechanical functionality. Its value lay not in the costliness of its materials and lavishness of its embellishments but in the ingenuity and intricacy of its engineering. Its choice of materials, its intentions, its innovative manufacture and the need it met made the Reverso, in many ways, the quintessential Art Deco product,” he says.

Thanks to its popularity among racing enthusiasts, polo players and skiers, Reverso soon became one of the top-selling luxury sports watches of the 20th century. The watch was offered in all steel, all gold, or bimetal (gold case with steel cradle). With options to be worn as pendants, handbag clips and dainty wristwatches, the watch also adapted to suit the needs of women in those days. For those seeking even greater individuality, brightly colored lacquer dials could be made to order, and the reverse side of the case personalized with engraving and lacquer.

Over the last nine decades, not much has changed in the design of the Reverso, but Jaeger-LeCoultre has been successful in making the watch as enticing for the young, innovation-obsessed enthusiasts as for the traditionalists. From King Edward VIII, who had the royal crest inscribed on his Reverso to General Douglas MacArthur, who owned a Reverso with a rich black dial and lacquered monogramming on the case back that read “D MAC A”, the Reverso has a long list of rich and famous patrons.

General Douglas MacArthur’s Reverso with a rich black dial and lacquered monogramming on the case back that read “D MAC A”
General Douglas MacArthur’s Reverso with a rich black dial and lacquered monogramming on the case back that read “D MAC A”

Exceptional Craftsmanship

Long before “personalization” became a big trend among watch enthusiasts, Jaeger-LeCoultre offered its clients unique possibilities of customization through the Reverso’s caseback, which served as blank canvases to be adorned with family crests, monograms, messages, paintings and more.

A 1937 timepiece engraved with the British Racing Drivers Club emblem
A 1937 timepiece engraved with the British Racing Drivers Club emblem
A 1935 Reverso that commemorated the record-setting flight from Mexico City to New York by the aviator, Amelia Earhart
A 1935 Reverso that commemorated the record-setting flight from Mexico City to New York by the aviator, Amelia Earhart

The links between India and the Reverso go beyond the original watch developed for the British polo players. One of the most stunning enamelled Reversos is from 1936. It features the beautiful portrait of the Maharani of an Indian State, although her exact identity has never been confirmed. Then there is another vintage Reverso caliber 410 from 1949 with an enameled illustration of the Hindu deity Rama. This watch was part of an exhibition hosted by the Victoria & Albert Museum in 2009.

In the early 1990s, Hungarian watchmaker Miklos Merczel started to utilize the rear of the Reverso case for miniature enamel paintings. He launched the in-house enamel workshop at Jaeger-LeCoultre in 1996 with a set of watches that presented Czech artist Alphonse Mucha’s famous decorative panels, The Seasons, from 1896.

A 1936 Reverso with the portrait of Maharani Kanchan Prabha Devi of Tripura
A 1936 Reverso with the portrait of Maharani Kanchan Prabha Devi of Tripura
Originally painted by Czech artist Alphonse Mucha, reimagined onto the wrist by Miklos Merczel (Image: Sothebys.com)
Originally painted by Czech artist Alphonse Mucha, reimagined onto the wrist by Miklos Merczel (Image: Sothebys.com)

Over the years, the métiers d’art workshop at Jaeger- LeCoultre has developed several new tools and techniques to recreate the magic of masterpieces by artists like Georges Seurat and Katsushika Hokusai. In 2018, the Maison paid tribute to Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler with miniature enamel paintings of his artworks, such as Lake Thun with Symmetric Reflections Before Sunrise, on the Reverso caseback. The Hodler Reversos combined two decorative techniques — guilloché engraving on the dial as well as further hand-applied engraving on the reverse side of the watch — and enameling.

The Reverso's caseback is the blank canvas for exquisite enamel art
The Reverso's caseback is the blank canvas for exquisite enamel art
Reverso Grande Taille Scuola Grande di San Rocco
Reverso Grande Taille Scuola Grande di San Rocco
Reverso Tribute Enamel - Hokusai ‘Kirifuri Waterfall’
Reverso Tribute Enamel - Hokusai ‘Kirifuri Waterfall’

To truly admire Jaeger-LeCoultre’s technical ingenuity and artistic flair, one must see the Reverso à Eclipse models with louvred shutters that conceal miniature enamel masterpieces. In 2015, Jaeger-LeCoultre marked the 125th death anniversary of Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh with a special Reverso à Eclipse featuring van Gogh’s famous Sunflowers painting. A limited edition of five pieces in rose gold, this watch was powered by caliber 849 that delivered a 35-hour power reserve.

As a tribute to the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh with a special Reverso à Eclipse featuring van Gogh’s famous Sunflowers painting
As a tribute to the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh with a special Reverso à Eclipse featuring van Gogh’s famous Sunflowers painting

Though the original Reverso was designed with sportsmen in mind, some of the antique pieces at the brand’s heritage gallery are testament to Jaeger-LeCoultre’s unwavering commitment to women. Right from the gem- set Reversos from the late 20th century to the complicated Reverso Duettos and the modern Reverso One watches, Jaeger-LeCoultre has been offering a range of Reversos with women in mind.

Reverso One Cordonnet Duetto Jewellery
Reverso One Cordonnet Duetto Jewellery

Outstanding Innovation

During the 1980s, when most Swiss watch brands were looking for innovative ways to make a breakthrough in the Quartz Crisis, the Reverso was resuscitated with the quartz caliber 601 movement. Jaeger-LeCoultre was now making the Reverso cases in-house. In 1985, the brand unveiled a new case designed by one of its engineers, Daniel Wild. Though there was no question of playing with the aesthetics of the case, the new batch used CNC technology for the first time. Composed of 55 parts instead of 23 in the original, the new case was waterproof, dust-proof and equipped with a new flip-over mechanism.

