Stéphane Belmont, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s director of heritage and rare pieces, tells iW about the genesis of the new Jaeger-LeCoultre Polaris collection that debuted earlier this year.
What is the significance of Polaris Memovox for Jaeger-LeCoultre?
It is a very interesting watch in many ways. The Memovox itself is one of the very few diving watches with an alarm. The first diving watch with an alarm was the Deep Sea Alarm Automatic, which we created in 1959. We did one for Europe and another one for the United States. It was the first diving watch really without a rotating bezel. It uses the alarm to record the diving time. And the sound is even better underwater than in the air.
To us this was a better way to make a diving watch–where the alarm is the reminder of the diving time. That is what makes the Polaris (which debuted in 1965) very interesting. The Deep Sea was a 39mm watch, whereas the Polaris was much bigger at 42mm. So that makes it one of the first watches of its type with a larger diameter. You can feel that it was a transition to the 1970s, and even to the watches of today.
How have you retained those design cues in the new Polaris collection?
With its large opening, you can see that its design is totally different from traditional diving watches. Aesthetically it stands out from other diving watches. You have a lot of space on the dial, so we had the space to integrate new functions.
There was also a domed crystal providing certain elegance. We re-created this in the new collection. It gives a maximum opening to the dial, and the bezel remains very thin. Collectors have been searching for this watch for the past fifteen years. At the beginning of the 2000s, it used to sell for $1,000-$1,500, and today it is hard to find one in good condition below $30,000 or $40,000.
This is from collectors, who have acclaimed the watch. That is also why we decided to use this watch. And there is some rarity involved, with roughly 1,200 made, and there were many different styles. There were dials that were more classic with metallic indexes. In the late 1960s there were dials with luminescence materials. Around 1968 we produced about 800 of those.
For import it was Jaeger-LeCoultre and for export it was LeCoultre, made for the American market (Memovox models for the American market were printed and engraved with LeCoultre instead of Jaeger-LeCoultre until 1980). We reprised this with our 40th anniversary version in 2008.
What elements of that original Polaris did you want to be sure were included in this re-edition?
We had long discussions about which elements to keep, about which elements to improve. The layout of the dial was very important because in the original it is designed around the functions. The disc of the Memovox is in the center, surrounded by the figures, and then the internal rotating bezel.
You have three surfaces. And they were each finished with a different type of finish so that even with the same color you would have different reflections. There may be different tones of black, for example, and that is what we wanted to keep with this re-edition–one color with different finishes on the dial.
Plus, Jaeger-LeCoultre typically has four Arabic numbers, and we wanted to also keep that, as well as the trapezoidal indexes. So we used metallic indexes and metallic numbers– not just printed. And those metallic elements are filled with the luminous substance. This means the finishing is at the high level you would expect. So we have the same design, but expressed with higher level of finishing than in the past.
We also wanted to improve the case, so we made it a bit more masculine. It has better ergonomics compared to the original. In terms of finishing, we worked on the surfaces so you have some polished angles, some brushed surfaces. The finishing is very important for the final design. We made so many prototypes until we found the correct finishing. So we made a new case, but retained the large opening of the dial.
What were some of the challenges with this collection?
Eventually, one of the biggest challenges was to integrate the functions. Remember that the original design was made around the central disc. You would, for instance, take out the alarm and use that space for the chronograph.
That is why we decided to use just a two-counter chronograph. There aren’t too many subdials on the watch as a result. It was all about trying to integrate the functions while keeping the design and the graphics of that dial.
We now have five models: the original Memovox 42 mm size, with date, the 41mm automatic, the 42 mm chronograph, 44mm chronograph world time, plus the Geographic (42mm).
We were also careful with the colors. The original was in black, but as we looked at the vintage Memovox of the time, there were many blue dials, especially in the 1960s, like the Snowdrop that we used two years ago for a Memovox special edition. That is why we did blue dials because not only are they popular today but they were in the spirit of the 1960s and 1970s.
The two main issues were to integrate the functions, and to find the right balance between the functions and the graphics and the case, for which we tried many different designs. Look at the final case and remember that we tried many different versions before settling on this one. This one is kind of classical yet a bit more contemporary then the original.
Cases are all similar except for the alarm and for the date version, where we kept the original caseback with the engraving. For all of the others we have open cases to see the movements. Some collectors like to have the original casebacks, so that is why we decided to keep that on the 42mm version.
Was pricing an important factor?
Previously all of our sports watches were more expensive than our classic watches, and we thought that was an issue. So we wanted to have a sports watch at least at the same price to a classic watch with comparable functions. Prices for this collection began at $6,500. The prices top off at $23,900 for the rose gold chronograph with world time. The brushed finish on this rose gold chronograph means it is not too shiny on the wrist. We expect the rose gold to perform surprisingly well.
We are watchmakers, and we focus on the case and the dial and the movements. But for Polaris we also focused on the straps, and we’ve designed all new croco straps and others with different finishes. These were made specifically for this collection–as was the brand new metal bracelet. This adds interest to the new collection, in part also because they are interchangeable, including the buckle. This all adds up to enhance the experience with the watch.