Watches

Where haute joaillerie and watches meet

By Laura McCreddie-Doak
05-02-21

3 minute read

What women wear has always been a compromise between personal wants and societal pressures.

 Just look at the politics of the humble pocket – the reason they were removed from women’s dresses sometime in the 17th century was because a woman with pockets has privacy, something men found terrifying. 

This intersection also forged a necessary creativity with how watches could be worn by women, giving rise to a whole world of timepieces discretely concealed in fine jewellery.

The first watch, that wasn’t of the pocket variety, was hidden in a ring. It was commissioned to be made for Queen Elizabeth I by her presumed lover Robert Dudley, Earl of Essex, in 1571. The piece even contained an alarm by way of a small prong that scratched the skin at the designated time. This wasn’t just whimsy. Society thought it rude for women to be seen checking the time in public, so those who could afford timepieces devised ways to hide them.

Queen Victoria continued the royal trend, so taken with Patek Philippe’s powder-blue enamel pocket watch that she had it fashioned into a pendant. While Elizabeth II owns the exquisitely delicate Jaeger-LeCoultre 101 – the smallest mechanical movement in the world at 14mm long and 4.8mm wide, set into a diamond tennis-style bracelet. It’s quite possibly the perfect alignment of haute horlogerie and joaillerie.

Beyond queens to brands

2 Jlc Savoir Faire 101 Jaeger Le Coultre
Top: Queen Elizabeth II at her coronation in 1953; photography by Corbis/Getty Images. Above: Jaeger-LeCoultre 101 Snowdrop watch

Beyond queens to brands

This creativity extends beyond queens, too. In 1935, Van Cleef & Arpels launched its Cadenas watch. It was inspired by Wallis Simpson, who would, three years later commission the brand to make the now-iconic Zip necklace. To the casual observer, it was a daring gold bracelet with an interesting oversized padlock clasp. However, hidden on the underside of that padlock, and visible only to the wearer, was a tiny rectangular watch dial.

Secret watches quickly became a desirable niche. Diamond-heavy designs from the king of sleek and sporty, Rolex, have been spotted at Christie’s; while Cartier has a history of hiding dials under everything from panther’s heads to enormous sapphires.

It was in the ‘60s and ‘70s, however, that the lines between watches and jewellery fully blurred. Omega’s partnership with modernist society jeweller Andrew Grima produced some incredible designs, from dainty dials embedded in swirls of gold resembling Shredded Wheat, to aggressively symmetrical chain-link necklaces with peridot dials as pendants. Omega and Grima even collaborated on an unusual design with added laser, originally intended for Ursula Andress’s Bond girl Honey Ryder from 1962’s Dr No.

During this era, Piaget was also having a lot of fun. Credited with reviving the pendant-necklace watch, it also set stone dials in enormous gold cuffs, concealed others among lapis lazuli and turquoise beads, and dangled some from long gold chains that rested seductively at the navel.

The jewellery-watches of today

3andrewgrima Wa0023 Hero L
Omega “Teak” watch by Andrew Grima, 1969

The jewellery-watches of today

The Quartz Crisis (circa 1970 to 1983) cut this creativity short, as the old Swiss maisons were usurped by a demand for cheap Japanese quartz watches. But now, they’re getting their mojo back. Bulgari has been stowing dials in jewel-encrusted snake’s mouths, while Harry Winston has concealed them in powder compacts, under bejewelled handbag clasps and in brooches. 

Chanel, known for its magpie instincts across the board (names from its Métier d’Arts businesses are often drafted into stitch dials, or provide leather for Lagerfeld-style glove watches), has always unveiled creations that are more jewel than watch. Cue the star-spangled Poussière d’étoile designed 20 years ago; through to a gold lion pendant watch from this year’s icon-inspired collection. 

Although more readily associated with the steel silhouette of the Royal Oak, Audemars Piguet tapped into its history of jewellery watches for women, to create its Diamond series – three extravagant cuffs that, according to the brand’s design director Octavio Garcia, are indicative of a “subversive but creative approach [to watchmaking] that is less patronising to women.”

While those 17th-century men may be quaking in their boots, we think that the political and the personal combined actually make for something rather beautiful.


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