The Reverso story began with a challenge: to create a wristwatch that could be worn on the polo field without being smashed. In 1930 César de Trey, a successful entrepreneur who was well acquainted with both Jacques-David LeCoultre and the Parisian firm of Jaeger SA through his activities in the watch business, was travelling in India, where British army officers had taken up polo. Asked if he could find a way to protect the glass and dial of their watches during matches, de Trey had the idea of a case that could be flipped over. He approached LeCoultre to produce it and, through connections with Jaeger, a French industrial designer, René-Alfred Chavot, was engaged to design the case.
On 4 March 1931, the Paris patent office received an application to register “a watch capable of sliding in its support and being completely turned over”; in July, de Trey bought the rights to Chavot’s design and in November he registered the Reverso name. Eager to get the revolutionary design to market as soon as possible, de Trey and Jacques-David LeCoultre set up a business partnership and began production immediately. The first pieces were on sale less that nine months after the patent application had been filed.
Success was immediate: as a quintessential expression of Art Deco style and the embodiment of modernity, the Reverso was adopted by tastemakers from all walks of life. Cases were offered in gold as well as the original Staybrite steel, and feminine models appeared, with options to be worn as pendants or handbag clips, as well as on the wrist. For those seeking even greater individuality, brightly coloured lacquer dials could be made to order, and the reverse side of the case personalised with engraving and lacquer.
As tastes changed after World War II, interest in the Reverso waned and by 1969, when the first quartz wristwatch heralded the greatest crisis the Swiss watch industry had ever faced, it had been largely forgotten. However, as the quartz invasion gathered pace, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Italian distributor, Giorgio Corvo bought the last remaining 200 Reverso cases, had them fitted with mechanical movements, and sold every piece within a month. In 1975 the Reverso was officially reborn.
Jaeger-LeCoultre decided to bring production of the case in-house and, in 1981, assigned one of its engineers, Daniel Wild, to redesign it to modern technical standards. However, given the Reverso’s status as a design classic, any aesthetic change had to be almost imperceptible. In 1985, the new case was unveiled – the first to be machined at Jaeger-LeCoultre using (then new) CNC technology. Waterproof, dust-proof, with a new flip-over mechanism and redesigned lug attachments and carrier, it comprised 55 parts, rather than the 23 of the original. Stylistically, it appeared completely unchanged.
In 1991, six decades after the Reverso was born, it began its transformation from ‘one style, one watch’ into an entire collection. In 1994, the Reverso Duoface was created – a unique expression of dual time, with local time on the front dial and home time on the reverse. It was followed, in 1997, by the Reverso Duetto, a feminine interpretation of the double dial principle. Born at the height of the Art Deco period, the Reverso perfectly epitomised the spirit of its time – a dazzling and exuberant modernity that changed everything from music and art to architecture, fashion and sport, and introduced a radically new aesthetic language.
In a world where silvered dials prevailed, the original Reverso models featured a black dial with contrasting indexes. The black dial was described as having incredible legibility and was referred to as “the dial of the future”. Almost immediately, aesthetic variations began to appear with notable-coloured dials. Introduced at a time when coloured dials were rare in watchmaking, made to order dials in bright red, chocolate brown, burgundy or blue lacquer made the Reverso appear even more modern and distinctive. From the beginning, different case metals and re-sized models for women were offered to be worn on a cordonnet bracelet or transformed into pendants or handbag clips.
However, there was never any compromise on the core design elements – the horizontal gadroons that emphasise the rectilinear geometry of the case; the triangular lugs that appear to be a seamless extension of the case sides; and the case that fits so perfectly into its carrier that, at first glance, there is no evidence that it can be flipped over. The proportions of the original rectangular case were crucial to the success of the design. The ratio of its length to width was based on the golden mean – a unique mathematical relationship defined by the ancient Greeks, which humans instinctively find to be the most aesthetically pleasing proportion.
While the modern Reverso has incorporated high complications, the enduring success of the model is fundamentally not about the mechanical complexity of the watchmaking; its value lies in the ingenious conception and perfect execution – a deft synthesis of form and function that responded so well to a particular need that it was able to transcend that utilitarian purpose and take on a life of its own. This is not to diminish the intricacy of the flip mechanism itself and the ingenuity of its engineering, which combine to produce the tactile pleasure of the case gliding in its carrier and the satisfying click as it locks into place. But that, too, is entirely a matter of the Reverso fulfilling its original intention – with the greatest possible elegance.
