There’s a distinctly retro air wafting through the rarefied ranks of fine women’s watches. For some time the story in horological circles seems to have been added elaborations – intricate designs featuring handcrafted enamelling, marquetry and even silk threads. I well remember celebrating here incredibly delicate embroidery on the faces of several watches. But now many of the great watch brands are looking backwards towards their old icons and coming up with pieces that have a refined classicism and go easily from day to night. Others are introducing simplified, more elegant designs, shorn of extra decoration on the faces. For the fans of “stealth wealth” and those whose tastes naturally run to the more restrained, this is all very good news.
Among the most charming of all the designs that capture this new mood is La D de Dior Satine (£6,400), the Satine in its name reflecting its innovative and extremely refined mesh metal bracelet. Until now almost all metal straps have consisted of links, many of which tend towards the chunky. La D de Dior Satine’s strap, by contrast, is a continuous band of intricately meshed steel or rose or yellow gold so fine that it has the appearance and suppleness of satin. Inspired by the meshed-steel armour worn by Milanese dukes and warriors, Dior Joaillerie artistic director Victoire de Castellane searched for several years before she found a factory – in Germany – that could give her the fine work she was after. The watches mostly have unadorned mother-of-pearl faces and come in three diameters (19mm, 25mm and 36mm). They are available from the Dior boutiques in Sloane Street, New Bond Street and Harrods.
Rolex’s Lady Datejust is probably its most famous design for women, but its new Cellini Time (£14,250) will catch the eye of women who are looking for something even simpler and more pared-down. It isn’t strictly designed for women (Rolex calls it a “dress watch”), but it has a sublime elegance to it, with a white dial and appliquéd hour markers that do nothing more complicated than tell the time.
Panerai has always had a slightly sporty image, having begun its horological life by creating watches for the Italian navy, but last May it launched Luminor Due (£8,650), a slimmer, more elegant version of its Luminor design, which dates back to the 1950s. It features the same robust cushion case, large dial, strong, simple hands and clear graphics, but this time around the case is a mere 42mm in diameter.
Zenith’s watches have long been recognisable for their simplicity; they are worn by those who love fine design that is restrained rather than flash. It is one of the handful of watch companies that makes all its own parts and assembles its watches entirely itself, thus entitling it to refer to its output as “manufacture”, and this year’s latest launch is supremely elegant. The Zenith Elite Lady Moonphase (£4,300) will appeal to women who are instinctively drawn to the ruggedness of men’s watches but want something a little bit more svelte. It comes in steel and is slightly larger than most of the other designs in Zenith’s range, has a very simple dial and numerals and is an almost perfect expression of a very pure classic watch. For those who like a bit of sparkle, there are versions with a simple circle of diamonds around the rim (from £5,800).
Jaeger-LeCoultre is also looking back nostalgically to its early models for inspiration. Its new steel Reverso One Réédition (£4,000) is a smaller, more exquisite design in which Jaeger-LeCoultre reintroduces the iconic black dial and the elongated shape of the original 1930s watch.
Chaumet has responded to what it perceives as a shift in the zeitgeist by taking its highly successful Liens Lumière watch, with a circumference of just 27mm, and giving it an air of even greater elegance and refinement. Though embellished with a circle of diamonds, the face of the new model (£13,810) nevertheless has an air of graceful restraint, with plain numerals. The crossed ribbon design that encircles the dial allows the black leather strap to be changed at will. Alternative straps come in 12 colours, including pinks, greens, reds and blues, with metallic bracelets also available.
Tag Heuer has turned its talents to a redesign of one of its models from the 1980s. The metal bracelet for its Link Lady watch (£1,250) consists of delicate, rounded S-shaped links that sit neatly on the wrist. It has a classically round face and simple Roman numerals, and while there are diamond options, in its simplest form it is a very contemporary-looking day‑to‑evening watch.
Hublot’s Classic Fusion range has long been admired for its refined simplicity, and this year it has a version that is just 33mm (£11,800). The cool matt-black rubber strap works particularly well with the gold model.
Meanwhile, Piaget, famous for the ultra-thin watch it launched way back in 1957, is celebrating the 60th anniversary of its creation with a beautifully classic rendition of the great icon. While there has always been an Altiplano in the collection, the design and the internal movements have evolved over the years, moving away from that early aesthetic. With the Altiplano 60th Anniversary watch (£21,500), Piaget has returned to the original design codes – echoing the historical logo, the applied gold hour markers, the signature cross in the middle – and done away with the second dial. It is of course ultra-thin, and the face comes in the legendary Piaget blue (made by painting galvanised brass). It is offered in two sizes, with a hand-winding or self-winding mechanism. Though it is described as a unisex watch, women will probably go for the 38mm version and men for the 43mm. There will initially be a limited edition of 460 and 360 respectively.
Hermès, never one to go in for the overadorned, last year launched an exceptionally pure-looking new watch – the Slim d’Hermès Grand Feu Enamel (£14,500). Made in a limited edition of just 100, it has an ultra-thin case of 18ct rose gold, an enamelled face with austerely plain numerals, and a matte alligator strap.
And finally, Audemars Piguet has a new beautiful rendition of its classic Royal Oak Ladies design (£37,700), which is a collaboration with that fine Florentine (though London-based) jeweller Carolina Bucci. As her fans know, she comes from a long line of Florentine jewellers but has created a distinctive style of her own, most notable for its very fine weaving of gold.
Bucci’s husband wanted to give her a watch for a significant anniversary, but she had trouble finding one she liked until, while in New York, she spotted one she truly loved on a woman in the street. She followed her all the way to Bergdorf Goodman and up to the sixth floor to get a glimpse of its make. She discovered it was a man’s watch, a 1970s Audemars Piguet Royal Oak no longer in production. Her husband tracked a vintage one down and she wore it and loved it. “It became my style signature and it worked perfectly with my jewellery.”
The alliance came about when Bucci met a member of the Audemars Piguet family who was intrigued to see somebody so tiny and feminine wearing a man’s watch. “That,” she told him, “is because you don’t make a women’s one that appeals to me.” And so she was asked to interpret the iconic Royal Oak for a modern woman. “It was daunting,” she says, “because there is so much history to be respected.” She didn’t want to do anything “girly”. Instead she has given it added glamour by using her famous Florentine gold finish on the strap and case, made by hammering the rose or white gold with a diamond-tipped tool. The beautifully understated but nevertheless feminised version of the Royal Oak comes in two sizes – 33mm and 37mm. “Nothing,” says Bucci, “has been taken away from the original design, but by using this gold on the face it fuses the two worlds of evening and day into a watch that is timeless, iconic and very cool.”