Jaeger-LeCoultre: A Guide for the Collector
Review by Bruce Shawkey
Wristwatch collectors are in for a treat this fall with the release of the first significant book ever written about LeCoultre and Jaeger-LeCoultre (JLC) watches. Authored and published by Zaf Basha, a longtime LeCoultre and JLC collector and historian, the 204-page hardcover book chronicles many of this company's amazing achievements -- both in technology and design -- with wonderful high-resolution color photographs and never-before-published technical and production data.
While the author covers the history of LeCoultre from its founding in 1833 to the present, he concentrates on the time period 1925 (when LeCoultre introduced its first production wristwatch) to the mid-1970s. This "Golden Age" of LeCoultre is what interests the author the most, and likewise the bulk of LeCoultre and JLC collectors. After giving us a brief history of the company, the author takes us on a chronological journey of the company's major accomplishments in wristwatch manufacture, starting with the Duoplan, and ending with the Caliber 906 chronometers.
In between, we find a full and rich discussion of such famous LeCoultre models as the Reverso; the Calendar watches (including triple date moonphase); chronographs; military watches; the Memovox (alarm); and the famous Futurematic.
Let me emphasize from the outset: This is not just a book for the LeCoultre/JLC enthusiast. Every devoted collector of wristwatches -- regardless of his or her favorite brand or type -- should seriously consider owning this book. The pioneering work of JLC -- both in technology and design aesthetics -- has been emulated to one degree or another by just about every other watch manufacturer at some point in history. The serious collector would do well to see where much of the innovation in wristwatches started.
One of my favorite chapters deals with what is arguably LeCoultre's most famous watch, the Reverso, so named because the entire watch -- case, movement, and crystal -- can be flipped over on its reverse side without removing the watch from the wrist. The reverse side reveals a solid metal surface, thus protecting and the crystal and movement from the elements and, in the process, making a pretty darned nice looking bracelet. Originally designed as a sport watch (specifically polo) the ingenious design quickly caught on as a dress watch. So excited was the company about the case, that they brought it to market before even having their own movement to put inside it! For the first two years of the Reverso’s production, the company purchased movements from Tavannes until they invented and produced their own movement for the watch, the Caliber 11.
Several manufacturers tried to copy the Reverso, but it was never duplicated. Partially due to the many patents that LeCoultre held (and still holds) on the case design, and partially due to the extreme craftsmanship, there is no equal to the LeCoultre Reverso. (They continue to manufacture them to this day.) To hold one in your hand is the equivalent of sitting behind the wheel of a fine German automobile. It’s hard to describe in words, but in 22 pages devoted to this wonderful watch, the author comes pretty darned close.
Another of my favorite chapters is devoted to the Futurematic, LeCoultre’s patented automatic watch that has no winding/setting crown located on the perimeter of the case. A small set button on the reverse side of watch serves as the setting mechanism, and the weight rotor inside the watch serves as the sole means of winding the watch. (Most other automatic watches can be wound either by the motion of the rotor, or by manual winding of the crown.) Introduced in 1952, it “continues to fascinate [collectors] due to the purity of its lines and the complexity of its movement,” according to the author.
Most collectors are aware that the Futurematic came in two basic designs. The first featured a dial with two small holes at the 9:00 and 3:00 positions. Behind those holes were rotating discs. The disc at the 9:00 position changed from one color to another to indicate how much power reserve was left on the mainspring. The disc at the 3:00 position was the constant moving seconds and contained a pointer or other printed marker that was calibrated to a seconds scale printed on the main dial. This version is often referred to as the “Porthole Futurematic,” as the holes in the dials are reminiscent of portholes on a ship. The second design does away with the portholes, using instead two small hands calibrated to printed information on the dial (amount of power reserve on the left, and seconds on the right).
But what many collectors do not realize is that within those two main dial types, there exists a wide variety of subtle (and not so subtle) design variations. When you couple that with myriad case designs and metallic compositions (gold, gold filled, and stainless steel), you can easily see how a collector could make a career simply out of acquiring every possible Futurematic permutation. While the author doesn’t mention a number, I’m sure it’s in the hundreds of variations. We are fortunate to see no fewer than 15 different Futurematic models in full color in the course of 23 pages that are devoted to this wonderful watch.
