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Jaeger LeCoultre pocket watch wartime British RAF 1943
Military watches are one of the fastest growing areas of horological collecting at present, with even relatively unknown brands being sold for much higher prices at the time of writing than they were even twelve months ago. It seems likely then that there will be quite a bit of interest in this 1943 vintage Jaeger LeCoultre RAF issue navigator’s pocket watch. It is offered for much less than a military wristwatch from the same era by even a mid-range maker, making it something of a bargain for the collector who wants to acquire exceptional quality without spending a fortune. The sheer value for money that can be obtained in pocket watches at present is quite incredible and it seems inevitable that at some point, the market price of good examples by the major Swiss houses will rise to become, if not level, then at least somewhat more in line with their wristwatch equivalents.
As background to this item, it should be noted that a large number of both wrist and pocket watches were ordered by the British Government for use by the various branches of the Allied armed forces. These were supplied to a specification defined by the War Department, but it is a mistake to believe that all the watches of ostensibly the same type by different makers are of the same build and finish standard. While criteria relating to the basic construction and performance of the watches was rigidly defined, there was scope for quite a wide variety of other variables. Depending on which manufacturer supplied the watches, the quality, and indeed the cost price to the Government, varied enormously. The majority of military watches manufactured during the war years were good, solid models that are reliable and well built, though somewhat utilitarian in terms of their casing and overall finishing. However, for applications where absolute accuracy and total reliability were paramount, a relatively small number of high grade watches were ordered from several of Switzerland’s finest makers, the most celebrated of these being IWC and Jaeger LeCoultre.
This piece is the perfect text book example of a movement of the highest possible grade being used to fulfil a specific military requirement. These watches were mainly used by bomb aimers and navigators, where the calculations required to achieve perfect bomb grouping depended on split second accuracy. There is no doubt whatsoever that these Jaeger LeCoultre items were purchased by the Government at a cost of substantially more per unit of the standard unsigned military pocket watch. By the time that this piece had been produced in 1943, the British government was equipping the armed forces with wristwatches as standard, but RAF navigators generally found it more convenient to use pocket watches, as these could be placed flat on the charts from which they were working and indeed, the very size of the watch itself meant that it could be more easily consulted in a dimly lit bomber fuselage than its wrist worn equivalent. When used in this context, this must actually be one of the few applications in which the pocket watch was perceived as being superior to the wristwatch and its use as a navigator’s instrument continued long after the wristwatch had generally taken over as the choice of other bomber crew personnel.
This particular watch is in very good condition, with only the slightest imperfections to its case that are to be expected on any carefully looked after piece of this age. Unlike many cheaper military watches that utilised cheap nickel or alloy cases as an economy measure during World War II, the large case on this watch ( the piece has a width of 51mm) is actually in solid brass. It is well documented that Jaeger LeCoultre actually refused to build its timepieces to a compromised standard during the war years, we would guess realising than any such degradation of its products could potentially taint its much revered position and reputation after the conflict had ended in the civilian market. Taking photographs of chrome plated brass cases is notoriously difficult as the slightest scratches, almost invisible to the naked eye, seem to appear as enormous gouges in the pictures. In the shots here, it would appear that the central section of this case is quite heavily marked when in fact, its condition when viewed life size is extremely good indeed. Interestingly, and this is going off on a slight tangent, some civilian makers that turned their attention to manufacturing equipment for the military at this time actually marked these products as “WG”, standing for “war grade”, in order than their peace time reputations wouldn’t be damaged. An example that springs to mind is Sunbeam, a division of the British BSA motorcycle company, who marked its roughly finished crank case castings in this way on the units that were supplied to the War Department.
The case back outer is stamped with the British military broad arrow mark, together with the letters “G.S.T.P M 44111”. The G.S.T.P initials represent the words “General Service Trade Pattern” with the remaining numbers and letters indicating the batch of which this particular watch formed part.
Internally, the case back is stamped with the serial number 228570. Notice that there has been no attempt to ornately finish the case back interior, and this has been left completely plain. On a Jaeger LeCoultre civilian model from the same era, the case back would be entirely covered with an engine turned pearled pattern. There is nothing at all wrong with the case back here, but it stands out as the perfect example to point of how the purchase price of these watches covered the most exceptional movements, but didn’t leave anything left over to pay for luxuries that didn’t effect the ability of the watch to keep time to the best possible standard.
