It was a somewhat obscure collecting niche that recently swung into view when two ladies’ pendant watches were hammered down for around $30,000 each, about three times their estimates. First an exuberant c1970 Piaget number in lapis lazuli with a turquoise, amethyst and diamond-set bezel sold by Sotheby’s; then a c1927 Savoy Watch Co white gold aeroplane with a concealed dial and intricate gilt engraving that stole the show at Christie’s New York.
These strikingly different pieces reveal the aesthetic scope of women’s pendant watches, the first of which were produced around the turn of the 20th century. A transition timepiece between lapel watches and wristwatches, early models were distinctively feminine and often incorporated fine gem setting and enamelwork. “They were worn for special or formal occasions,” says Christie’s senior watch specialist Eric Wind. “Plus they were expensive, so there’s not a huge glut out there.”
This rarity means prices for exemplary models should continue to inch up, adds Wind, although they very much depend on the maker. “Where typical belle époque, enamel pendant watches are concerned, I’ve sold versions by Patek Philippe for as much as $25,000,” says Jonathan Snellenburg, director of watches and clocks at Bonhams New York, “while anonymous, no-name examples will struggle to make a couple of thousand dollars.”
Venerable houses such as Vacheron Constantin and Tiffany & Co made turn-of-the-century pendant watches that are sought-after today, but those by Patek Philippe are the crème de la crème, repeatedly beating their auction estimates. A gorgeous pearl and enamel piece from c1903 can currently be picked up at New York’s J&P Time Pieces for $9,900, while London’s Somlo Antiques carries a glorious Patek Philippe blue enamel design (£13,000) from c1904 with a matching enamel-studded chain.
Indeed, the necklace-like chains can be as splendid as the watches themselves – having the original adds value – especially those from the art deco era. Cartier in particular shone during this period. “By the 1910s, carved gemstones were being incorporated into pendant watches, reflecting the signature style of the maison,” says Cartier’s director of image, style and heritage Pierre Rainero. “They featured contrasts of white, black and emerald green enamel with platinum and diamonds.” Cue a standout diamond-set model with an unusual guilloché enamel pentagon-shaped case from c1911 that crossed the block at Sotheby’s in April for $81,250.
Another art deco trend was for concealed watches with dials hidden behind bejewelled façades – or, as with the aeronautical piece sold by Christie’s, underneath an engraved wing. “They were a discussion point,” says Michael Friedman, a historian of Audemars Piguet, itself a pendant-watch maker. “You think it’s a necklace? Look closer.” A quintessential art deco design by the Swiss house sold at Antiquorum in 2014 for $7,500, for example, disguises a silver-dialled watch with a classic swirl of sapphires and diamonds.
After the first world war, however, pendant watches went from being concealed to disappearing entirely, as the ever-practical wristwatch took over as the timepiece du jour – until Piaget brought them back in a big way in the early 1970s. At the time, the house engineered the thinnest movements, and it paired these with bold, fashion-forward designs – such as the aforementioned lapis lazuli showstopper. According to Piaget’s director of heritage Alain Borgeaud, these pendant watch designs were produced as “spontaneous and daring creations” that chimed with the vibrant prints and patterns of the time. And since usually no more than a few dozen of each model were made, they are extremely rare today.
“People love the look of these Piaget pieces,” says Justin Gruenberg, co-director of vintage dealers Donald E Gruenberg. “They’re modern, playful and rarely seen. I’ve only ever owned the same design once.” He currently has one with lapis lazuli beads and a linked gold chain for $27,000, and a dynamic coral and yellow gold design at $39,500.
Another watch brand that experimented with pendant designs at this time was Omega, which commissioned the flamboyant jeweller Andrew Grima to jazz up its watches in 1969. One of the results – a fabulous, sculptural wheat-like pendant with a quartz face that gives the dial a golden glow – is available at Somlo Antiques for £32,000. Omega and Grima were roused to take the form further, and one of their 1970 hammered-gold designs with a diamond-set bezel is available at Gruenberg for $11,000.
“I’m intrigued by the blend of functional watch and decorative jewellery,” says Jillion Weisberg, a business development executive at Thomson Reuters who has bought 10-15 pendant watches by brands such as Piaget and Bulgari since she began collecting five years ago. “They’re visually more varied and experimental than a classic wristwatch, and stylistically represent the era in which they were designed.” Indeed, while historically pendant watches have been bought by men seeking something unusual for their partners, say the auction houses, with an uptick in women buying watches for themselves, these horological jewels are swinging back into vogue.