A design classic with 90 years of history behind it, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Reverso was built to last.
There are some creations that simply stand the test of time. Whether by revolutionary design or simplistic genius, they rarely deviate from their origins and always find demand, even in the toughest times. The Reverso by Jaeger-LeCoultre, well that was built to survive in every sense.
Every iconic piece of design has a story behind it, and that of the Reverso begins on a polo field in India in 1931. The sport might have been king amongst the British soldiers stationed there at the time, but there was just one problem. Far from being the refined pastime we see it as today, polo was, and is, brutal. A rough, physical sport with swinging mallets and rock-hard polo balls flying in all directions. Any officer wearing his watch during a game would often find it damaged by the end of the final chukka. So, the officers asked a local watch dealer, César De Trey, if he could create something that would withstand the rigours of the game. De Trey went to Jacques-David LeCoultre, and the firm Jaeger S.A., to try and find a solution.
While the usual procedure when crafting a watch to withstand a buffering was to simply attach a grill to the face – the method used on military-issued watches during the First World War – the problem was that it just didn’t seem very elegant. So, on March 4, 1931, LeCoultre filed a patent for a watch with a reversible case. It was a radical and ingenious piece of horological engineering with 30 parts that enabled the watch face to slide of out its frame on tracks at the top and bottom of the case, rotate 180 degrees, and then slide back and lock in place. Now, the glass crystal face was hidden away, replaced by the outward-facing plain steel caseback instead – something able to withstand the odd stray polo mallet during a game. They registered the name “Reverso,” and one of the greatest watches of all-time was born. Aware that there were probably not enough polo players in the world to market it solely to them, the original advert said, “With the visible dial it’s a city watch – with a flip it transforms into a sports watch.” And despite the elegant look and design of the timepiece, what they had created was actually one of the world’s first sports watches.
Although produced to be worn while playing rough sports, the look and design of the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso is firmly rooted in the Art Deco period in which it was formed. After the extremes of the Art Nouveau period, this was a return to a cleaner and – at the time – more futuristic look. But while there’s a neat minimalism to the watch face, once reversed it becomes a blank canvas for the owners to express themselves. This was a serendipitous and unintended consequence of the design.
Although the stainless-steel reverse caseback was originally created as a functional answer to a sporting problem, it soon became a prized spot for the wearer to adorn with something more ornate and personal. Enamel work, engravings or gemstones were used as well as gold-leaf, as owners began to add everything from their initials or family crest to more elaborate additions including miniature paintings.
Now, so much more than just a sports watch, it’s a timeless design classic and one of the all-time iconic timepieces.
One owner of a Reverso was Amelia Earheart – the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean – and she used the blank space on the back of hers to etch the itinerary of her first flight. King Edward VIII, who abdicated the British throne in 1936 to marry the divorced American Wallis Simpson, had the royal crest inscribed on his.
While the Art Deco style saw its popularity wane and watch design moved to a general preference for round faces, the Reverso remained in production. From the American Military leader General Douglas MacArthur to rapper Jay Z, you will frequently see a Reverso on the wrists of the good and the great. A symbol of wealth and taste, it’s a go-to addition and has appeared on screen worn by countless people including Don Draper in Mad Men and Gordon Gekko in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.
Given that the design of the Reverso has changed little since its first appearance in 1931, the sleek styling and thin case make it perfectly suitable to wear as a dress watch on the most formal of occasions, which is something that few sport watches could ever claim.
In 2016, Jaeger-LeCoultre returned to the stylistic notes of the original 1931 model to create a series of Tribute models. Now, for 2021, marking the 90th anniversary of the watch’s creation, Jaeger-LeCoultre is releasing the Reverso Tribute Small Seconds in green.
Reconnecting the Reverso to its roots in the sport of polo, Jaeger-LeCoultre began a collaboration in 2011 with Casa Fagliano. Celebrated throughout the polo world for its handmade boots, Fagliano has created straps for a series of special Reverso models. In keeping with the relaxed modernity of the Tribute collection, the calf leather strap of the new Reverso Tribute Small Seconds, made to Fagliano’s signature design, is in the same green as the dial, creating a unified aesthetic that underlines the timelessness of the Reverso design.
If you asked any serious horologist to make a top 10 of the most important watches ever made, then the Reverso by Jaeger-LeCoultre would almost certainly be in there. Now, so much more than just a sports watch, it’s a timeless design classic and one of the all-time iconic timepieces. Built to last indeed.
For GQ Magazine