For many people, a watch is not only an accessory that tells time; after all, numerous other devices surrounding us can do that today. It is also a piece of art, jewelry, perhaps a status symbol — maybe even equipment, as well; from divers’ watches to chronographs with pulsation scales on their bezels for specific purposes, the list is long. Then you have those watches that people wear all the time, even while playing sports.
Most of us know the history of Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Reverso and its connection to British polo players. But have you heard about Cartier’s Basculante or Universal Genève’s Cabriolet? Read on!
For those of you who don’t know the story: Jaeger-LeCoultre introduced the Reverso in 1931 after numerous British officers stationed in India allegedly complained that their watches broke too frequently during their heated polo matches. Jaeger-LeCoultre devised a design in which the case with the movement is housed in a separate, outer “frame.” This case could be pulled to the side and flipped over so the crystal could be faced towards the wrist, thus protecting it from impacts. Swiss watchmaking met British Colonial high society with these reversible Jaeger-LeCoultre watches.
The Reverso is probably reversible watch that is best known by a wider audience. However, Jaeger-LeCoultre was not the only company to produce these types of timepieces. In fact, according to history, another brand’s model was introduced even before the Reverso — namely, the Universal Genève Cabriolet. Universal Genève presented its model in 1929. The Cabriolet also has a square case that sits in an outer frame, but in this case the crown is at the 6 o’clock position. Above 12 o’clock there is a little screw that allows the wearer to snap the case out, turn it 180 degrees, than snap it back into the outer frame, securing it with the crown. Whether the brand was also planning to launch a watch for polo players, or whether it was only a coincidence is unknown to me, but it is very interesting nonetheless that two of the major brands of that era came up with such similar designs so close together.
History, however, is even more interesting than that. Not long after the Cabriolet and the Reverso debuted in 1932 jeweler and watchmaker Cartier launched its answer to the rectangular dress/sports watch challenge, the Basculante (actually, the company states on its website that the year was 1933, but we have evidence that it came out before that). Explaining how the Cartier Basculante works is a little difficult, so I will let the picture below do the talking.
Universal Genève’s mechanism was, and still is, so popular that a few other watch companies took the idea, changed it a bit and released watches very similar to the Cabriolet. The Rotary Revelations has three little pins on the top of the case and a crown for each dial at 3 and 9 o’clock. You can snap the case out at 12 o’clock (there is a screw that fixes the watch at 6 o’clock), rotate it and snap it back into the frame at 12 o’clock with the three pins securing it into the case. The process is almost the same in the Chronoswiss Cabrio. Here, the screw that holds the watch case to the frame is at 12 and a rivet is at 6 o’clock. After rotating the case, this rivet needs to be snapped into a little latch on the outer frame, locking the watch case.
So, within three years, between 1931 and 1933, three very similar yet completely different reversible watches launched, marking a milestone in watchmaking and setting the foundations for future designs. In the years since, watch manufacturers from TAG Heuer to Omega have developed similar projects, some using the reversible feature to create two-faced watch, some simply paying homage to the original idea. Without a doubt, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Reverso is still the most famous among all of these. However I find it very fascinating that if we dig a little deeper into the history of one model, a whole new world of watches we’ve never heard of opens up in front of our eyes. But then again, that is why we love vintage watches.