Buyer's Guide

Why the Reverso is the Most Persistent (and Successful) Avant-Garde Watch.

It isn’t hard to argue that a watch originally designed for polo players has become one of the most lasting avant-garde watch models thanks to revived production during the turning point of the quartz crisis.
By Joshua Munchow
Feb 02, 2023
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Out of the thousands of watches that have been produced over the last century, when designers and watchmakers were tossing out any and every idea they could think of, a handful of watches caught the attention of the wider public and had a lasting impact. Nearly every one of these watches was round with only a few exceptions, and those few are often considered niche watches for many. The Heuer Monaco and the Hamilton Ventura are two well-known examples, but nothing compares to the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso, the only iconic transformable watch.

With a history that began on a polo field in 1930 in India during British rule, the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso was the result of a simple yet challenging problem: protect a watch face during a polo match. A player simply taking off their watch during the match must not have been acceptable, and so the reversible case design was born. By 1931 the idea had been patented and the first Reverso was produced in the now iconic art-deco styling.

Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Patent

Very quickly the design grew in popularity alongside other attempts by competing brands to solve the same problem. The company that was founded to develop the Reverso in partnership with LeCoultre and Jaeger, Spécialités Horlogères S.A., even developed a competing idea it sold to Cartier. Nevertheless, the Reverso was the most elegant and successful solution to the problem owing to its simplicity and streamlined design. It’s a perfect case study in getting the right answer on the first try.

It soared in popularity over the next two decades as multiple versions were made and even more designs found their way onto the pristine face of the reversed case. The artistic applications of a large rectangular canvas that can be both hidden or displayed on command attracted every type of personalization for the Reverso. But it wasn’t to last.

Original JLC Reverso

Taking a sabbatical

By the nineteen fifties, changing trends in watches and the fading of the Art-Deco movement in the post-war period meant the world was moving on from the Reverso – for a while. Since it was such a fantastic design and provided lots of opportunities for personalization, it was only a matter of time until it came back into vogue. But when the quartz crisis hit in 1969 and the entire industry was in turmoil, no one would have imagined that a classic Art-Deco watch designed for polo players would be a re-emerging star a little more than a decade later.

Thanks to a chance factory visit in 1972 by an Italian watch dealer named Giorgio Corvo, the only remaining Reverso cases, a batch of 200, were noticed by Corvo and immediately purchased. After fitting them with movements, the entire group was sold within a month and provided all the evidence that was needed to understand there was still a market for the old Reverso collection. JLC was convinced by Corvo to reinvest into the Reverso which began with quartz-equipped ladies’ models before a full relaunch of the Reverso with mechanical movements in 1982.

Mechanica Sketch

Ever since then, the now continuously produced Reverso has been a staple of Jaeger-LeCoultre and the foundation for the modern brand. JLC understood the true uniqueness of the case and what it could mean leading to a whole host of complications, dual, triple, and now even quadruple faced watches, all while leaning heavily into the Art-Deco styling and the ability to customize the classic Monoface with artistic crafts.

Staying power

But why did this specific transformable watch, which was originally intended for use by one of the most exclusive niche sports, become not just an icon of Jaeger-LeCoultre, but of watchmaking in general? I think the answer comes down to one main set of factors: the design is very simple yet provides an incredible amount of possibilities due to its construction and implementation.

First, you have a rectangular case that can easily change faces while avoiding the trap of looking like a multi-tool timepiece. There is no button or obvious hinge, no exposed pivot points or grooves that would betray its functionality. The streamline aesthetics of the later Art-Deco period work perfectly to hide the split in the case as anything other than an artifact of assembly.

Tapers on the lug sections of the rear case help to keep the rounded edges of the main body from appearing too thick. The wide expanse of the rear side of the main body was quite possibly the biggest early boon for the Reverso. Many people would have watches engraved on the case back, especially pocket watches, but this meant the engraving was almost always invisible unless the watch was removed.

Original JLC Reverso

Having a broad canvas that you could access at any time meant that those who wanted personalization on their Reverso could also show it off at a moment’s notice. This took the Reverso from a tool watch designed for sporting to a luxury timepiece that could reflect the tastes of the wearer. Besides initials, detailed engravings, enamel and miniature paintings were added that would equal artworks hung in museums. All of this happened with just the early models before the modern complications entered the picture.

Enamel

Horology testbed

With the return of the Reverso during the tail end of the quartz crisis, seeing hundreds of watch brands disappearing and others consolidating into larger groups (the Swatch Group in particular), it was clear that a brand couldn’t rest on its laurels anymore. Innovation and creativity were the name of the game, so the Reverso became an outlet for ideas. By the early 90s, Jaeger-LeCoultre released the first double-sided Reverso models named the Duoface, and it was off to the races. Complicated movements and new mechanics found a home in a Reverso, as twin dials allowed for the addition of complications in a more spacious format, since they wouldn’t all have to compete on the same dial.

This inevitably led to the idea of the Hybris Mechanica à Triptyque, a watch that had three faces, one embedded into the lower case behind the main body. Activating at midnight, the indications on the lower case would be advanced by small pushers on the top of the main body, regardless of which direction the case was facing. In 2021 JLC pushed this idea even further with the Hybris Mechanica Quadriptyque, a four-faced watch that is only possible thanks to the humble Reverso case.

Hybris Mechanica Calibre 185

Putting interesting or unique mechanics into the Reverso became one of its main raisons d’être, turning into a testbed for incredible ideas. But this also didn’t stop the customization and decoration of the simple Reverso Monoface, with JLC often releasing limited or unique pieces with absolutely gorgeous métiers d'art applied to the rear face.

The variety that could come with the Reverso alongside its lengthy history as an avant-garde watch that went mainstream, the Reverso has achieved icon status for collectors. There is no other watch that can be this atypical yet feel so entirely classic and refined. The smaller form factor, thanks to the rectangular shape, allows the watch to work for any gender and size wrist thanks in large part to the multiple sizes the case comes in.

After over 90 years, the Reverso has become so much more than the watch it originated as, yet it matches the style and versatility almost without change. Even after going out of production for more than two decades, no other model could take its place at the heart of Jaeger-LeCoultre, and that fact gets stronger every year.

The biggest watchmakers all have iconic models that are instantly recognizable and associated with their brands, but there may be few that are more iconic than a Reverso. The wrist presence alone is something brands all search for and is hard to find, even more so when the watch has such a distinct shape. People have embraced the Reverso as one of the highlights of Swiss watchmaking during the 20th century, and I think the Reverso has the ability to stay one of the highlights for the 21st century and beyond.