SINGAPORE (Aug 27):  Everything old is new again. In Hollywood, remakes are the order of the day. We have already witnessed the Tomb Raider reboot, and later this year, we will be treated to an update of Robin Hood. In the fashion universe, 1990s-style logomania is back, with big players such as Burberry, Dior, Gucci, Valentino and Versace plastering their offerings with House motifs, if only to ensure that their handbags, sweatshirts and sneakers stand out from the millions of #ootd posts on Instagram.

Remakes are nothing new to watchmaking brands. With the most historic marques being centuries old, there is plenty of reference material from which to derive inspiration.

For 185-year-old Jaeger-LeCoultre, 2018 is all about the Polaris, a collection built around a 1968 model, the Memovox Polaris. The Memovox line, which made its debut in 1950, owes its name — the Voice of Memory — to the mechanical alarm function designed to help businessmen remember their meetings.

Five models make up the current collection. There is an Automatic, a Chronograph, a Chronograph WorldTime, a Date and a Memovox. The latter two are direct tributes to the 1968 model; one look is all it takes to discern the family resemblance.


Five models make up the current collection: An Automatic, a Chronograph (above), a Chronograph WorldTime, a Date and a Memovox (below).

 

The five watches, along with the original timepiece and other associated vintage pieces, were the subject of an exhibition that ran from July 19 to 29 at ION Orchard.

Stéphane Belmont, the brand’s maison heritage and rare pieces director, who was in town for the showcase, says: “Vintage is a way for people to be confident in what they buy. There is less risk in buying [a watch with a history]. Doing vintage watches is a way to say, ‘Look, I was there before the other brands’, ‘The product was already successful’ and so on.”

Certainly, this strategy is helpful in a market flooded with entry-level luxury sports watches, the category that the Polaris collection falls into. Lucky, then, that Jaeger-LeCoultre has a vast archive of watches to create a self-referential collection with substance.

Market forces — which Belmont says influences half of the decision-making process when it comes to new launches — also dictated the Polaris’ creation. Five markets, in particular, were responsible: France, Italy, the US, Hong Kong and Singapore. These markets “are very much into vintage watches”.

On the secondary market, vintage Memovox Polaris and Memovox Deep Sea watches have been achieving decent prices at auction. “It’s nothing to compare with the Pateks and Rolexes, but they sell for between €50,000 ($78,276) and €100,000. That’s a good price.”

The brand eventually settled on the Polaris rather than the Deep Sea, as the design of the Polaris was more versatile. Both were dive watches. But while the Deep Sea had an external rotating bezel to time dives, the Polaris sported an internal rotating bezel, giving the watch a “cleaner” look.

The original Polaris also sported modern dimensions: its case was 42mm in diameter, at a time when prevailing tastes dictated a more modest 34mm or 36mm.

Belmont says the cases were subtly redesigned to be more ergonomic, in line with current expectations. The sizes range from 41mm to 44mm. The crowns have also been redesigned for a better grip.

In reimagining the Polaris, one of the main considerations was also the case back. Was it better to have a closed case back, as in the original? Or to have it open, revealing its beating heart, as is demanded by so many horological enthusiasts these days?

The 1968 Polaris featured a triple case back construction that optimised sound transmission underwater (divers used the alarm function to alert them of the dive time remaining) as well as to ensure water resistance to 200m.

“People are now more concerned with what they buy,” offers Belmont. “They want to see the watchmaking content. It’s very much a part of the experience when they come to Jaeger-LeCoultre.” All five watches are equipped with in-house mechanical movements.

In the end, it was decided that the Date and Memovox models — those closest in spirit to the original — would be endowed with a closed back, while the other three would sport open ones.

The rationale, according to Belmont, is that the Memovox is intended for collectors and the brand’s more traditional clientele, who know the watch and are willing to pay extra for the alarm function.

“But, for many people, design is more important than function. The Date also has a closed back, so you can get a watch that is very similar to the original one without having to pay the extra price.”

On the 1968 version, the hands, numerals and hour markers were coated with luminescent Tritium material. To pay homage to that, the same elements on the Date and Memovox models feature vintage vanilla-coloured Super-LumiNova.

Elsewhere on the dial, thought was put into articulating a finely wrought feel. As a result, there are three types of finishes on three concentric circles: an opaline finish on the rotating inner bezel, graining on the hours-and-minutes circle, and sunray finishing on the dial centre.

The case and dial were not the only ones to receive a makeover; the strap, too, was taken back to the drawing board.

Now, there are several straps to choose from: a newly designed three-link steel bracelet with polished and brushed finishes; alligator or calf leather straps, the latter available in light or dark brown tones with an aged patina; and rubber straps reminiscent of the original caoutchouc straps.

“Eventually, the success of the watch is also the price,” admits Belmont. “We wanted to create something well-finished… for a reasonable price. That was the major challenge.”

With prices ranging from $10,400 (including GST) for the Automatic with calf strap to $36,400 for the Chronograph in rose gold, the collection cannot be considered a bargain, but offers value for money, given the level of finishing and detailing.

As for why all five models were launched at one go, Belmont explains: “That’s again something we learnt from the past and something that’s coming from the market. When we launched the Master Compressor, the Amvox and the (Reverso) Squadra, we presented one model (in one year) and maybe a second one the year after. You could really understand the collection only after four, five or six years. People were not sure whether it was just one model or a new collection. You don’t go for a product if you don’t know what it is. We thought it was very important to present the whole collection at once. To make a statement that it’s a new collection, something that will remain over time, so that you can understand the spirit of the collection from the very beginning.”
 


Timothy Chiang is a design junkie through and through, believing that everything from a doorknob to the entire building needs to display thoughtful design. He lives for meeting design luminaries.

This article appeared in Issue 845 (Aug 27) of The Edge Singapore.

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