HISTORY IN reverse

 
Timothy Barber
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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.

The best of SIHH 2011

AS WITH Jaeger Le-Coultre’s Reverso, so with much else at the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, last month’s trade show in Geneva, where classical elegance was the name of the game, but melded to a reborn sense of technical ambition. Take Cartier, for instance, whose classical-looking Rotonde Astroregulateur contains innovative wizardry to combat the effects of gravity on watch accuracy. It’s a neat alternative to the “must have” (some would say overdone) show-off complication, the tourbillon.

Keeping things simpler was no-nonsense IWC, which has reinvigorated its previously rather unsung Portofino collection. The belle of the bunch is the Hand-Wound Eight Days [1] with its minimalist (but lengthy) eight-day power reserve indicator and IWC’s customary sense of crisp proportionality.

As well as celebrating its historic Reverso line, Jaeger Le-Coultre made a splash with another historical tribute piece, the Memovox Deep Sea 2011 [2] diving watch, which recalls the model of the same name introduced in 1959. It’s as elegant a diving piece as you’ll come across.

Doing things differently was Ralph Lauren, now a couple of years into his voyage into haute horological seas. The eye-catching Ralph Lauren Sporting Watch [3] has a wooden dial – Burr Elm, as it happens, designed to resemble the dashboard of a Bugatti. More car-related watches are on page 27.

Piaget broke new ground in the ultra-slim watch arena, unwrapping the thinnest automatic tourbillon ever produced, and a right stunner it is too. See page 27 also for more on that and other slimline watches.

After really invigorating its haute horology lines in 2010, the German pen maker Montblanc continues its upward trajectory with the Villeret 1858 Vintage Pulsographe [4], based on a watch from the 1930s designed for doctors taking patients’ pulses. We love the colour combinations and elegant numerals of the dial – a very fetching piece. Meanwhile Baume & Mercier, a brand adrift in “neither here nor there” territory for a while, served up a real surprise with a graceful revamp of its Capeland range, of which the Flyback Chronograph is the busy, charismatically retro stand-out.

A. Lange & Sohne also mixed technical mastery with a refined aesthetic with its beautiful Richard Lange Tourbillon Pour le Merite, this supplement’s cover star. A truly harmonious application of the tourbillon complication, its ingenious innovations include a segment of the hour subdial that swings into place across the open tourbillon cage as the hour hand sweeps past six o’clock.

A brand famous for its tourbillons is Girard Perregeaux but, as with Jaeger le-Coultre and Montblanc, it is its simpler vintage-style watches that are really catching the eye. The 1966 Small Second is a lesson in artful, timeless purity, while the square Vintage 1945 [5] is no less easy on the eye.

As the oldest still-going watch producer of the lot, Vacheron Constantin has more right than anyone to summon up the past, but keeps the technology kicking on. The upsized version of its top grade Quai de L’Ile [6] watch, with a retrograde annual calendar, is a thing of beauty indeed, and can be customised to the movement, complications and look of the buyer’s choice. Clever.