In the digital era that we live in today, little else apart from the mechanical marvels that we strap onto our wrists is analog anymore. From the alarm clock to the microwave, the cell phone to the computer, nigh everything has been digitalised. And for good reason, of course. A constant electrical supply is all that is needed to ensure the consistent and reliable operations of these everyday necessities. But what about in the 1950s? 60 years ago, before the quartz crisis hit, before this writer was even born, most appliances were in fact analog. In the midst of such an era, Jaeger-LeCoultre sought to create the “Voice of Memory”, the Memovox. 60 years on, the Grand Maison pays tribute to their innovation with a boutique edition of the Memovox.
Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Memovox Boutique Edition
The raison d’être for Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Memovox, which has enjoyed considerable success over the 60 years that it has been in production, was to serve as a literal “voice of memory”. It was a wearable alarm clock that could serve to remind its wearer of just about anything: meetings, events, or even as a wake up call in the morning. Over the years, the Memovox underwent multiple adaptations reflecting its uses in society: Memovox Worldtimer, Memovox Deepsea, Memovox Polaris, Master Grande Memovox, the list goes on. This latest addition to the storied Memovox line draws inspiration from the 1970s Memovox Snowdrop.
Case, Dial and Hands
The Master Memovox Boutique Edition comes cased in a 40mm x 14mm stainless steel case with a closed caseback, which is rather intricately engraved with the JLC logo. The caseback also does let you know that the Boutique Edition is a limited edition run of 500 pieces worldwide, each of which has been tested to 1000 hours before being deemed satisfactory. JLC proudly marks their watches that have been subjected to this rigorous testing on the casebacks; in this case the logo is between the 2 crowns when viewed from the back. It might seem odd that we are discussing the caseback first rather than the dial seeing as its a closed caseback, but it is worth pointing out to those new to the Memovox line that the closed caseback is in fact a necessary element of the watch. This allows for greater sonority and also aids in the acoustics of the alarm hidden within. While this Memovox in particular is rated to 50m, the Memovox Polaris released in 1965 was rated to 200m with the aid of a triple caseback system: bronze for resonance, followed by a water-resistant layer, and lastly a steel outer layer with 16 holes in it to allow the sound to propagate clearly through the water.
The rest of the case is dutifully brushed as per JLC’s usual finishing standards which, while not shabby, is not something to write home about. The 2 crowns are situated at the 2 and 4 o’clock positions; upper crown for setting the alarm and date, and lower crown for setting the time. The upper crown can be wound to charge the alarm function, which has a spring barrel of its own.
As for the dial, it is highly reminiscent of the rare Memovox Snowdrop. The overall aesthetic is a vintage one, with simple design cues and block colours…or is there more than meets the eye? At first glance, the opaline blue dial is pleasing and easy on the eye, with the familiar central alarm disc and arrow to point to the time of alarm. Concentric circles make up the dial, from the sunray-finish blue alarm disc to the outer ring and “railtrack” minute ring, each element in a slightly different shade of blue. This is of course not discernible at first glance, but therein lies the charm of the Master Memovox Boutique Edition. Likewise, the baton hands and hour markers stay true to its vintage roots, but on closer inspection there is an extra level of finishing to them. The ends of the hands slope downwards towards the dial, and the batons are triple-faceted. It’s a small detail, but it’s the little things that count.
It also bears mentioning that the stock strap that it comes in is made from a deep blue braided cotton material called Trieste and lined with calfskin. There are not many watches that come to mind which come on a cloth-type strap, and it does give this watch a distinctly casual feel.
The interplay of matte and shiny elements on the dial, as well as the subtle variations in colour, make for a very simple yet pleasing piece on the wrist. If any modern watch has done a vintage reissue right, this would have to be one of them considering its faithfulness to the original design while maintaining its relevance to the present-day watch market and tastes.
At the heart of the Master Memovox Boutique Edition beats the Cal. 956 at 28,800 bph, the latest in a long line of automatic alarm movements from the Grande Maison. It all started with the Cal. 815, dating back to 1959 where it was featured on the Memovox Deepsea. This was modified to become the Cal. 825 found in the 1962 Memovox Polaris. 9 years later, a complete revamp of the automatic alarm by Jaeger-LeCoultre saw the advent of the Cal. 916, a high-beat 28,800 bph movement with greater precision and bi-directional winding. This very same movement inspired the Cal. 956 that sits inside the current generation of Memovoxes.
The Cal. 956 houses a striking mechanism with a gong suspended from the caseback, once again necessitating its closed nature. Another special feature on this movement is the oscillating weight which utilises ceramic ball bearings which require neither lubrication nor maintenance.
