In the middle of the last century, Jaeger-LeCoultre established several milestone pieces... But probably the most successful model has been a buzzing, vibrating timepiece with a useful yet potentially nerve-wracking complication. I’m of course speaking about the Memovox, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s figurehead alarm wristwatch. The Memovox was introduced at the Basel Watch Fair in 1950 and followed the brands desire to establish novel and state-of-the-art complications. The Memovox has been a commercial success both in Europe and the USA yet what can we learn about the model from these different markets?

June 07, 2022

The Voice of Memory - Jaeger-LeCoultre Memovox

  


Marcus Siems     Marcus Siems @siemswatches
    Collector, Author, Data Analyst


  

In the middle of the last century, a time of economic boom and innovation, Jaeger-LeCoultre established several milestone pieces. But of all lineups the most successful model has been a buzzing, vibrating timepiece with a useful yet potentially nerve-wracking complication. I’m of course speaking about the Memovox, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s figurehead alarm wristwatch.

 

1950s LeCoultre Memovox Wrist-Alarm gold-platedThe almost stereotypical US-LeCoultre watch: branded collection, extravagant case design in 33mmm golden colored but gold-plated, and that special "Wrist Alarm" font on the inner chapter ring. Photo @goldammer.me

 

As off-putting as an alarm generally is, so smooth is the name Jaeger-LeCoultre chose for this flagship: Memovox is the composite of the Latin words for “memory” and “voice” - the proverbial voice of memory[1-3]. The Memovox was introduced at the Basel Watch Fair in 1950[1-2,4-5] and followed the brands desire to establish novel and state-of-the-art complications.

 

Distribution of vintage JLC Memovox watches on the European & US marketFigure 7. Distribution of Jaeger-LeCoultre Memovox watches on the European (JLC, blue) and US-market (LeCoultre, red) between 1940-1975[6].

 

As we’ve seen before the Memovox has been a commercial success both in Europe and the USA. But interestingly it seems that here the European market might have been a bit earlier to the party peaking already at introduction around 1950.

In the US the Memovox did not start off quite as successful. It took another 5 years until it really peaked in popularity for the first time. But what might have been the reason?

 

Jaeger-LeCoultre Polaris MemovoxFun fact: The Jaeger-LeCoultre Memovox Polaris was first released to the US-market about one year before the first pieces hit the European markets. The Polaris collection was a dive-watch Memovox variant and, similar to this fine specimen here, featured a black dial. Photo @goldammer.me

 

As we’ve seen for other collections as well the US-market seems to have been extremely keen on novelties. As such a manually-wound alarm watch probably didn’t do the trick overseas. Other models and especially the Vulcain Cricket had already been crowd pleasers since 1947[7-8]. So for Jaeger-LeCoultre to succeed with their Memovox they needed something distinctive.

After another six years of development, in 1956, JLC found their niche on the competitive US-market; they introduced the Calibre 815 and the Memovox - or “Wrist-Alarm” how the collection was mainly called in the US[9] - became the first automatic alarm watch[2-5,10]. That’s the edge JLC needed and the unique selling point in the US.

 

Diverse vintage JLC and LeCoultre Memovox models from the 1950s to 1960sThere's quite the diversity in the Memovox lineup... and this is not even including the Polaris or some of the funky 70s examples. Photo @goldammer.me

 

But we haven’t even talked about the Memovox design yet. The classic exterior of this piece featured an inner chapter ring on the dial indicating the alarm-time with a small arrow and two crowns; one at 2 o’clock and one at 4 o’clock for setting the alarm and the time, respectively. That’s the framework, an empty canvas. Now do we see differences between “US-Memovox” and the “European-Memovox”?

 

Characteristics of vintage JLC Memovox for the European and US marketFigure 8. Distribution of Jaeger-LeCoultre Memovox case sizes (left) and dial colors (right) on the European (JLC, blue) and US-market (LeCoultre, red) between 1940-1975.

 

We’ve discussed this before, size matters on these two markets and it did for the Memovox as well. Typically for the US-market we can see watches mainly cased with 34-35mm while there’s been quite a bit more variance for European examples with a median size of 37mm. But another very interesting point is the dial color. LeCoultre Wrist-Alarm watches have almost exclusively (90%) been white or silver dialed, in other words with bright colors. While this is certainly also true for the European market (78%) we can still see more variance in dial design and for example golden dials that do not seem to appear in the US.

 

Wristshot of a vintage Jaeger-LeCoultre MemovoxA timeless classic and one particularly fitting example of a European Memovox - a late 1950s piece with white dial, dauphine hands and stick markers. Photo @goldammer.me

 

There is another dissociative factor: the price. I don’t often talk about money here because frankly I don’t find price-evolutions very exciting. However, there’s a bit of a value proposition in these Memovox pieces. Even though it’s technically the same watch there’s a median price difference of 900€ (p<0.05) between a LeCoultre Wrist-Alarm (2424€) and a JLC Memovox (3355€) or in other words 32% in monetary value.

