A couple of years ago at Baselworld, a Swiss watch writer thanked me for a tour and talk I gave on the luxury fashion houses exhibiting at the fair. It had opened her eyes, she said, “to brands I wouldn’t normally consider because I assumed fashion watches weren’t serious”. Even then, that was a not uncommon view – the traditional industry saw “fashion watches”, often made under licence by big industrial producers working for a number of brands, as irrelevancies. Starting with Chanel’s 1987 Première, the giants of high fashion have slowly and increasingly challenged that attitude. Using their fashion codes and growing expertise to push boundaries, they are creating stunning hybrids of couture, jewel and watchcraft that are as beautiful, highly crafted and innovative as many of their traditional rivals.
Chanel, Dior and Hermès are well established in high-end watches, with innovations each year. Newer entrants include Fendi, whose utterly unique Policromia takes its watch offer to a different level, and Ralph Lauren, which, after a high-end, limited entry to the watch world in 2009, has the beautiful new RL888 (£16,000), which nails the label’s art-deco-inspired ambience exactly, with its finely drawn dial in a signature mix of Roman and Arabic numerals, a wider price range (£1,490 to £17,600) and 40 colours of easy-change straps. Louis Vuitton is another fashion brand that has mined its house codes for its serious watches, from the feminine Tambour Blossom (£83,000) with coloured mother-of-pearl quatrefoil, diamonds and tourbillon, to the more restrained LV Fifty Five, based on the lockplates of a trunk (from £2,450).
These recent launches reflect the fact that women’s luxury watches are a bright spot for the industry as a whole, as women’s interest in watches as premium accessories develops alongside jewellery. Fashion-brand models, says James Buttery, editor of the Watchpro website, “make watches more relevant to women who might not see the point of owning a luxury timepiece in the 21st century”. No wonder there is now a rapprochement between the fashion and horological worlds. Luxury houses ask top watchmakers such as Jaeger-LeCoultre or Piaget to supply movements, get star independent watchmakers to create innovations for them and use the same revered artists in enamelling and engraving that the watch brands do, and established watchmakers now feel they can collaborate with the fashion industry for their own collections. Christian Louboutin, for example, is customising Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso dials and straps (from £17,800), while Roger Dubuis has teamed up with Chanel-owned craft shoe brand Massaro on handworked straps for the diamond-set Velvet (£36,600). Hublot has turned to top Swiss embroiderer Bischoff, which supplies couture and lingerie houses, for vivid designs on silk organza combined with resin and high-tech carbon fibre, for the flamboyant Big Bang Broderie Sugar Skull (£11,800), best in black ceramic with red spinels, and Harry Winston uses an ancient Japanese weaving technique, with fine gold wire making a delicate gauze around mother-of-pearl on the Premier Precious Weaving Automatic (£27,600 in rose gold).
These revered watchmakers are taking a leaf from fashion’s book because “there is a proven place in the women’s market for designer watches – disproportionately compared with men”, says Brian Duffy, CEO of Aurum which, through Watches of Switzerland, Mappin & Webb and Goldsmiths, is Britain’s biggest retailer of luxury fashion watches, claiming about a fifth of UK sales. “Chanel’s ceramic J12 kickstarted a whole genre, and now the top fashion brands are making true innovations.”
The investment required to make watches at the highest level delayed the entry of luxury brands to the top of the market. “A fashion house must have credibility – it has to go into watchmaking properly, which is why some now have their own manufactures.” These take years to develop, but bolt on close liaison with the brands’ design teams, with their creativity and access to company archives, and you have a potent combination.
Chanel bought into its component suppliers in 2011, which, Buttery points out, “would be hard to do in the current climate” but it results in highly influential models always incorporating its design DNA, from a dial in the shape of its scent bottlestopper – upsized in the pure design of the Boy.Friend (£8,100), which Duffy sees as a new classic – to the quilted-handbag-inspired bracelet motif in opulent new diamond-set “secret” watches with dials hidden under sizeable, unique gems (from £443,000).
Hermès, a high-luxury leather-goods brand that also has a strong fashion division, took substantial shares some years ago in Swiss companies making movements and watch cases. This raised its game considerably, with a successful ultra-thin model, the Slim d’Hermès, which it is now producing in exquisite hand-enamelled versions that reflect designs from its famous silk carrés. The latest is the finely worked, tropically floral, edition‑of-six Mille Fleurs du Mexique (£43,560) on a richly green alligator strap made in the brand’s own atelier. Laurent Dordet, CEO of La Montre Hermès, compares the long process of becoming a credible watch manufacturer with the time it took to gradually master and integrate its silk production. “We started our watchmaking division in 1978; now we are 98 per cent self‑sufficient,” he says. “Our watches are timeless but they reflect the influence and creativity of our fashion – there is always cross-fertilisation. Our designers and artisans are always curious – they regularly meet craftsmen from other cultures and learn their techniques. The scarf design was the work of artist Laetitia Bianchi, reinterpreted in miniature painting by a top enameller, a blend by two creatives.”
Other fashion houses are on the long journey that allows such crossovers, not least Dior, which set up a Swiss watch atelier in 2001 and exploits details of haute‑couture craft such as pleating (in mother-of-pearl marquetry), gold threadwork and feather-setting in miniature form on the Dior VIII Grand Bal Cancan (£41,150) with its specially designed movement that places the rotor centre front, decorated like a New Look skirt swirling with every hand movement. Its latest iteration is the Ondine collection of 12 different pieces (from £85,000), with a winged, organically curved, gold rotor set with diamonds and coloured stones on a background textured with gems like a couture fabric. Even more extraordinary is the Grand Soir Kaléidiorscope (from £162,000), one of this year’s watch tours de force. The design studio took original embroideries designed by Christian Dior, viewed them through a kaleidoscope and interpreted the resulting four-way symmetry for gemsetters to work in tiny jewels, rather than beads, carefully matched to the originals and angled to catch the light. Each of the eight one-off pieces is equally breathtaking, and the cleverest example yet of Dior’s fashion/watchmaking synergy.
Not far behind is the Policromia (from £6,250), Fendi’s first bid to raise its always singular watch offer – think monster-eyed Bug watches or styles with a nifty twisting crown that changes the hour gem colours – to high craft levels. By ultra-hip jeweller Delfina Delettrez, who is the daughter of the brand’s accessories designer Silvia Venturini Fendi (she modestly says she didn’t want to design for them until she had distanced herself from the family firm and proved herself in her own right), it is another amazing design, using illusory layers to lead the eye into the centre like, she says, “a portal to another world”. It is actually inspired both by the massed arches of Fendi’s Rome headquarters and by nature, with plates of malachite, lapis lazuli or mother-of-pearl – representing forests, the night and sunset – alternating with gold, diamonds or studded steel arcs. It takes great skill to mix such materials, and the final effect – faintly art deco but thoroughly modern, like Fendi’s fashion – is unlike anything else and shows what an eye from another discipline can bring to watchmaking. Such collaborations are surely the future, for both fashion and traditional brands.