EDITOR’S PICK: The origins of the Jaeger-LeCoultre Polaris

EDITOR’S PICK: The origins of the Jaeger-LeCoultre Polaris

Editor’s note: Earlier this week we ran a video that looked at Jaeger-LeCoultre’s new Polaris collection. While this video was being put together I found myself referring back to Andy’s article from earlier this year, which looked at the very interesting Polaris backstory. So here it is again, the story behind the Polaris. And, yes, I’m still holding out hope for a Polaris II. 

Today we’re looking back at the iconic Jaeger-LeCoultre Memovox Polaris, an extremely rare and somewhat mysterious dive watch — which lately has been garnering a lot of attention.

The Memovox Polaris was an extremely functional offering, delivered by Jaeger-LeCoultre during a time when the world was fascinated by deep sea exploration. The 1950s and ’60s are referred to as the ‘golden age’ of dive watchmaking, and the Polaris was certainly a highlight of that period, which is why we’re taking a look at it today.

Jaeger-LeCoultre Memovox Polaris. Image: christies.com

Most of you should be familiar with the famous Jaeger-LeCoultre Memovox, given recent reissue pieces and famous ‘barn finds’ in the last few years. But if you’re new to the JLC Memovox Polaris (ref E859), we can understand why. Only 1714 were made — making it far less common than the Memomox timepieces from the same period.

The first Memovox Polaris prototype was developed by Jaeger-LeCoultre in the early 1960s, before being released in minimal volumes in the late ’60s. Basically, it was a beefed-up Memovox — designed with deep-diving and wetsuits in mind (not cocktails and tailored suits).

So, how was the Memovox Polaris different to a ‘regular Memovox’? Well, firstly, the Polaris was a dive watch (not a dress watch), with a significant 200m waterproofness. Size-wise, the Polaris was also substantially bigger, both in width and thickness. A regular Memovox from the same period was around 37mm, and the Polaris was a much larger (for the time, anyway) 42mm.

Jaeger-LeCoultre Memovox Polaris. Image: christies.com

Both the Memovox and the Memovox Polaris share several features, which are a big part of why it’s such a desirable model in today’s market. Stylistically, the Polaris was beautiful and refined, much like the standard Memovox, all the while having the exceptional robust functionality you’d expect to see in a dive watch. Overall, the design was refined, tasteful and legible, which set it apart from other utilitarian designs from this time. It was a tool watch that ticked ALL of the boxes — that didn’t look like a tool watch.

The Polaris’s super-compressor case was designed to become more watertight as pressure increased. This meant significantly greater water resistance — now 200m — and an increased longevity of the inner O-rings.

Additionally, both models also shared the same movement, and, of course, the mechanical alarm complication, albeit a little different in the Polaris. It’s a useful feature, which allows you to keep track of time, even when underwater. This is thanks to the unique exterior case back, featuring 16 holes, which give the chimes a louder, more powerful sound. Over the years we’ve seen plenty of watches (from JLC and others), dive or otherwise, feature a similar alarm function.

Jaeger-LeCoultre Memovox Polaris. Image: christies.com

As the world entered the 1970s, we saw a second iteration of the Polaris — the JLC Memovox Polaris II (Ref. E870) — which we absolutely love. Produced for just a couple of years (1970-1972), the Polaris II was made in even smaller volume than the original Polaris — only 1120 were made. The Polaris II was a little more substantial, and a lot funkier, than the first edition. It’s a beautiful representation of the direction watch design took in the ’70s. The Polaris II was also available in three different dial colour variations: blue, grey and burgundy. Nowadays, owning a complete set of all three variations is extremely desirable.

Jaeger-LeCoultre Memovox Polaris II. Image: watchprosite.com

Stylistically, the Polaris II was one step further away from the classical and conservative Memovox, yet still balanced enough to remain within the design confines that make for a timeless wristwatch. In fact, aside from a jumbo case, the Polaris II was also arguably more legible than its predecessor, but otherwise functionally unchanged.

Recently, we’ve noticed a considerable resurgence in demand for the various Polaris models, and I can understand why. First of all, they’re timelessly good looking, with aesthetics that look and feel at home in 2018. Secondly, production volumes were low, and surviving good-condition examples are even lower.

When it comes to the JLC Polaris I specifically, lately we’ve noticed prices increasing quite rapidly. If you can find one, you’d expect to pay around AUD 30,000 for a decent example — maybe more. Auction house Christie’s sold this nice example in mid-2017 for around that price, demonstrating the achievability of the estimates we see online, in the handful of listings we could find. As for the Polaris II, they’re also commanding quite the premium, especially for collectors looking to own all three.

With SIHH only a few sleeps away, the time could well be right for a reissue — after all, the heritage-inspired Master Control was a huge hit for the brand last year, so a follow-up Jaeger-LeCoultre Polaris in 2018 makes perfect sense.

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