Watches & Jewellery

Fashionably on time

Fashion houses are now allying themselves with serious horological heavyweights to create stylishly substantial timepieces, says Nick Foulkes.

October 19 2011
Nick Foulkes

I suppose you could call it a horological sort of gunboat diplomacy. At this year’s annual BaselWorld watch fair, a sleek vessel was moored on the Rhine just below the Swiss city’s swanky Three Kings Hotel; admittedly it was more superyacht than battleship, but its presence showed that someone was about to get serious about their watches.

That someone was Louis Vuitton. Given that pitches within the main exhibition hall at Basel are booked generations in advance, the French luxury luggage and fashion house was unable to find a space commensurate with its status. So instead it did the next best thing: sailed up the Rhine in the HMS LV to hold its own unilateral exhibition. When Vuitton does something, it does it well, and this watchmaking warship looked like an artist’s impression of a Candy & Candy apartment. Staffed by attractive young people in close-fitting dark suits, it was a floating bit of Paris in Switzerland.

Louis Vuitton has been active in horology for some years but, as a watch snob, I have never really bought into the brand as a watchmaking house. However, with the recent hiring of Hamdi Chatti as director of watches and jewellery, Vuitton is clearly aiming to capture the attention of those, like me, who like to think they know a bit about timepices. Chatti’s CV includes a period at Harry Winston, where he worked on the successful Opus programme of guest star watchmakers. He has clearly signalled that Vuitton wants to be taken seriously as a player in both the expensive and the utterly stratospheric ends of the market.

Vuitton’s entry-level sports luxury comes in the form of the funky new Tambour Diving II watch (£3,400), while if you have a couple of hundred grand burning a hole in the pocket of your Louis Vuitton suit, there is the Tambour Minute Repeater travel watch (€250,000 to order), which tells one time on the dial but chimes out the second timezone when the minute repeater mechanism is activated. It is a powerful statement of intent on Vuitton’s part: it’s an intriguing horological jeu d’esprit, offering a new twist on a traditional and notoriously difficult complication, while the price is right up there with minute repeaters from the grandest of watchmaking houses. And this is not likely to be the only LV minute repeater, as at the beginning of July the brand announced its acquisition of specialist Swiss movement maker La Fabrique du Temps – an expert in this specific complication.

Just how far fashion watches have travelled becomes apparent when one considers the state of the market in the 1980s. Broadly speaking, this was the beginning of the brand-extension boom, when fragrances, cosmetics, sunglasses and handbags became perceived as relatively affordable ways for a wider audience to access the mystique of the great fashion brands. Of course, there were exceptions, such as Paul Poiret, who was making perfume in the early 20th century, and after him Coco Chanel, but it was in the 1980s that the fashion designer emerged as a global celebrity, buoyed up by a tide of peripheral merchandise. Perhaps the best-known and most typical fashion watch of the era was Gucci’s timepiece with a choice of interchangeable polychrome plastic bezels – a pure, fun, frivolous, fashion chameleon.

But even then, there was a hint that the fashion watch could be more than just as an accessory. In 1987, Chanel launched the Premier. Today, of course, Chanel watches are synonymous with its J12 model, but a quarter of a century ago the little jewel-like Premier watch, on a handbag-strap-inspired bracelet, signalled a new direction in fashion timepieces.

“The watch market was totally different then,” says Nicolas Beau, Chanel’s watch supremo. “People bought watches for the big events in their lives and Chanel was one of the first luxury brands to launch a watch made in Switzerland for a relatively high price.” At the time he was working at Cartier and remembers being impressed by the success of the Chanel piece. “I was amazed to see a watch with virtually no distribution be so successful; there was clearly a very strong unsatisfied demand from women. Maybe it coincided with the moment when, as the time was beginning to be displayed vitually everywhere, watches really became pieces of jewellery.”

Indeed, it is only after the wristwatch was freed from its primary function of giving the time that the luxury Swiss timepiece became a social totem and a focus for collectors – and this Swissness is important to Beau. As he sees it, Chanel treats watchmaking as a “métier, not as a fashion”. So while the bulk of the watches sold at Chanel may, primarily, be fashion purchases, Beau likes to keep the watchmaking content highly visible, as with such conversation pieces as the limited-edition J12 Rétrograde Mystérieuse tourbillon (£168,000) it launched last year; devised with virtuoso watchmaker Giulio Papi, the winding crown came out of the dial, requiring the minute indication to be split between a retrograde hand and a digital counter.

If Premier was the first step of change in fashion watches, then this watch, which until a few years ago would have been the work of a recondite “garage” watchmaker, signals yet another change, and, unsurprisingly, Beau is keen to distance this sort of watch from the disposable products of a generation ago. “I’m a bit uncomfortable with the word ‘accessory’; it is something that you can change and throw away, but a luxury watch has a sense of longevity.”