For the military enthusiast, there’s an entire chapter devoted to military LeCoultre wristwatches, beginning with the Weems Navigation Watch (bet you only thought L ongines made the Weems, right?) of the 1930s, to the British military watches of the 1950s. Included in the chapter are never-before-seen copies of actual military documentation detailing the exact specifications for various models. Fascinating stuff!
There was probably no person better suited to writing this book than Zaf Basha. He has devoted the better part of the last 20 years to collecting and studying LeCoultre. He is known in the hobby/business of watches as the “go-to man“ on LeCoultre, and has generously shared his knowledge with many a collector over the years, including this writer. He came up through the ranks the old-fashioned way ... by trial and error. Buying, selling, trading. Yes, finding treasures, but also getting stung a time or two. (He shares his knowledge about how to avoid the pitfalls in numerous “Collector Tips” scattered throughout the book.) Over the years, he has talked with many collectors, picking up bits of information here and there. He eventually ingratiated himself with the company itself, earning the trust of a few “insiders” who provided many tidbits that wound up in this book.
The book itself has been four years in the making, beginning in 2004. So to say that this book is a labor of love would be an understatement. Significant to many collectors will be the serial number listings and production figures (some estimated) for many of the movements. The author has gleaned this information over many years from factory sources and his own exhaustive efforts of tracking serial numbers. I’m not going to reveal any of that juicy information here; you’ll have to buy the book!
One of the greatest services he does the collector is dispel the notion held by many that watches signed LeCoultre are in any way inferior to those signed Jaeger LeCoultre. The author spends about a page describing that the distinction was mostly a solution on the manufacturer’s part to get around the complicated system of import duties imposed by certain countries, notably the United States. Thus, watches sold in North America were for decades sold under the LeCoultre label, while Europe and the rest of the world saw watches that were signed Jaeger LeCoultre. (In 1985, the name Jaeger LeCoultre was adopted uniformly worldwide.) The movements fitted into the LeCoultre and JLC watches are identical in every way. And, as such, says the author, “North American watches should be embraced by the collector as an additional collecting opportunity, and not something to avoid.”
I have a few minor sticking points about the book. Somewhere, maybe in the beginning history section of the book, I wish the author would have explained the significance of the signature “A. LeCoultre” found on some watch movements. I think this has confused many collectors (including myself) for years. Secondly, I think the author would have done well to add a cautionary note (“Collector Tip”) about the Caliber 497, which is found in most of the Futurematics. The movement is so unique, and so complicated (compared to other automatic movements) that many watchmakers do not know how to work on them and so have botched up the movements over the years. Further, many of watches suffered abuse over the years at the hands of their original owners who insisted on pulling the set disc on the back (you always slide it, you never pull it) and/or subjected the watch to moisture. As a result, many Futurematics are found today in broken condition, notably the setting mechanism. And, as many an unsuspecting collector has found out, replacement parts for the Caliber 497 -- notably the setting parts -- are near impossible to find.
But these are minor criticisms that the author will have ample opportunity to address in what I’m hoping will be future editions of this book. (He is limiting this first edition to 500 copies.) This is a wonderful and much-overdue book about a brand that has largely been overlooked by the horological press.
If you’re looking for a compilation of every kind of wristwatch LeCoultre ever made, you won‘t find it here. That book has yet to be written. The author has taken a cross-section of the models that are of most interest to him, and probably of most interest to a good portion of collectors. But there are hundreds, if not thousands, of different men’s and ladies’ watches -- rounds, squares, rectangulars, and asymmetricals -- to be found. And you know what? Most of them are eminently affordable to the collector of average means. I think that’s what draws many collectors to LeCoultre. You have the quality of a high-end brand, like a Patek Philippe or a Vacheron & Constantin, but the average collector can actually afford to buy one. Or several! My personal favorites are the watches that came out in the 1950s in the design of retro-modern. No manufacturer, in my opinion, quite captured the essence of this wonderful design craze like LeCoultre. The author does an excellent job of capturing the excitement of this brand, and when this book is published, I have a feeling many more watch collectors will be focusing their sights on LeCoultre.
Purchasing information: The author is offering this book at $99 plus $10 shipping ($49 for international) by contacting him directly at the following address: Zaf Basha, P.O. Box 21563, Washington, DC 20009. Or you can contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.