In the depths of winter, Blancpain took over London’s Natural History Museum for an event to highlight its commitment to marine conservation while celebrating the brand’s fabled Fifty Fathoms diving-watch range. It lit up the building’s façade for the occasion in an escapist sea-blue – a colour introduced on dials back when leading manufacturers started dipping their toes in the waters of nautical watchmaking. Now, alongside an array of sophisticated touches, the hue has a much wider remit in the world of women’s sports watches, adding instant allure to the active look.
The Fifty Fathoms originated in 1953 as the first modern diving watch, designed in conjunction with the French navy; large, with a black dial, it was unequivocally masculine. Today, the Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe 38mm (£6,950) is still highly functional, but is a unisex style with some obvious feminine appeal thanks to its beautifully deep-blue dial and bezel and its smaller size. It responds, says the brand’s vice president Alain Delamuraz, to “a growing demand for mechanical diver’s watches combining technical sophistication with a more ‘urban’ design”. This elegant, sleek and relatively slender model – with a movement taken from a previous all-white feminine-looking design, perhaps revealing Blancpain’s intentions – would fit in just as well at work as it would on a casual, sporty weekend or even at an event that calls for a fabulous midnight-blue tuxedo. It is emblematic of the new direction in women’s sports watches: elegant and sophisticated sports-inspired styles are becoming the go-to for women with active lifestyles, who constantly shift gear between the workplace and workouts, the school run and the social calendar.
This new design direction is a far cry from the “shrink it and pink it” days, when women were offered beachy styles in gaudy colours or chronographs with faux features that aped men’s models in appearance only – but in pastels. The blue, anthracite-grey and mother-of-pearl shades coming through today have both versatility and character, and while the high-end models have mechanical or automatic movements, even some quartz versions provide high performance as well as good looks.
Patek Philippe, better known for its complex, dress-style models than sports ones, makes designs with sporty overtones so well-judged that they suit any context. Having pushed for more complications on women’s watches, Sandrine Stern, the brand’s head of creation, has turned her attention to sportier styles, resulting in a lusciously feminine new version of the 20-year-old porthole-shaped Aquanaut Luce.
“Timepieces must now adapt to the busy, super-active lives of their owners – so more and more women look for elegant sportive watches. They are not primarily for sporty activities, but have a contemporary ‘sport chic’ style,” she says. “We develop mechanical movements with and without complications in the smallest diameter and height possible, which enables us to create sporty designs for women that are the right size to fit elegantly on the wrist and still give a clear indication of time.”
The most exquisite version of the Aquanaut Luce, in rose gold (£66,850), has a pale-beige mother-of-pearl dial, and the style’s signature “tropical” composite strap – this time with a subtle pearlised finish – and chequerboard engraving on the face are mirrored in a bezel of diamond baguettes. It is clearly a jewellery piece, yet one with a wear- and water-resistant strap, a water-resistant case and an automatic movement visible through the sapphire-crystal caseback.
The timepiece represents another facet of the modern, feminine sports watch: the inclusion of diamonds – not that simply adding diamonds would make a watch designed for men irresistible to women, but because the addition of gems to a sporty piece can create a frisson of surprise. This idea originated with Caroline Scheufele, co-president and artistic director of Chopard, who designed the Happy Sport 25 years ago as a timepiece vehicle for the free-floating-diamonds concept she used in jewellery. Early versions were bright and beach- and boat-orientated, but now they are more universal in style.
“I never understood why there should be segregation – watches for day or evening or sport,” she says. “My dream was a sporty and practical watch with a feminine twist, so I created the first watch combining steel and diamonds.” It has led to many variations, so each woman can “find her favourite”.
Taking the range to a new level is the Happy Ocean (£6,750): a functional deep-blue diving watch with highly legible white details, a rotating bezel with a turquoise or raspberry quadrant, an automatic movement and water resistance to 300m, as well as interchangeable rubber and Nato straps. There is also a jewellery version in white gold with a bezel of sapphires, diamonds and either blue topazes (£42,300) or rubies (£47,100).
A blue theme, with or without diamonds, carries across a swathe of sophisticated sports watches. The best of the blues include a design from IWC. The Da Vinci Automatic Edition 150 Years (from £4,700) and the DVA Moon Phase 36 (£26,500) with blue hands and 200 diamonds have rounded details (the 1960s and 1970s versions were more angular) and “recall the 1980s, when women’s Da Vinci chronographs with diamonds and crocodile straps were important,” according to head of design Christian Knoop. “It’s a new recognition of our women’s timepiece history, which goes back to the 1870s.” The slightly chunkier Pilot’s Watch Automatic 36 (£3,690) with a blue dial is “a smaller version of a men’s style, with the design cues of larger pilots’ watches, but much closer to the sizes of the 1940s.”