His aversion to calling a watch made by a fashion house a “fashion watch” is shared by Laurence Nicolas, who heads up the watch and jewellery division of Dior along with design genius Victoire de Castellane. “Dior was active in the sector in the 1980s but, for me, the real entrance was when we opened our own workshop in La Chaux de Fonds in 2001. Before that we were more on the accessories side.” La Chaux de Fonds is the industrial centre of the timepiece industry, and although the Dior facility is mainly involved in the assembly of watches, some work is done on the movements too, such as the inverted calibre of the Dior VIII Grand Bal (from £14,800), which uses the oscillating rotor as a design device to represent the movement of a ballgown. Then there’s the stone setting in exceptional pieces such as La D de Dior Color that, with its prismatic array of gemstones resembling a rainbow, took two years to make and has a price tag of around £250,000. “I am not sure that these can be called fashion watches,” says Nicolas, adding that Dior has phased out its affordable entry-level watches. “We are more haute couture, and I try to emphasise that.”

According to Nicolas, it is the “femininity and creativity” of Dior watches that gives them their identity rather than a signature design or a highly technical movement. Its Chiffre Rouge range for men (from £1,400), however, is a different story, featuring a sporty asymmetrical design by Hedi Slimane and a movement from Zenith. And while the orthodox view that women will only wear battery-powered watches is beginning to change, the reverse is not true of men, for whom the quality and provenance of the movement is becoming ever more important.

For the modern fashion watch – albeit the fashion watch that dare not speak its name – to appeal to the male buyer, it needs to have horological legitimacy, as witnessed by those brands that have been active in fashion watches for a few years and have recently launched limited runs of high-end pieces to “top up” their watchmaking credentials. For instance, just as Chanel invited Giulio Papi to create a special J12, so Hermès, which has long had a successful watch business, approached Jean Marc Wiederrecht.

Wiederrecht has become known for the “poetic complications” he created for Van Cleef & Arpels, and his work for Hermès is in a similarly whimsical vein. Le Temps Suspendu (from £11,320) is a watch that does what it says: suspends time. Press a button and the hands go to 12 o’clock, press the button again and the hands move to show the time. While the idea has something in common with Franck Muller’s Secret Hours watch, the story goes that Pierre-Alexis Dumas, general artisitic director of Hermès, and Wiederrecht were enjoying such a good lunch that they wanted to stop time. Meanwhile, on an aesthetic level, Hermès has been working with leading enameller Anita Porchet to create some stunning, unique watches (from around €65,000), thus bringing high-end excitement to an already mature watch business.

However, some apparel brands that have come to watches more recently have decided to start at the top tier of timepieces. The most scrutinised arrival is that of Ralph Lauren, which has entered both the women’s and men’s watch markets in alliance with the Richemont Group. Taking its pick of the group’s movements, it makes watches that sell at comparable prices to top watch brands (women’s watches from £1,700, men’s from £3,950).

And it is along these lines that Alfred Dunhill, one of the pillars of the Richemont Group, chose to relaunch its watch offerings. Dunhill has been selling watches for a century and over the years has tried a variety of approaches, including one of my personal favourites, a range developed in the 1970s with Vacheron Constantin. This time, after an absence of about five years, the brand has returned with a capsule collection of classic designs powered by Jaeger LeCoultre movements, and selling at Jaeger LeCoultre prices (from £3,000).

There are two ways of looking at this. One is to question the sense in paying as much for a watch from a fashion designer as a watch from a company with generations of specialist expertise. The other is to see it, as I am sure Ralph Lauren and Dunhill are too polite to say, as getting more bang for your buck: the styling of a world-famous outfitter allied to the technical savoir faire of some of the world’s most famous watch brands.

Certainly, Gildo Zegna, CEO of Ermenegildo Zegna, would appear to believe the latter proposition. At the beginning of last year, he launched a highly complicated equation-of-time watch with Gino Macaluso of Girard-Perregaux. Alas, Macaluso died last year, but Zegna was so impressed by the sell out of its 100 pieces that he has signed a joint venture with GP (which continues to be run by the Macaluso family) to launch a range of men’s High Performance watches.

At the moment, Zegna is concentrating on his haute horlogerie collection, Monterubello (from about £10,000). “The name,” he explains, “recalls the beauty of the eponymous mountain in the Zegna Oasis [family estate], as well as the history of the region and the family. The watch defines the luxury of the upper reaches of Zegna and also pays homage to the Group’s origins, as Michelangelo Zegna, my great-grandfather, was a watchmaker by trade.” But although he is focused on high quality, he is unafraid to use the “F” word. “Our watches express respect for our brand tradition and heritage, but at the same time they are in harmony with the fashion designer’s latest creation.”

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