This year at SIHH, Jaeger-LeCoultre introduced the Polaris collection, basing a series of new models on the iconic 1968 Polaris Memovox (picture below via Analog/Shift). This vintage model is arguably the most famous of the brand’s alarm watches, but it came standing on the shoulders of at least four other significant vintage models. The first was the original Memovox released in 1950, entering as JLC’s response to the 1947-released Vulcain Cricket, and this was followed by the automatic Memovox of 1956, quickly making a name for itself as the first automatic alarm watch on the market. Three years later, in 1959, the brand looked to innovate even further by releasing the Deep Sea Alarm, which was both the first underwater alarm watch and Jaeger-LeCoultre’s first dive watch for the burgeoning scuba diving industry.
However, JLC was not satisfied with the Deep Sea, and so innovated again, releasing a super-compressor-style watch in 1965 now known as the original Polaris Memovox, featuring a threefold caseback that enabled the alarm to be better heard under the waves. Then in 1968 came the last of the Golden Age innovations for the alarm watch, with the brand releasing what became its most iconic Memovox design of all, again under the Polaris name. In the Polaris Memovox’s production run from 1965 to 1970, only 1,714 pieces were produced, with even fewer being produced in the 1968 style. Of these watches, most were used for their intended purpose — diving — and thus took heavy abuse, resulting in very few remaining today, making them extremely rare and desired on the vintage market. For its rarity and value, JLC has centered its newest revamping of the Polaris collection around this 1968 design, releasing modern divers, chronographs, a GMT, and two tribute pieces channeling its spirit, including the direct homage that we’ll be training our Vintage Eye upon today.
This tribute watch (Ref. 9038670) is housed in a 42-mm steel case, sitting thick upon the wrist at 15.9 mm, with a water resistance of 20 bar (200 meters). On the case’s right side is its distinguishing three crowns, each signed with JLC’s logo and each hosting a different responsibility, for operating the alarm function, time and date, and inner diving bezel, respectively. The black dial of the watch is a modernized stylization of the 1968 design, but is comparably just as intricate, with its curved inner rotating bezel for timing dives, bold applied Arabic numerals and trapezoidal hour markers filled with a faux-patina SuperLumiNova, a 3 o’clock date indicator, and a rotating sunburst-finished center circle for the alarm complication. The hour and minute hands are in a “Bâton à facette” style, and are powered by the automatic Jaeger-LeCoultre Calibre 956 (below), a special in-house movement that is a direct descendent of the 1968 watch’s Caliber 825. The movement uses a hammer mechanism for the alarm function, stores a 44-hour power reserve, and is hidden behind an engraved caseback specially made to heighten the sound of the alarm’s ringing above and below water. The Polaris Memovox tribute will be available in April, priced at $12,600 and limited in production to 1,000 numbered pieces.
The modern reference is by all accounts a historical tribute to the original, but it would be incorrect to proclaim it a re-issue of the 1968 vintage model. That said, similarities abound — in the super-compressor-style case and bezel, thick crowns, dial layout, and special layered caseback to accommodate the sound of the alarm. These features place the contemporary reference firmly in the history of the series, and in doing so offer to consumers a chance to own what may be the closest equivalent to the ultra-rare original they are ever likely to find.
And yet, despite the obvious lineage and efforts toward homage, JLC did not let the vintage design codes define the watch entirely and have added modern touches throughout. Most noticeably, the case and its crowns are obviously made in-house, compared to the generally produced super-compressor-style cases of the 1960s that the brand acquired and altered. On the dial, the numerals are applied instead of printed and the different sections of the dial feature combinations of matte black and sunray finishing as compared to the all-matte original. Also, the movement and the solid engraved caseback are both updated to a modern luxury standard. Throughout the watch, a high level of finishing is applied, in significant contrast to the utilitarian tool watch the vintage model was intended to be.
Jaeger-LeCoultre has a habit of producing eloquent homages to its most iconic watches, most recently with vintage-style revivals of the Reverso and Geophysic, among others. As such, this newest tribute watch is by no means the first for the 1968 Polaris Memovox’ that would be the limited edition that came out in 2008 for the model’s 40th anniversary. Yet, because of the uniqueness of this piece and the excellent craftsmanship the brand exemplifies in all it produces, it’s difficult to resist the appeal of the newest tribute watch. Overall, Jaeger-LeCoultre has done well with the updated Polaris collection (below), which offers a well-rounded portfolio of colors and complications that boutiques will soon display.
For the most recent article in the “Vintage Eye” series, in which we compare the Montblanc 1858 Automatic Chronograph to its historical inspiration, click here.
Caleb Anderson is a freelance writer with a primary focus on vintage watches. Since first learning about horology, he has garnered extensive knowledge in the field and spends much of his time sharing his opinions among other writers, collectors, and dealers. Currently located near New York City, he is a persistent student in all things historical, a writer on many topics, and a casual runner.