The white dial is completely original. This is a painted item, with a thin top coat over a sheet of copper. Curiously, and this would appear to be a fault caused by the composition of the paint in the first instance, the paint has contracted over the decades to a greater extent than its backing, resulting in a network of thin crazing over the entire dial surface. It should be stressed emphatically that this has not been caused by ill use and it cannot be classed as anything other than the effect of natural ageing. It is certainly not damage and in every other respect, this dial is almost faultless. Ironically, this crazed look is actually extremely attractive in the flesh and is similar to that found on vintage car and motorcycle paintwork, where the top layer coat often crazes with age and exposure to sunlight over many decades. To avoid confusion, it must be pointed out that this is not an enamel dial and the crazed lines have not occurred from shock or impact of any kind. We are somewhat obsessive about the quality and condition of the vintage watches for sale on our website and under no circumstances would we ever offer a piece that was seriously damaged or unsuitable for serious investment.
The layout of this dial is among the most attractive that Jaeger LeCoultre has ever used, either on a pocket watch or a wristwatch. A double minute track runs around the dial outer, enclosing very large stylised Arabic numerals. Particularly evocative is the way in which the numbers at the compass points are in luminous paint, contrasting with the black printing of those at the other positions. This dial absolutely screams 1930s and couldn’t be more of its era.
The original tulip shaped hands are present and correct, but as one would expect on any piece of this age, their luminous radium material has slightly deteriorated as a result of unavoidable chemical decay of its radium ingredient. No experienced collector would ever criticise a watch of this age on the basis of it having aged luminous paint. In fact, we’d go further and say that if this paint wasn’t deteriorated to a noticeable extent, serious doubts would be raised as to its originality.
When the snap back case cover is removed, the reasons for the additional cost of these watches when new becomes instantly apparent. We deliberately avoid hyperbole in our descriptions and try to keep these entirely factual without giving free reign to our personal opinions, but certainly, it is true to say that a higher grade movement than the one here has not been used at any time in a British military pocket watch. The finish quality is first rate throughout and every bit the equal of that found on Jaeger LeCoultre’s civilian production. Introduced in 1943, the year this example was manufactured, the fifteen jewelled calibre 467/2 movement was entirely produced in-house by Jaeger Le Coultre in Le Sentier with no outsourced components whatsoever. The signature “Jaeger LeCoultre, Swiss Made” appears on the bridge, with the calibre number stamped next to the balance wheel. This watch is of course working perfectly and, as one would expect, extremely reliable. If serviced regularly, there is no reason whatsoever why this watch, or others like it, shouldn’t be working perfectly a hundred years from now, just as many antique pocket watches from the Georgian and Victorian eras still are today.
Konrad Knirim’s epic work “British Military Timepieces”, includes close up colour photographs of two military Jaeger LeCoultre pocket watches on page 455. Both of these have the same dials, winding crowns, hands and calibre 467 movements as the piece for sale here, but are in a generally poorer state.
Judged in terms of value for money, this item simply cannot be equalled by any of the other vintage watches for sale on this website. We have priced it at £475 GB pounds which is a tiny, almost ludicrously small, amount when the quality of its movement is put into the equation. Next to the computer as this is typed, we have two classic Jaeger LeCoultre military wristwatches, these being a Mark X from 1945 and a Mark XII from 1948. They are both regarded as cult models among collectors and are priced at £1850 and £4850 respectively, but in truth, they don’t offer anything extra in quality of movement construction or finish that is not here in this pocket watch. The fact is that pocket watches are not currently fashionable and if you’re prepared to step out of the normal somewhat blinkered buying pattern for most dyed in the wool wristwatch collectors and consider one, you will end up with an awful lot of remarkably high quality machinery for a very small amount of money. The movement in this particular watch is a beauty and none of us will see better. To obtain this level of quality for less than £500 is nothing short of ridiculous. The same specification in any Jaeger LeCoultre wristwatch from the war years, even in poor condition, would command a price of at least £1200 as an absolute minimum, and this is very much food for thought.