Watches & Cars

Gübelin Reverso / Chrysler Airflow
(Clicca qui per la versione in italiano)

This 1:18 diecast model reproduces the 1936 version of the Chrysler Airflow sedan. Introduced in 1934, the car was an engineering “tour de force”, featuring a surprising number of advances on conventional automobile design. The rounded streamlined forms, relocated and widened passenger compartment, engine mounted over the front axle and all-steel body set it apart from its competitors. Unfortunately, production problems and delays, as well as defects in early cars, hurt sales.

The model’s radical appearance, especially the front grille, was criticized, and rumors spread that the car was unsafe. Chrysler mounted an extensive campaign to counter these, showing that the Airflows were safer than nearly any other car. This video clip features a modern-day review along with original footage from the 1930s - the somewhat unusual crash tests seen here are worth watching.

Despite several changes in styling, the sales diminished year by year until production was discontinued in 1937. The Airflow was simply too far ahead of its times, but proved a milestone of automotive design. Among the models that drew inspiration from its engineering logic was the scaled-down version by Volkswagen widely known as the “Beetle” (1936).

An artist's view of the car. "Profile Airflow" by Claes Oldenburg (1969). Molded polyurethane relief over lithograph

As the Airflow was not an ordinary car, one could not expect its driver to wear an ordinary timepiece. The question is, where did he get an un-ordinary wristwatch, something that nearly no one else in the United States could strap to his wrist? The answer lies in the following story – fictional, but entirely plausible. 

Autumn 1936. Mr John Smith was sitting at the desk of his office on 47th Avenue, New York, when the phone rang. “Mr Frisch from Gübelin for you”, said Elizabeth, his secretary.
Frisch?, Smith wondered. Perhaps the necklace he had ordered for his wife’s birthday was delivered already from Switzerland. But how unusual for the shop manager to phone personally. “Put him through”.
This building hosted the New York branch of Gübelin in the 1930s

“Good morning Mr Smith”, said the voice on the other end of the line.
“Good morning Mr Frisch. To what do I owe this pleasure? I hope your secretary has not deserted you”.
“Thanks God Jane is still with us and efficient as ever. It is just that I wanted to tell you this personally”. Frisch sounded excited, not his usual businesslike self.
“Tell me what? My wife’s necklace got lost?”.
“Necklace …? No, God forbid. We expect it in two weeks. It is about a watch we have just received. Are you still looking for something different? Something as stunning as your Airflow?”, Frisch asked.

What an astute salesman, Smith thought. “Are you going to tell me you found it?”, he asked.
“I can only say I have seen nothing like this before. Well I saw the picture when I ordered it from Luzern, but what counts is the real-life object – which is truly remarkable. I hope you will agree”.
“Tell me then”.
“It is a bit difficult to explain on the phone. Perhaps you will be able to drop in …? I reserved it for you”.
“Reserved it?”
“A customer saw the watch while I was trying it on and wanted to buy it right away, so I took the liberty to tell him that someone else had reserved it. I was thinking you might be interested, but of course you are in no obligation. I asked for the gentleman’s business card so I will be able to contact him should you decide against the purchase”.
“OK, I'll see you fifteen minutes before closing time”.
Sometime later Smith walked the few hundred yards separating his law firm from the Gübelin premises and was met by Frisch in person. “Please follow me, Sir”, he said, and let him in his office.
“Here it is”, Frisch announced while placing a rectangular timepiece on a velvet presentation tray.

Smith picked it up. It did not look like the conventional shaped watches with a thin case and slightly curved back. It was thicker and featured two slots on the upper and lower ends of the rectangle. Another thin space was visible right beneath the winding crown. A gilded minute track defined the edge of the dial.
“It is … unusual”, Smith said.
“You have seen nothing yet”, Frisch said with a sly smile on his lips. “May I …?”, he added, while holding out his hand.

Smith handed him the timepiece and watched as Frisch manipulated it, then his jaw dropped: “What on earth…? How did you do it?”. In the blink of an eye, the dial and hands had disappeared and the smooth surface of the case back was now visible.
“I am no magician”, Frisch smiled; “anyone can do it. Try it yourself. You have to press on the side of the case, slide it laterally and then reverse it. By the way, “Reverso” is the actual name of the watch. Apparently, it was designed for polo players. The reversible case enables them to protect the crystal, hands and dial during their matches”.

Smith was not listening anymore. He looked hypnotized as he turned the watch case upside down again and again.

Frisch let a full minute pass before he spoke again, “We can have your family crest engraved on the case back. That would add a touch of exclusivity and individuality. In case you like the watch, of course”.
“You know I like it, Mr Frisch”, Smith said. “Is it white gold-filled?”

“Oh no, much better than that. Stainless steel made in Sheffield, Britain. Sturdy and inalterable. They have good reasons to call it Staybrite. It is the latest development in case-making. And, if I may say so, an appropriate choice for the owner of an all-steel body vehicle”.

“I’m surprised at you. Are you a car expert, as well?”.
“I am afraid I cannot pass myself off as such. It is just that my job offers me the privilege to engage with a few knowledgeable gentlemen. I happen to learn something from them occasionally”.
Not just a great salesman, Smith thought – a real smartass. “I think I am wearing the watch right away”.
“No family crest, then?”
“Oh yes. Definitely. I'll have my secretary bring it to you tomorrow. How long will it take?”
“Three days at most”.
What about the price? That is the final question Smith should have asked Frisch, but he only remembered as he was riding the Subway back home. Well it could not cost more than his wife’s necklace, could it? 

Here ends the story of the Reverso that the fictional Mister Smith purchased in 1936 and wore while driving his Chrysler Airflow. As for Edmond Frisch, he really did exist. He was the Swiss businessman who opened the New York branch of Gübelin in 1923 and ran it for a long time. He set up the gemmology department and was instrumental in establishing new business relations. Gübelin New York became a supplier of watches to the US Army during World War II. Founded in 1854, the mother company was based in Luzern and in the 1920s became a must-visit destination for wealthy visitors from the United States – a good reason to start a business in America. 

The Reverso went on to become the flagship product of Jaeger-LeCoultre and an icon of 20th Century watchmaking. The manufacturer from Le Sentier granted the right to market Reverso-type watches to a few other brands, including the long time partner Cartier, Patek Philippe, Movado, Favre-Leuba and of course Gübelin. The Reverso was not the only innovative wristwatch by LeCoultre that Gübelin sold in Luzern and New York – the Duoplan was also featured in its catalog. If you wish to learn more about both timepieces, please check pages 38-41 (Duoplan) and 54-57 (Reverso) of The Museum Collection.

Follow these links for more instalments of the Watches & Cars series:
Hamilton / Cadillac
Vacheron & Constantin / Horch
Rolex / Jaguar  
IWC / Lancia

Nessun commento:

Posta un commento