The alarm from the Master Memovox rings clear, bright and beautiful. For its relatively small case size of 40mm, there is substantial volume that emanates from the stainless steel case. Even if one should somehow miss the sound of the alarm in a crowded place, its vigourous vibrations will definitely alert its wearer. While certainly a redundant feature in the digital era, there is that old school charm of hearing the frenetic buzzing and ringing of a true mechanical alarm going off. Better yet, this alarm is housed in a highly portable form to be worn on the wrist! Just as hearing the toll of bells going off in clock towers evokes a sentimental feeling, the ring from the Memovox brings forth waves of nostalgia, reminding me of the times I woke up to a similar-sounding alarm clock, rousing me from my sleep and letting me know that it was time to get ready for school.
The mechanical alarm is, all things considered, an exceedingly uncommon one. Jaeger-LeCoultre is not the first to produce such a complication, but the Memovox is definitely the most well-known alarm watch on the market today. Retailing at SGD 17,000 for the Master Memovox Boutique Edition, the landscape is scarce for the mechanical alarm complication. Here are a few choice picks that are available for consideration besides the Memovox:
- Vulcain Nautical Seventies. Vulcain is one of the watchmakers who truly specialize in alarm watches, and they too introduced an alarm diving watch in 1961: The Cricket Nautical, which had a water resistance of 30 atm. The Nautical Seventies is a re-creation of this original and retails for S$6970 (approximately US$5500). The sound is rather similar, but the Vulcain does not use a gong, but the hammer of the alarm strikes the case. The advantage is that the system is simpler and can be made water resistant, but the disadvantage is that the alarm sounds more like a dull buzz than a ring.
- Glashütte Original Senator Diary: Yes, Glashütte Original do offer an alarm complication in their already comprehensive repertoire of complications. This piece which comes in Stainless Steel, Rose Gold and White Gold. The nifty thing about this offering from Glashütte Original is that it allows the wearer to set an alarm on any day of the month as opposed to within the next 12 hours, which is the case with the Memovox. Prices for this range from USD 23,100 for the Stainless Steel to USD 41,400 for the White Gold.
- Breguet Marine Royale 5847: Breguet do have a history of producing alarms, dating back to the 19th century when an alarm ring made by them would “alert” its wearer by pricking his/her finger. Thankfully, alarms have come a ways since then. One would think this piece from Breguet was a diver at first glance, and it actually is rated to 300m should one intend to bring it diving. Constructed from Rose Gold, the 5847 also boasts a date window and power reserve. It is an altogether a highly sporty piece that has all the appeal of a tool watch, but is still elegant in its own right with Breguet’s trademark guilloched dial and notched unidirectional bezel which is also made from Rose Gold. The 5847 retails at USD 46,300.
- Blancpain Villeret Réveil GMT: Yet another otherwise famous watchmaking house, Blancpain are not particularly on the radar either for their alarms. They do, however, manage to execute it in a very nimble and delicate package in the Villeret line, suitably named Réveil GMT. Réveil is likely a reference to the French term “Reveille”, which means to wake up. They also added a GMT function into the piece which could conceivably be useful to the travelling businessperson, in addition to the alarm function which could signal a wake-up call or simply as a reminder for a conference call. The Villeret Réveil GMT is a graceful watch that comes in Stainless Steel and Rose Gold, with an option of leather strap or Milanese Bracelet. We don’t see this watch in the Blancpain online catalog, but the retail prices range from USD 24,700 to USD 55,700.
Love it or hate it, the Memovox is undoubtedly an icon in the watch world today. With its instantly recognisable central disc pointing at the alarm time, there is no way to mistake this for any other watch on the market. While it does not let you plan the alarm more than 12 hours ahead, nor does it come with a pop up notification to tell you just what it was that you were supposed to remember, there is more than a little sentimental value in having a mechanical alarm on your wrist, one that has as much of a following as it has a storied journey since its debut back in 1950. This would certainly add pizzazz to any collection, not just because the alarm complication is so rare, but also because that gorgeous blue dial is too pretty to resist.
- Automatic mechanical Calibre 956 produced in-house by Jaeger-LeCoultre
- 28,800 beats per hour
- 45 hours power reserve
- 268 parts
- 23 jewels
- 7.45mm tall movement
- Inner dial: blue sunburst pattern
- Outer dial: opaline blue
- Polished baton hands
- Superluminova coating
- Stainless steel with polished finish
- 40mm diameter
- 14mm height
- Closed caseback
- Water resistant to 50m
- Hours, minutes, seconds
- Calfskin in Trieste black, with blue stitching
Reference Number: Q141848J
Price: SGD 17,000
Limited Edition 500 pieces worldwide, only available in Jaeger-LeCoultre Boutiques.