The design of the Reverso had unexpected benefit. While its blank metal flip side had begun as a purely functional solution to avoid damage to the dial, it was an ideal surface for personalisation with monograms, emblems or personal messages using lacquer, engraving or enamel. The owner can keep this decoration as a personal, hidden treasure or flip the case over so that its back becomes the front.
Among the examples from the 1930s in Jaeger-LeCoultre’s museum collection is a Reverso decorated with the emblem of the British Racing Drivers Club, a piece with the Eton College coat of arms, and a 1935 Reverso that commemorates the record-setting flight from Mexico City to New York by the aviator, Amelia Earhart. In India, the Maharajah of Karputala commissioned 50 Reverso watches, with a miniature-painted portrait of his wife reproduced on the caseback in enamel. Although these pieces are all believed lost, Jaeger-LeCoultre has a similar Reverso in its collection, dating from 1936, with a portrait of another Indian beauty, thought to be Kanchan Prabha Devi, Maharani of Tripura State.
From the mid-20th century onwards, as changing tastes rejected ornamentation in all areas of design, the traditional artistic crafts such as enamelling, miniature painting and guillochage began to disappear – the skills dying out along with the older generation of artisans. Fortunately, the revival of mechanical watchmaking in the 1990s, sparked a renewed interest in these crafts before they were lost forever.
In 1996, the Maison released its first timepieces to be decorated with grand feu enamel in modern times. Crafted by Miklos Merczel, a former watchmaker at Jaeger-leCoultre who established the Manufacture’s in-house enamelling studio, the set of four Reverso watches each bore a perfectly reproduced miniature of a work by the Art Nouveau master, Alphonse Mucha. Enamelling became a signature of the Reverso collection and, to this day, Jaeger-LeCoultre remains one of the very few Manufactures to have its own in-house enamelling atelier.
The Manufacture’s enamellers were joined by engravers, gem-setters and guillochage masters – all of them eventually brought together in one vast studio in 2016, with the establishment of the Atelier des Métiers Rares®. As the full potential of the Reverso as a canvas for artistic expression became apparent, these artists created increasingly elaborate and spectacular embellishments. High Jewellery models have featured invisibly set baguette diamonds over the entire case; the cordonnet bracelet has been reinterpreted entirely in diamonds; and casebacks have been transformed into glittering expanses of snow-set diamonds. As the most recent releases of artistic Reverso models suggest, the creative possibilities have almost no limits.
As the launch of the Reverso Soixantième in 1991 coincided with the rebirth of mechanical watchmaking that followed the quartz crisis, the Reverso embraced its potential to be much more than a time-only watch. It became the vehicle through which the Manufacture would redevelop its expertise in high complications, despite the added challenge that rectangular movements dictate an entirely different architecture from that of the round movements that had traditionally been used for complications.
Calibre 824, developed especially for the Reverso Soixantième, incorporated a date indicated by a central hand and a power reserve indicator. This was followed in 1993 by the Reverso Tourbillon – the Manufacture’s first wristwatch tourbillon. Then came the Reverso Répétition Minutes in 1994, the first time Jaeger-LeCoultre had miniaturised a minute repeater for a wristwatch, Calibre 943 was the world’s first rectangular minute repeater movement. In 1996, La Grande Maison introduced the Reverso Chronographe Rétrograde, with an intricate display on the reverse side that solved the problem of how to arrange the chronograph counters within a rectangular frame. This was followed two years later by the Reverso Géographique and, coinciding with the Millennium, the Reverso Quantième Perpétuel. Naturally, these pink-gold limited-edition pieces are highly sought-after by collectors.
In the years since the Millennium, innovation has continued. Developed for the Reverso Septantième and released in 2002, Calibre 879 provided an 8-day power reserve – very rare at the time. Five years later, the Reverso Grande Complication à Triptyque introduced Calibre 175: a single movement incorporating 18 different functions, including civil time, sidereal time and a perpetual calendar, displayed on three dials – the third dial being set into the carrier plate of the watch. The Reverso has also housed Jaeger-LeCoultre’s unique bi-axial flying tourbillon, first in the Reverso Gyrotourbillon of 2008 and again in the 2016 Reverso Tribute Gyrotourbillon. And in 2012, Jaeger-LeCoultre introduced the Reverso Répétition Minutes à Rideau, in which the chiming mechanism is activated by the movement of a pair of theatre-style curtains as they reveal and conceal the dial.
From its genesis, through 90 years of evolution and countless variations, the Reverso has continually reinvented itself without ever compromising its identity. Versatile and ageless, a chameleon that changes yet remains unchanged, it has become one of the world’s most recognisable wristwatches. But it is more than simply a watch. The Reverso has rightly become recognised as an icon of 20th-century design, in the true meaning of the term.