Blue dials are also an IWC signature. “Our first were in 1967, for certain limited edition pieces,” he says, “but they have now been embraced by the whole industry, including our women’s pieces, albeit with different materials – a matching strap or steel bracelet giving a lighter look than the black or brown used for men’s.”
Tag Heuer’s latest Aquaracer, the very functional Aquaracer Lady (£1,550; diamond-trim option, £2,550), is a 35mm quartz timepiece with a rotating steel or ceramic bezel, water resistance to 300m and a mother-of-pearl dial. Hublot’s tough-looking (despite its diamond trim), ceramic-encased Big Bang watch for Italia Independent (£16,500) has a dial and strap covered in rubber-lined deep-blue velvet. And the case of Bell & Ross’ quartz BR S Diamond Eagle (standard version £2,100; £4,990 with diamond bezel) is smaller than related models, at 39mm, with the brand’s aviation links expressed as a constellation of diamonds in the shape of Aquila the eagle soaring in the night sky.
Omega’s pale-blue steel Speedmaster 38 chronograph (£3,650), released last year, has soft oval subdials and the signature co-axial movement, and also comes in champagne and coffee with a rose-gold and diamond bezel (£6,880) or olive green with yellow gold (£4,560). Even those who are not inclined towards chronographs will contend that it is captivating.
“Women today are drawn to sportier watches as an everyday choice and as enduring pieces, so we’ve designed a wider range of colours and a smaller size, evolving models while keeping their essence,” explains the brand’s president and CEO Raynald Aeschlimann. “The oval dials give a unique look, elegance and slenderness, but we also do a black version with traditional round dials. It’s about choice rather than gender.”
Gold watches have been traditionally weighted to the sophisticated, not the sporty – but times change. Audemars Piguet’s riveted Royal Oak is a 1970s classic that has had many iterations, including women’s styles. Jewellery designer Carolina Bucci used to wear a vintage gold men’s Royal Oak every day, and a chance meeting with the brand’s CEO François-Henry Bennahmias led to the limited edition Frosted Gold (£34,840). Bucci’s craftsmen taught the manufacturer her signature technique, so the timepiece could be hammered all over to create a softly glittering effect.
It’s not the only brand re-examining its own golden era of sports watches. Cartier launched the gold Panthère – a more delicate evocation of the chunky, aviation-inspired men’s Santos – in 1983, and has now revived it in numerous versions, from simple gold (£20,500) to jewelled and enamelled styles.
Breitling’s new designs are also unmistakably sporting: the elegant 32mm Galactic Sleek (£6,140) combines steel with rose-gold accents, a SuperQuartz movement (10 times as precise as standard quartz), diamonds and mother-of-pearl, while an all-steel version (£3,690) has the technical twist of a tungsten carbide bezel. Panerai’s ultra-handsome rose-gold 38mm version of the Luminor Due (£13,000, available from June) combines classicism with sporty diving details like a protecting crown lever, luminous bright-blue numerals and a pale‑blue alligator strap.
It’s also highly likely that today’s Fitbit fan will want an activity-friendly style for her main timepiece. “A sports watch must be strong enough to endure an active life – but it can also be feminine,” explains Bell & Ross creative director Bruno Belamich, who has noted an increase in women seeking watches that suit their sporty lifestyles, but with a greater emphasis on elegance.
As if proof were needed, Omega had a waiting list for the cappuccino Speedmaster in the run-up to Christmas, and Mark Toulson, head of buying at Watches of Switzerland’s parent company Aurum, says the Aquaracer was “the third bestseller at Christmas from Tag, often considered a masculine brand; it’s dainty, but a proper diving watch. The same applies to Breitling’s Colt [£2,700], a diving watch with a diamond-set mother-of-pearl dial, and Rolex’s 37mm Yacht-Master [£16,150] in 18ct Everose gold with a ceramic bezel and rubber strap.”
Scheufele foresaw this when she designed the Happy Sport. “Women today are so active, I felt it was important that their watches matched their eventful lifestyle,” she says. And that’s unlikely to slow down anytime soon…