History in reverse
From the January 2011 City AM On Time watch supplement, which I edited. A famous, “flippable” watch is putting old fashioned back in fashion
The essentials of what makes a mechanical watch tick have barely changed in 400 years. Back then, it was the British who were leading the way in the world of cogs, escapements and balance wheels, and the thread of that history can still be found in many watches produced today. We’ve covered that on page 22, looking at the way in which Britain’s horological legacy is still selling timepieces. Later on in this debut edition of City A.M. On Time, there’s an overview of some of the most iconic designs available; a look at the rather more modern relationship between watches and motorsports; and at the recent trend for stupendously thin dress watches.
The thread of history, however, is equally important to the Premiere League of watchmaking, the Swiss industry. At last month’s Salon Internationale de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH), Geneva’s annual trade show in which some of the most prestigious brands unveil their latest creations, watches paying homage to the classics of yesteryear were strongly in evidence. Old fashioned is in fashion, creating an interesting dance between vaunting technical ambition and aesthetic subtlety.
It’s not as if we functionally need watches these days, far less mechanical ones costing hundreds of times more than something driven by quartz circuitry. This is the anachronism at the heart of the watch industry, though, and one reason why the history becomes so important. It’s what Sebastian Vivas, chief historian for the prestige brand Jaeger Le-Coultre, calls “inner value”.
“It’s not always understood because you cannot see it when you look at the watch,” he says. “But a watch is more than a functional object – it’s a symbol of culture and identity, and that comes from the traditions and integrity behind it.”
Top-grade companies like Jaeger Le-Coultre make and assemble every part of the watch themselves, including the movement (the interior mechanism), each piece being fabricated in-house rather than bought in from suppliers. For many brands this is a relatively modern development – in the past, there wasn’t seen to be anything remiss about using supplied parts made by experts dedicated to just that part.
Now, even smaller companies are attempting to achieve full “manufacture” (say it with a French accent) status, because they see the cachet it brings, focussing attention on the centuries of learnt skills poured into a single watch.
For Jaeger le-Coultre, whose origins go back to 1833, the design that sums this up is its famous Reverso – the elegant, rectangular line of watches with faces that can be flipped over on a sliding hinge. First developed in 1931, the Reverso is a hallmark of both classic style and technical innovation.
Jaeger’s 80th anniversary commemorative edition, the Grande Reverso Ultra Thin Tribute to 1931, was the standout of SIHH 2011. Larger in diameter than the original but a teeny 7.2mm thick, it’s a thing of pure, sophisticated, Art Deco-infused class.
Back to the history. Elegant though the Reverso is – ineffably so, in fact – the line was originally developed for sporting use. Flipping the face was designed to protect it during sports games like polo or tennis.
“It was difficult to be classical and elegant while also resistant and modern, but the Reverso did that, and still does,” says Vivas. “It expresses more than any other watch the value of Art Deco, which said you could mix modernity and function with luxury and fine aesthetics.”
You only need to head to the revamped dining room of the Savoy Grill to see just how on-trend Art Deco is right now, a fortuitous coincidence for the Reverso’s 80th birthday. But the new design is no mere carbon copy of older models – both the technology within and the new dimensions represent what Vivas describes as an “evolution” of the Reverso story. Other models in the new collection include an elaborate minute repeater in which a “curtain” across the face can be drawn back, and Duo Reversos – examples that have two faces back-to-back, ideal for flipping between time zones.
History meets contemporary, too, in the company’s project to reconnect with the watch’s prestigious history – an online museum in which owners of vintage Reversos can submit images of their watch to be archived and viewed.
“When you own such a watch you become part of a community,” says Vivas. “We want to offer the opportunity for owners to participate in this community, to be even more part of the story of the watch.”
Long may that story continue.