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Review of the Jaeger-Le Coultre Reverso Duo

by mj@basepath.com

©1998 by Marc J. Rochkind. All Rights Reserved. Permission is hereby granted to Richard Paige to place a copy of this article in the TimeZone archives.

Jaeger-Le Coultre Reverso Duo
Stainless steel
Ostrich strap
270.840.544 (M)
List price $6250
Also available in gold and pink gold,
and with crocodile strap or bracelet.

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The Reverso Duo doing a reverse. Pictures are from the JLC web site.

Introduction

pic1.gif (18802 bytes)The well-known story is that the Reverso was created in 1931 at the request of British polo players in India who wanted a watch that would hold up to the roughness of the sport. I suppose this story is true enough, although we don't know whether the idea was offered in jest over drinks in the bar while commiserating over yet another broken crystal, or whether there was a formal Request for Proposal from the British-Indian Polo Association, or--most likely--something in between. After all, why wouldn't a British polo player just leave his watch with one of his Indian servants, or put it in his pocket? He couldn't read the time with the watch reversed anyway, and wouldn't the engraved back get damaged, too? Probably the truth is that the Reverso idea was inspired by the need to wear a watch while playing a sport, whether in fact the resulting design was ever used for that purpose. In this sense, the Reverso may have been the first sports watch.

Today, the Reverso idea, that you can reverse the case without removing the watch from your wrist, constitutes half of JLC's product line, the other half being the (round) Master series. Having another side opens all sorts of creative design opportunities, and JLC has exploited them aggressively, with numerous Reverso models. The metal back is often engraved, although there are also enameled backs (in a series showing pictures of the four seasons, for example) and jeweled backs.

But the most interesting ones have a sapphire back as well as front. Clearly, this is far removed from the original idea, which was to reverse the watch to protect the crystal, but, ironically, sapphire is more scratch-proof than a metal back anyway, although maybe not more impact-proof. Besides, nobody nowadays wears a Reverso when playing polo or performing any other rough activity. Today, the Reverso is clearly a dress watch.

With a sapphire back, the most obvious thing to do is to show the movement, which many conventional watches also do. But, unlike a conventional watch, the Reverso allows you to see the movement without taking the watch off your wrist. Examples are the Art Deco, 60ÈME, and Tourbillon models. Or, the reverse side can be used for another dial, as in the Duetto, which has dressy and sporty dials. The Duo uses the back to show another time zone, along with a night-or-day indicator on a 24-hour subdial, in place of the small seconds dial. Also, the front dial is white, and the back is black, giving you a choice of color.

There are three broad groups of Reversos: Limited editions, the regular ones (including the Duo), and heavily jeweled lady's watches. Lately, JLC has introduced a new Reverso about once a year. The Duo was introduced in 1994. I hear from a dealer that a diver's Reverso will be introduced sometime soon. And JLC is likely to keep adding to the Reverso line for years to come.

JLC has an outstanding catalog called "The Manufacturer's Book of Timepieces." It's a beautifully illustrated hardbound 228-page volume that's a joy to read, even if you're not looking to choose a watch from it. There's another JLC book on the Reverso called "Reverso: The Living Legend," but, alas, I haven't seen a copy of it. Finally, JLC has an outstanding web site. Indeed, more than almost any other Swiss watchmaker, they have embraced the Internet, as demonstrated by their advertising on TimeZone.

There are two TimeZone articles by Michael Friedberg about the early history of the Reverso, #19 and #22.

I bought my Duo from Richard Paige of Paris 1925, but they are no longer JLC dealers, so you're on your own. You won't find it hard to find JLCs, however, as they're widely available.

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Figures 1 and 2

The Case

The Reverso case is its most distinguishing feature. It consists of two principal parts, the carriage, to which the strap is affixed, and the head, which is attached to the carriage with two pins that slide in a track (Figures 3 and 4). (You may find the carriage, which is what JLC calls it, referred to as a brancard, which is French for "stretcher," or so I understand. The term "head" is what I call the moving part; JLC doesn't seem to have a term.) The case is made up of more than 55 separate pieces.