It seems that for today’s vintage watch collector a European JLC alarm watch is superior to an US-market one. Importantly, this trend also holds for different materials separately - 1200€ and 600€ difference for 18k-golden and steel examples, respectively. If you’re in the hunt for a Memovox… why not going for the LeCoultre option then?

Finally, what does this all mean for the two markets back in the 20th Century? Putting the results of this analysis together will make me almost sound like Dostojewski describing cultural stereotypes in his “The Player” - minus the elegant language.

 

1950s Prototypical Jaeger-LeCoultre MemovoxIt might look like an exotic Memovox execution, but this is the original design introduced at the Basel Fair in 1950 - The hooded lugs, full numerals, and the syringe hands with the manually wound JLC Calibre 489. Photo @goldammer.me

 

But nevertheless let me try... On the one hand, the US, we have a short-lived, novelty seeking consumers market. Customers going mainly after branded watches (Figure 4, [here]), and had a particular taste for dive watches[7-9,11] and Jaeger-LeCoultre delivered. There is evidence that some collections - the Master Mariner and the Deep Sea Alarm for example - first appeared in the US before they were launched in Europe[9,11-12]. And this behavior did not stop with collections but appears to include new complications as well. The power-reserve and the automatic alarm function both seem to first gain traction in the US (Figure 6 & 7 [here]). But of course not every customer can afford a new gold watch all the time, hence the frequent gold-plating (Figure 2, [here]).

On the other hand, we got the European market. A market slightly more traditional. Europeans seem to have gone for longevity in their watches and as such enjoyed novelty through variations of existing pieces (Figure 3 & 8 [here]) rather than going after the next big thing. The tendency was in the direction of high-end construction and functionality (Figure 2, [here]). Case and point made by the 1958 Geophysic. A watch with cutting-edge technology that was the epic anniversary piece released on the European market[13-14]… but not in the US.

The US American market might not have been a test-market for Swiss watch brands per se but it definitely positioned itself that way. And it was a difficult test as the market seemed so different from the cozy homes of many Swiss brands. But as the (American) proverb goes - pressure forms diamonds:

 

“The US-market may have been challenging but it helped the manufacture to create great watches”

- Matthieu Sauret, Product Marketing & Heritage Director at Jaeger-LeCoultre[13].

 

 

References

[1] Jaeger-LeCoultre Memovox 1956 - History, Function & Design; Felix Goldammer, Goldammer Vintage Watches;

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CLcZVDpFfsg

[2] Jaeger-LeCoultre: Memovox Logo and Slogans; Blomman, Blomman Watch Report;

https://blommanwatchreport.com/2020/10/29/jaeger-lecoultre-memovox-logo-and-slogans/

[3] Jaeger-LeCoultre Chapter Three: Alarming Developments, WatchTime Magazine;

https://www.watchtime.com/brand-showcase/jaeger-lecoultre-180-years-horological-history/chapter-three-alarming-developments/

[4] Jaeger-LeCoultre Chapter Three - Alarming Developments; WatchTime;

https://www.watchtime.com/brand-showcase/jaeger-lecoultre-180-years-horological-history/chapter-three-alarming-developments/

[5] Jaeger-LeCoultre Memovox; WatchWiki;

https://www.watch-wiki.net/doku.php?id=jaeger-lecoultre_memovox&s[]=memovox

[6] Watches from Chrono24, extracted 2020 Nov. 29th; Karlsruhe, Germany;

https://www.chrono24.com/

[7] The History of the Vulcain Cricket: The First President’s Watch; Paul Altieri, Bob’s Watches;

https://www.bobswatches.com/rolex-blog/resources/history-vulcain-cricket-presidents-watch.html

[8] The Vulcain Cricket: The Watch of Presidents; Crown And Caliber;

https://blog.crownandcaliber.com/vulcain-cricket/

[9] Jaeger-LeCoultre and the U.S. market: The Master Mariner Line; Blomman, Blomman Watch Report;

https://blommanwatchreport.com/2020/04/14/jaeger-lecoultre-and-the-u-s-market-the-master-mariner-line/

[10] An interesting page of JLC History: Automatic watches; Nicolas amanico, WatchProSite;

https://www.watchprosite.com/jaeger-lecoultre/an-interesting-page-of-jlc-history-automatic-watches-/2.875793.5969083/

[11] Shot of the day: LeCoultre E 857 Deep Sea Automatic Alarm; Blomman, Blomman Watch Report;

https://blommanwatchreport.com/2019/09/02/shot-of-the-day-lecoultre-e-857-deep-sea-automatic-alarm/

[12] Happy Midsummer with the Jaeger-LeCoultre E 857 Deep Sea Alarm; Blomman, Blomman Watch Report;

https://blommanwatchreport.com/2019/06/21/happy-midsummer-with-the-jaeger-lecoultre-e-857-deep-sea-alarm/

[13] Personal Correpsondence: Matthieu Sauret, Product Marketing & Heritage Director at Jaeger-LeCoultre; 2022 Feb.

[14] Jaeger-LeCoultre E 168 Geophysic: the Box - Part 1; Blomman, Blomman Watch Report;

https://blommanwatchreport.com/2021/12/08/jaeger-lecoultre-e-168-geophysic-the-box-part-1/

 

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