December 02 2009
None of the commentators who extol the civilising effects of women on society can surely have the luxury watch industry in mind, but perhaps they should. Hardly a hotbed of uncouth behaviour, it nevertheless has a lingering reputation as a boy’s thing, and somewhat geeky boys at that, often more interested in technology than design. But then along come women prepared to invest in some hitherto male-dominated area of horology and the design quotient rockets off the scale.
The latest models to benefit from a female-friendly design makeover are some of the most traditional and nerdy of all – skeleton watches. These lack an opaque dial so all the details of the movement, the bridges and their functions are visible, while the baseplate is cut away as far as possible so that the watch is see-through and reduced to the bare bones – hence its name.
The technique is usually reserved for hand-built, highly crafted watches – “an outstanding technical accomplishment, open-worked and decorated to become a piece of art,” according to Jérôme Lambert, CEO of Jaeger-LeCoultre, which includes several skeleton models in its women’s high jewellery range. Because the interior is open to view, “every surface must be properly treated, which means polishing all edges and decoratively engraving all planes,” says Philippe Merk, CEO of Audemars Piguet, whose ladies’ diamond-trimmed skeleton tourbillon Jules Audemars model (£185,700) is a prime example of the traditional craft. He estimates that a complex skeleton watch entails up to 200 hours’ more work than its enclosed equivalent. They are thus a form of horological status symbol for which the market hitherto has been overwhelmingly male, with women’s versions bought mainly as gifts.
So what has changed, you may ask, and will it remain very specialist, like the women’s tourbillon? Or will it gain a wider currency, like the romantic moonphase, or the dual timezone, which is as useful to busy women as it is to men? Judging by the number of new models, this is an area of optimism for two specific reasons. One is that skeleton watches were already undergoing a design revolution. “It has a lot to do with the new breed of innovative watchmakers such as Richard Mille,” says Albert Bensoussan, head of watches at Louis Vuitton, which has just launched the bespoke Tambour Mystérieuse (price on request), where the movement and hands appear to float in the centre of a transparent watch. “They started working in skeleton form because they wanted to show off their technical prowess with new movements and new materials, but they think in new terms for the case too, and this appeals to women who are interested in design.”
Mille himself says he feels that “the old skeleton watch was a bit rococo, too busy with extraneous detail. My approach is to see its interior as an architectural space based on formal elements and layout, whether technical, artistic or feminine in nature. Women enjoy this combination, which is new in watchmaking.” His RM019 (£249,100), where a delicate, diamond-studded Celtic knot design is interlaced through a highly technical tourbillon, is one of the most stunning and influential new skeleton models. It creates a radical disjoint with traditional designs, which, though beautiful, can be too florid for contemporary taste. Most traditional complicated and skeleton watches are round, but many new designs are rectangular, in lighter materials such as titanium or carbon fibre which, in creating a large watch without the weight of steel or gold, appeal to women.
Less concerned than men with technological niceties, women’s growing interest in exposed watch interiors extends beyond true skeletons to other open-work styles. “Many of our designs show the movement from both front and back but are not completely open,” says Brigitte Carneiro, one of eight young watchmakers who compose the Confrérie Horlogère, a group funded by innovative movement maker BNB Concept SA to create new concepts for both its own and the parent company. Her first commercial design is a woman’s tourbillon, in the Mille rather than traditional mould – large and lightweight in dark, matte titanium with a rubber strap, it has subtle diamonds on the tourbillon cage, which gives intriguing glimpses through to the back with its fretted bridges in black carbon fibre. A feat of both craftsmanship and modernity, it should appeal to women in the creative industries. Carneiro plans on building 10 at about €104,000 each.
Carneiro identifies the other reason why skeleton watches are generating female interest. “Women used to want mechanical watches to show off a big-name brand, but the boom in haute horlogerie has meant an explosion of interest in complicated watches,” she says. “Even fashion magazines dedicate articles to them, creating knowledge that was the privilege of a passionate few before. If women become interested in mechanical watches, they want to admire the movement and have the pleasure of showing it off, so an open design is logical. Now we make designs specifically for women – too often in the past of an industry dominated by men, the view was that a miniaturised men’s watch would do.”