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Figures 3 and 4

When closed, the two pieces fit so perfectly that the watch almost appears to be a solid piece of metal, so it doesn't look like a trick watch, which would be distracting. At the same time, when you push the head to reverse it, the spring-loaded button latch (shown in Figure 4) easily releases, and the head slides with silky smoothness. You have to experience this for yourself to really appreciate it. The machining and assembly are perfect. I would assume that the fit would loosen eventually, but even then the latch design should keep the parts aligned when closed.

The bottom of the carriage is machined with a fine pattern that dances when you move it, as the light hits it at various angles. This is a nice touch for a part of the watch that is normally obscured. The exposed part of the carriage and the head are polished, and, as you can see from the pictures, the other surfaces are brushed.

The streamlining of the carriage and the parallel groves at the ends of the head are in the style of Art Deco, popular in the thirties, when the Reverso was designed. It's interesting to compare the Reverso with other Art Deco objects, such as the Boulder Theatre (Figure 5), which was built in 1936. Note the parallel lines on the trim around the theatre marquee and the green ornamental cylinder at the front of the sign. The pattern on the theatre facade even echoes the guiloché on the watch dial, especially the black side (Figures 8 and 9, below).

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Figure 5

All that disturbs the smoothly rounded edges of the head are the crown, used for winding and setting, and a small pusher for jumping the hour of the back dial.

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Figure 6

Both crystals are identical. They're very slightly curved to exactly match the slight curvature of the head, as shown in Figure 4. They're flush with the head where the two meet, save for an almost invisible gap that you can feel with your fingernail, but not really see.

Every part of the case shows extreme attention to detail of design and manufacture. I've inspected it at length with a high-powered loupe looking for flaws (between the parallel groves at the end of the head, for example), and found none.

The back of the Reverso's head is the back that one usually talks about, but, of course, there is also the back of the carriage, shown in Figure 7. The model number, 270854, is engraved on the side, and the serial number, 1871195, is at the bottom.

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Figure 7

Finally, note that when reversed (Figures 2 and 9) the Reverso's crown is on the left, making it one of the finest of the very few left-handed watches made.

Dimensions and Weight

The Duo carriage measures 26mm by 42mm, and the watch 10mm thick overall. This is the large size Reverso, of which the Duo is only one model; other men's models are somewhat smaller, and women's models smaller still. The head is 31mm long and 8.5mm thick, but these dimensions don't affect the appearance of the watch because you don't see them when the head is clicked into the carriage.

As rectangular watches in general go, the Duo is very big. Scanning through "Watches Volume 3 (1998 Annual)" looking for rectangular watches whose dimensions were stated, I found none as large, and only a few, made by Longines, even close. If you normally stay away from rectangular watches because they tend to be small, the large size Reversos may be for you. While the 26mm dimension is indeed small, the length and thickness make up for it.

However, the Reverso is a little thicker than a dress watch ought to be, although there is no hard and fast rule. One slight problem is that the watch tends to roll sideways if the strap is worn loosely, because the 26mm dimension isn't enough to keep it flat. Looking at it numerically, the horizontal aspect ratio is 2.6:1, which very low for a watch, although the Chronoswiss Opus is even boxier. Remember, though, that the Duo doesn't really look boxy because it is very long and, as I've noted, it's streamlined.

The Duo weighs about 65 grams.

The Strap

As shown in Figure 6, the strap fits between the horns so as to continue the streamlining of the case. This is common with bracelet watches, but fairly unusual with a strap. The horns are there, but the design makes it look like the strap goes right into the carriage.

Ostrich goes well with this watch, and I prefer light brown for a strap color, unless the watch is gold and I'm going to wear it only as a dress watch. Another choice besides ostrich might have been alligator, but the squarish pattern of that leather may have clashed with the lines on the head. In any event, JLC doesn't offer alligator.

