Is The Romanticised Ideal Of Watchmaking False?

Is The Romanticised Ideal Of Watchmaking False?

It’s the 90th anniversary of one of the most beloved watches in the business, the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso. As a company, Jaeger-LeCoultre has served as the backbone of the industry for nearly two centuries, working hard to earn heavy-hitters like Patek Philippe, Cartier and Audemars Piguet a big slice of adulation.

For the Reverso specifically, this was a make-or-break entry into mass-market watch production for Jaeger-LeCoultre—or rather, LeCoultre at the time—to come out from under the shadows of the watchmakers it had supplied for so long and become an independent entity of its own. The Reverso was, therefore, a business decision.

1931 Reverso in steel with black lacquered dial, silver-toned hour markers and white hands.
1931 Reverso in steel with black lacquered dial, silver-toned hour markers and white hands.
The patent for the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso from 1931
The patent for the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso from 1931
Without Jaeger-LeCoultre’s persistence in dragging watchmaking into the future for the past few hundred years, there would be no watchmaking.
Without Jaeger-LeCoultre’s persistence in dragging watchmaking into the future for the past few hundred years, there would be no watchmaking. (Image: Watchfinder)

And it got me thinking. Our vision now of watchmakers as they were back then is quite often and rather grossly romanticised—you know, the wizened old watchmaker crafting by candlelight in his snow-blanketed chalet. But it’s just not true! Or at least, it hasn’t been for nearly half a millennium (and when it was true, the parts being made weren’t actually very good anyway).

The reality is more logical, more practical. Jaeger-LeCoultre, then as it is now, is a business, like the others, trying to make a name for itself. The company’s background is in engineering, metallurgy, process, refinement—after all, that’s how its movements have become so widely revered. Without Jaeger-LeCoultre’s persistence in dragging watchmaking into the future for the past few hundred years, there would be no watchmaking.

From precision to production, there are many avenues in which Jaeger-LeCoultre revolutionised the way Swiss manufacturers build watches—and many of them have absolutely nothing to do with watchmaking. The Millionometre, for example, an invention of Antoine LeCoultre’s, was the first to measure a micron. A micron! That’s a thousandth of a millimetre. In 1844.

Antoine LeCoultre’s Millionometre was the first accurate measuring tool that could measure mechanical components to the thousandth of a millimeter.
Antoine LeCoultre’s Millionometre was the first accurate measuring tool that could measure mechanical components to the thousandth of a millimeter.
In 1847, LeCoultre invented the swing winder, one of the first reliable systems to wind a watch and set it without having to use a key.
In 1847, LeCoultre invented the swing winder, one of the first reliable systems to wind a watch and set it without having to use a key.

So, perhaps instead of sentimentalising these brands as a Disney-esque caricatures, we should appreciate them for what they really are and were, pioneers of industry and fabrication and business—because, honestly, it’s a whole lot more interesting.

Let me show you what I mean. In search of some great history to report on the Reverso’s birthday with, I uncovered a partnership between Jaeger-LeCoultre and Patek Philippe that summarises this point so beautifully. Jacques-David LeCoultre, keen to hedge his bets alongside friend and business partner César de Trey, asked the board of Patek Philippe—of which LeCoultre was a member—if they wanted in on that Reverso action. And Patek Philippe said yes.

But why did mighty giant like Patek Philippe say yes? It’s because the business was on rocky grounds. The industry had changed; custom, high-complication pocket watches were no longer de rigueur, and the business didn’t know what to do. It was an opportunity LeCoultre and de Trey were taking a big gamble on, building a luxury wristwatch for men on the hunch that it just might be the next big thing.

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)

So Patek Philippe said yes. It was that or receivership. And this is where the story gets even weirder, because Jaeger-LeCoultre built a handful of Reversos, eight in total, badged as Patek Philippes, with Jaeger-LeCoultre movements inside. Not so strange at this point, until it becomes clear that Jaeger-LeCoultre’s own Reverso did not have a Jaeger-LeCoultre movement powering it.

For Patek Philippe, a small ladies’ watch movement was fitted, just to get the job done. For its own watch, Jaeger-LeCoultre wanted to build something custom to fit the big, rectangular case—and promptly missed its own deadline. The first year or so of Reverso production featured a movement from someone else entirely.

The relationship with Patek Philippe didn’t pay off. The company was purchased by the Stern family, who recognised a need to enter the wristwatch market, and so the Calatrava was designed, developed and out on wrists by the following year. As a side note, there is a story often told that LeCoultre was invited to purchase Patek Philippe, but he declined. Imagine how different things might have been.

The Reverso’s revival in the thick of the quartz crisis demonstrated Jaeger-LeCoultre’s plucky ability to think differently.
The Reverso’s revival in the thick of the quartz crisis demonstrated Jaeger-LeCoultre’s plucky ability to think differently (Image: Watchfinder)

The Reverso was ultimately a success for Jaeger-LeCoultre—or at least, it was until it wasn’t, when trends moved on. Its revival in the thick of the quartz crisis demonstrated again the company’s plucky ability to think a little differently and try the unexpected, and once more the Reverso became a prominent fixture in the brand’s catalogue.

What fascinates me most about this story is that it is the complete antithesis of the romantic picture of watchmaking many of us fawn over today. What we have instead is business mixed with engineering mixed with fashion, all sloshed around in a big vat of a risk with a little dollop of luck for good measure. It’s stories like these that put Switzerland on the map. The lone watchmaker would have long since sunk the industry, like it did for England, had it remained that way.

The present example of the Reverso Lady in steel and yellow gold is a quartz watch from 2001.
The present example of the Reverso Lady in steel and yellow gold is a quartz watch from 2001.
The present example of the Reverso Lady in steel and yellow gold is a quartz watch from 2001.
The perfect dress watch with great credentials, this two-tone Reverso comes with its original set of box and papers and a two-year warranty from Watchfinder.
The perfect dress watch with great credentials, this two-tone Reverso comes with its original set of box and papers and a two-year warranty from Watchfinder.
The perfect dress watch with great credentials, this two-tone Reverso comes with its original set of box and papers and a two-year warranty from Watchfinder.

And I prefer it like that. These stories, laced with personal endeavour, success, failure and dogged determination are infinitely more interesting than a polished fairy tale that goes from best to better. Our favourite heroes in life are the ones who struggled most, who faced the biggest challenges and took a fair old licking for good measure. Our heroes never give up and they always persevere. I’d much prefer a hero like Jaeger-LeCoultre than anything else.

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