As the revival of mechanical watches started to gain momentum in the 1990s, Günter Blümlein brought back the glory days of the Reverso. Together with Henry-John Belmont, then CEO of Jaeger-LeCoultre and French designer Janek Deleskiewicz, he re-energized the Reverso with a slew of complications for the watch’s 60th anniversary.

Crafted out of pink gold, the Reverso 60ème with a power reserve and date hand was introduced in 1991. The anniversary special was soon followed by the brand’s first tourbillon wristwatch in 1993, first minute repeater in 1994, first retrograde chronograph in 1996, and first perpetual calendar in 2000 — all in a Reverso.

The Reverso 60ème introduced in 1991
The Reverso 60ème introduced in 1991
Jaeger-LeCoultre’s first tourbillon wristwatch from 1993
Jaeger-LeCoultre’s first tourbillon wristwatch from 1993
Introduced in 1994, the Reverso Répétition Minutes was equipped with the world’s first rectangular minute repeater movement.
Introduced in 1994, the Reverso Répétition Minutes was equipped with the world’s first rectangular minute repeater movement.

Despite the added challenge that rectangular movements dictate an entirely different architecture from that of the round movements traditionally used for complications, Jaeger-LeCoultre has continued to enrich the Reverso with a variety of complications. The Maison introduced the world’s first rectangular minute repeater movement, Caliber 943, in the Reverso Répétition Minutes unveiled in 1994. Then came the Reverso Grande Complication à Triptyque powered by caliber 175, a single movement incorporating 18 different functions, including civil time, sidereal time and a perpetual calendar, displayed on three dials, with the third dial being set into the carrier plate of the watch.

Jaeger LeCoultre Reverso Répétition Minutes
Jaeger LeCoultre Reverso Répétition Minutes

The Reverso has also housed Jaeger-LeCoultre’s unique bi-axial flying tourbillon, first seen in the Reverso Gyrotourbillon 2 of 2008 and then in the 2016 Reverso Tribute Gyrotourbillon.

Reverso Gyrotourbillon 2
Reverso Gyrotourbillon 2
The two faces of the Reverso Tribute Gyrotourbillon
The two faces of the Reverso Tribute Gyrotourbillon

To celebrate the Reverso’s nine-decade-long glorious journey this year, Jaeger-LeCoultre chose the Hybris Mechanica collection to introduce its most complex version of the Reverso till date. Offering 11 astonishing complications deftly displayed over the four faces of the watch, the Reverso Hybris Mechanica Quadriptyque is a mechanical wonder.

Conceptualized and designed over six years, the watch represents Jaeger-LeCoultre’s biggest strengths — its impeccable design sensibilities and supreme technical prowess. Unlike most grand complications, the Reverso Hybris Mechanica Quadriptyque with its captivating astronomical features doesn’t overwhelm you with a mind-bogglingly busy dial. It happens to be the world’s first wristwatch with four functioning display faces but all so cleverly packaged in a 51 × 31 × 15.15mm case that you’ll instantly want to play with it.

Originating from the Greek term hubris, the Hybris Mechanica is a representation of Jaeger-LeCoultre’s soaring ambition to conquer newer milestones in haute horlogerie. Over the last 18 years, the Hybris Mechanica family has showcased close to 20 groundbreaking creations in a variety of models — right from the Atmos Mystérieuse, which was the inaugural piece in the line in 2003, to the Master Hybris Mechanica Gyrotourbillon 1 from 2004, the Master Ultra Thin Minute Repeater Flying Tourbillon in 2014 and the Master Grande Tradition Gyrotourbillon Westminster Perpétuel in 2019.

On the Reverso’s 75th anniversary in 2006, Jaeger- LeCoultre introduced the Reverso Grande Complication à Triptyque, an ultra complicated timepiece made by 14 specialists. The watch had three dials displaying mean, sidereal, and perpetual times in one grand complication. The other features included display of moonphases, equation of time, zodiac calendar, astronomical chart, sunrise and sunset time, power reserve, day and night and leap year indicator.

Reverso Grande Complication à Triptyque
Reverso Grande Complication à Triptyque

This year, the brand has again turned to the Hybris Mechanica line to present a watch that not only offers the usual perpetual calendar and minute repeater functions but also predict supermoons and eclipses.

Reverso à Eclipse
Reverso à Eclipse

Powered by caliber 185, the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Hybris Mechanica works on a fabulous trick that was first seen in the the Reverso Grande Complication à Triptyque in 2006. Every night, as the watch strikes 12, a little pin extends out of the main case movement and activates the mechanical corrector in the cradle, which then advances the cradle displays. This keeps the functioning of the four display faces uninterrupted. The mechanism driving the cradle display is set directly into the cradle, so this keeps the watch ultra compact at 15.15mm.

Reverso Hybris Mechanica Quadriptyque Caliber 185
Reverso Hybris Mechanica Quadriptyque Caliber 185

Limited to just 10 pieces, this exceptional timepiece comes in a special presentation box with a built-in mechanism that allows the wearer to intuitively set all the calendar and astronomical displays of the watch after a period of being unworn. The box has a two-position crown which can be used to set the number of days for which the watch hasn’t been worn. Once this is set up, the crown can be pulled further to its second position and wound to rapidly bring the watch to the current date for all calendar and astronomical indications.

The best part about this magical box is that you don’t have to worry about damaging the movement while correcting the settings. The entire process is designed to be controlled by the box corrector mechanism in a way that no kind of over- enthusiasm at your end can harm this pièce extraordinaire.

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