The buckle works well enough, but its metal seems to be a bit thin for a watch of this level. A deployant clasp is available for some Reversos with straps, but wasn't offered as an option when I got mine, and I'm not sure I would have paid extra for it anyway.

The strap is padded just enough to make it flush with the carriage. The gap between the horns is 19mm, which is standard enough, but it might be hard to find an after-market strap with just the right amount of padding. Fortunately, I'm not yet in need of one. This may be one watch where I end up ordering a replacement strap from the manufacturer.

The Dials

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Figures 8 and 9

The front dial is silver in color (and perhaps in material as well) with black numerals and markers. Small seconds are at 6 o'clock. Both the main and seconds dials echo the rectangle of the case--note that the tick marks and the numerals follow a rectangular layout. The guiloché work is within a rectangular "lawn" in the center of both the main and seconds dials, and also in a very thin border around the outside of the dial. Unfortunately, my picture doesn't do the workmanship of this dial justice. You need to examine the real article with a loupe to really grasp how much effort JLC has expended here.

The hands are blued steel. No tritium.

The back dial is black, and looks to me even more Art Deco than the front. Now the dial is round, and the hands are thicker. The main numerals (3, 9, and 12), the hour and minute hands, and the 24-hour hand all have tritium on them. So, the back side, in addition to being for a different time zone, also doubles as the night side. In addition, since the dial is another color and has a different design, reversing the Duo also gives you a change of pace. Truly two watches in one.

The guiloché pattern on the back side is even more elaborate and beautiful than on the front.

What's going on here, I think, is that the front has a classic Reverso look, whereas the back, new with the Duo, was a fresh opportunity for JLC to show what they can do. Needless to say, I like the back much more than the front. If fact, I would go so far as to say that the Duo's back has the most attractive dial of any watch I've seen, including my Lange 1.

The Movement

While a Reverso's case might be its distinguishing feature, it's functionality, like all watches, is due to its movement. JLC uses at least 10 different calibers for the various Reversos, all rectangular in shape and all made entirely by JLC. Caliber 854 is used only in the Duo.

The front of the movement is ordinary enough, since it supports only the hour and minute hands and the small seconds. The back, however, is special because its hands move in the opposite direction from the front hands. (If they moved in the same direction the back would run in a counterclockwise direction.) Also, there's an extra mechanism to declutch the hour hand and move it by one hour when the pusher is pressed. Incidentally, that's the only movement you can make with it--you can't set the back dial to an arbitrary time relative to the front dial.

There's no second hand on the back dial, but rather a 24-hour hand that also moves when you press the pusher. You can't press the pusher with your finger, but a toothpick will do the trick. JLC also includes a little tool with a highly polished stainless steel end (Figure 10), which I assume won't scratch the pusher. I doubt that many Duo owners would carry it with them or know where they put it when they cross a time zone. In fact, the ideal tool to use, which is usually handy when you need it, is the plastic fork you get with your coach airplane meal. Or, do Reverso Duo owner's fly first class, and get metal? If so, they can use the plastic toothpick on their Swiss Army knife or the swizzle stick that came with their gin and tonic.

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Figure 10

As you may have guessed by now, the Duo is manually wound. I guess even the clever JLC engineers haven't figured how to give a rotor room to swing when there are back-to-back dials.

The 854 movement beats at 21,600 v/h. It has 21 jewels and 180 parts, and is 3.8mm thick. From the picture in the catalog it looks well finished, but the picture is too small and I'm not an expert on these things anyway. With no display back, the only way to see the movement is to disassemble the watch, but even people who don't mind unscrewing a back would probably hesitate to take a Reverso apart, which is literally what you have to do to get at the movement.

The instruction booklet that came with the Duo says that the 854 has been adjusted and tested in 5 positions.

Performance

I never really measured the Duo's performance, but I do know that it keeps time more than well enough for me. Since I don't wear it every day and it's manually wound, I can't put it on a winder to keep it running, so I let it run down after wearing it. I wind it once a week or so just to keep the movement exercised, but I don't set it unless I'm ready to wear it.