Carneiro might not approve of Corum’s decision to make a women’s version of its classic Golden Bridge (£22,750), with its unique, exposed linear movement in hand-engraved 18ct gold surrounded by nothing but sapphire crystal – it is a diamond-trimmed version of the men’s model, though in the same size and larger than the original designed in 1980. But the reasoning behind it would please her. “Female consumers are becoming aware of intrinsic value,” says CEO Antonio Calce. “There are more female connoisseurs looking for top-end timepieces requiring a high standard of watchmaking knowledge. Fashionable design is not enough now – women are becoming interested in technical sophistication.”
If the Golden Bridge provides a link between engraved tradition and highly engineered modernity, Corum’s new Ti-Bridge (£8,500) is firmly in the latter camp. A striking, industrial-looking design with a new movement, it is superficially masculine yet, in titanium with a cambered shape it is, says Calce, finding favour with women customers “because it’s light and comfortable to wear and can be a good daytime option”.
At Roger Dubuis, part of the Richemont group, there is awareness of increasing female interest in new-style skeleton designs. Having created a revolutionary men’s skeleton tourbillon, which is a retired rock-star’s dream – all black, girder-like bridges and skulking rubies – they canvassed selected female clients on a possible women’s equivalent and took orders for all 20 of the resulting model, based on a latticework of interlocking heart shapes, before one was made. Similar designs are available to order through Moussaieff in London (price on application).
Mille believes that, like Dubuis’ his-and-hers pairing, the new skeleton appeals to both sexes but for different reasons. “Men who see my design enjoy the technical side, and would start up a conversation with the woman wearing it, while women enjoy its feminine aspects,” he says. In some cases the design is unisex, such as Hermès’ new skeleton version of its iconic Arceau with its fringe of whirling numerals. Originally conceived as a men’s watch, it now sells more than 50 per cent to women and CEO Luc Perramond expects the skeleton to be no different, “especially the tobacco version. The idea is to take a modern case design and add the tradition of the skeleton technique, for people of either gender who love what happens inside.” At £3,900 for the steel version, it represents good value.
Like the Arceau, several models combine modern design with traditional craft. Jaeger-LeCoultre’s complex Master 8 Days Perpetual SQ in platinum (£57,600) is skeletonised in matte grey or black with a bezel of modern-looking baguette diamonds (to order, from £100,00), while Bulgari’s dainty 33mm Bulgari Bulgari model (£6,950) puts a traditionally worked skeleton in a retro-modern case. Some become jewellery, as Bulgari points out, “When women choose a large, complicated watch they want it feminised with precious stones, as a prized accessory.” So Audemars Piguet’s skeletonised Millenary (£253,800) is hand-crafted in rose gold on a translucent fretted chalcedony mainplate, and Chaumet’s Attrape-Moi (price on request) places the skeleton under a diamond spider’s web.
The skeleton leads on to the notion of transparency in watches, and how far it can go. Hence Vuitton’s Mystérieuse, based, says Bensoussan, “on an illusion invented by the French magician Houdin and created in this case by fine rotating plates of sapphire crystal, which are invisible” – unlike the movement at the watch’s centre. This can be ordered skeletonised or enclosed, as every feature beyond the basic design – colour, metal, diamond trim – is bespoke (price on request). Equally unusual is Dior’s Christal Mystérieuse (£17,150), technically not a skeleton at all because the movement, from transparency specialists Quinting, is hidden around the edge. All you see are flecks of mother-of-pearl and metallic foil on the invisible sapphire discs that the movement drives, shimmering as they gently rotate with the days, hours and minutes. According to Dior’s CEO of watches and jewellery, Laurence Nicolas, the idea came from the Christal’s designer, John Galliano, “who wanted to explore the transparency of sapphire crystal in a way where technicality would serve creativity.”
As a combination of those key factors, the Christal Mystérieuse is outstanding. Watching it is mesmerising and led me to consider another possible reason why women like skeleton watches. How many of us who own an open-backed mechanical or automatic watch have not turned it over and spent time marvelling at the movement’s relentless, miniature activity? Not necessarily because we understand it but because it’s clever and beautiful, not to say calming and therapeutic. And it’s even better to enjoy that by just glancing at your wrist.