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Review: Jaeger-LeCoultre Polaris 9038670

Everything’s smart these days: smart phones, smart cars—Teslas, not Smart cars—smart refrigerators, smart socks—you name it, if it exists, it’s been reimagined as a ‘smart’ product. It’s like the clock radio of the modern age, a necessity to give everyday items the ability to participate in the inevitable robot uprising. One company you wouldn’t expect to be dabbling in that arena is Jaeger-LeCoultre, but it has—and has done all the way back to the 1950s.

So what do we actually mean by ‘smart’? Most smart things connect to your WiFi, update your Facebook status, show strangers your lunch, but smartness simply means to be ‘programmed so as to be capable of some independent action.’ That is, to be set and left, ready to react to some kind of external stimulus.

I’m sure you’re sceptical at this point, jaded by the unfulfilled promise of many an intriguing title—but satisfaction is imminent. You see, back in 1951, Jaeger-LeCoultre presented a watch that it named ‘The Voice of Memory’—or more succinctly, Memovox.

The premise was simple: the watch had an independent twelve-hour display that could be set to trigger a chiming alarm when time caught up. Okay, so that doesn’t sound particularly impressive now in an age where your phone can automatically tell your house you’re leaving work and to get dinner on the go, but when you think about it a little more, it really is remarkable.

And it wasn’t just Jaeger-LeCoultre getting in on the alarm action—you had Tudor, Vulcain, Eterna and many others giving it a go. There was even a design that attempted to tighten the strap around your wrist as the alert. So why should we be so impressed by an alarm? Well, there’s two reasons: the first being how it’s set and the second actually being able to hear it.

The former presents such a challenge because a successful design needs to take what is a very precise, very uniform input and inject the element of randomness into it. Think of a perpetual calendar, or even just a date complication—these functions are hardcoded into the mechanism, predefined intervals relative to each other. The alarm has to be able to go off at any time.

And for an alarm to be heard, it has to ring loud and long. Big hammers and gongs require big torque, the nemesis of the mainspring. Even with resonance chambers, sound-enhancing membranes and the like, a typical mainspring will be bled dry in just a handful of seconds—no use at all. So a separate mainspring is used, and in the case of the Jaeger-LeCoultre, there’s a separate crown to wind it and set it.

It’s a fascinating complication, and one that’s sadly died a bit of a death—or at least it would have done, were it not for a few brands like Jaeger-LeCoultre keeping it alive.

Bringing this old-school smart tech into the modern world is the Polaris Memovox, a name that’s existed within the halls of Jaeger-LeCoultre since 1968. It’s an evolution of the simpler Memovox with an added view to diving, and you can understand the logic when you play it out in your mind.

Think about it—when you’re diving, time holds the power over life and death, so it stands to good reason that keeping track of it is pretty much crucial. So on your dive watch you set the bezel to the minute hand, and you can then keep track of how long you’ve been swimming about. The Polaris Memovox has such a bezel, set internally and controlled by crown.

But say you’re having a whale of a time splashing about among the coral, and you forget to look at your watch, forget to keep track of the passing minutes—then what? Well¬—death, and that’s no good. So Jaeger-LeCoultre put the Memovox’s alarm function in for good measure, tweaking the design so the ring could be heard below the waves and the case could be felt vibrating against the wrist. Pretty smart.

Between the bezel, alarm and typical time and date functions, the watch does end up with a lot of crowns, something that’s become the trademark look for the Polaris Memovox over the years. This 50th anniversary edition is the most recent iteration of the watch, taking elements of the 1968 original, like the central alarm disk and domed crystal, and pairing them with something a bit more crisp and modern—with a rubber strap and 200 metre water resistance chucked in to remind you of its diving heritage.

Inside the 42mm steel case is the calibre 956, which packs a whopping 268 parts inside. The fight for space is always a struggle with an alarm complication thanks to all the additional gubbins, evidenced by the minimal 45-hour power reserve—thank goodness it’s an automatic movement, or winding both mainsprings could get a bit tedious.

In typical Jaeger-LeCoultre style, every surface and every finish has been considered, with the three dial displays each getting their own subtle change in texture to keep them independent without upsetting the balance of the whole. Other models in the Polaris collection also get a sapphire case back—Memovox owners will have to make do with a simple engraving, the solid back acting as an amplifier for the chime.

With all the hype and excitement around vintage Rolex, it can be easy to forget that masters like Jaeger-LeCoultre were pushing the technology of the time far harder. The Polaris Memovox may not be the most smart of smart watches today, but this 50th anniversary certainly reminds us that it once was.

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