The Duo doesn't have a hack (stopping) second hand, but it's easy to get the second hand to stop by putting pressure on the crown when you're setting the watch. However, I never do this--I just set the minute hand and ignore the second hand. The back dial, which I prefer, doesn't have a second hand anyway.

The winding crown is silky smooth, and the pusher operates crisply.

Packaging and Paperwork

The Duo comes in a hinged vinyl-clad box with a plush, padded inside and a little pillow for the watch. There's a ribbon for pulling the insert out of the box, which uncovers a thick cloth folded into three sections with the JLC logo on it. I don't know what the cloth is for--maybe it's for the dealer to use when showing the watch to a customer. It seems too thick to be a polishing cloth, but I could be wrong.

There are three booklets in a cardboard slip case. The smallest one (a folded card, really) contains a space for the dealer to affix its stamp and to write the name of the owner and the serial number. It warns that the warranty is valid only if the watch is purchased from an authorized dealer and if all maintenance is performed by an authorized service center. The second booklet is the guarantee itself, which is for one year. It's a generic booklet for all JLC products, including Atmos clocks. It states that water resistant watches have a fish symbol on their back, which, of course, the Duo does not have.

The largest booklet, at 254 pages, looks at first glance like it has a lot of information, but that's not true. It covers 8 Reversos in 7 languages, and repeats everything in each language section, including the photographs. Out of the 254 pages, only 7 apply to the Duo. (When I first got my Duo I sat down with great anticipation to read this book. Boy, was I disappointed!)

The booklet says that your dealer should inspect the watch for resistant to "outside elements" once a year, that a full service is needed every 4 to 5 years, and that this may take from 2 to 6 weeks.

Final Comments

Because of its history and design, I will comment separately on the Reverso as a collector's item and as a wristwatch.

As a collector's item, the Duo is one of the more unusual watches, and at a very affordable price. The Reverso design is nearly 40 years old, and, as JLC points out, it is one of the few Art Deco products still being made. I find the idea of a watch with two faces, set to different time zones, very compelling, and I love to reverse the watch just to feel the parts glide against one another. So, I'm very happy I have this watch in my collection. I don't quite have the full Reverso experience, which would include choosing a custom engraving for the back, but I like the watch just the same. It's also lots of fun to show the watch to others who don't know about Reversos.

As a wristwatch, some shortcomings of the Reverso design should be noted. First of all, Reversos are now dress watches, not sport watches (despite their history), and, as dress watches, they are a little thick. Also, rectangular watches not even as long as the Reverso are often curved to follow the wrist, but this is impossible for a Reverso, since the head has two sides.

What I like about the Reverso is that it is incredibly well finished, it has two time zones, and it has both dressy and less-dressy faces. I also like its size, large for a rectangular watch, and this makes it probably the only rectangular watch I would wear, as I don't like small, or even medium-sized, watches.

Again, as a wristwatch, not a collector's item, the Reverso is somewhat wasted on me, as I very rarely need a dress watch, and I don't like the way the Reverso looks on me when I'm dressed casually. So, I've only worn it maybe 3 or 4 times since I got it last April. But, this is just a statement about me and the Reverso, not a statement about the Reverso in and of itself. If you wear a dress watch fairly often, the Reverso is a bit less dressy than most, and it may be perfect for you. If you do get one, consider gold, which is perhaps more appropriate for a dress watch.

I need also to disclose that I have other watches besides the Reverso, including some pretty good ones. For example, if I'm wearing just a sport coat with an open collar shirt, I might not wear the Reverso, although I certainly could--it would look fine. I might wear a Lange 1 instead. This is another reason why my Reverso rarely gets out.

I'll summarize everything this way: The Reverso Duo is an outstanding design, impeccably executed. But, because it's somewhat unusual, you should think carefully (as I probably did not) about whether it is the watch for you.


All photographs other than the reversing sequence and the polo picture were taken by the author with a Sony Mavica MVC-FD7 digital camera. The "inverted light bowl" technique described in the TimeZone Archives article Lighting Watch photos was used for many of the shots.

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