It is always interesting to see what the head of a watch company is wearing on his wrist: often whatever is new, the latest talking point on the market; sometimes an early prototype of a model to be launched in the future; or a much-cherished model from the brand’s past with personal significance for the wearer. But very seldom will one see a watch boss wearing a jewellery watch; more seldom still will he be in charge of Vacheron Constantin, the august watchmaker founded in 1755.
Vacheron takes watchmaking – and itself – very seriously. A couple of years ago, to mark its 260th anniversary, it made a behemoth of a masterpiece: a pocket watch the size of a small discus that housed 57 complications. And yet the other day when I popped into Vacheron Constantin’s Geneva HQ I saw CEO Louis Ferla wearing a jewellery watch.
But this was no Liberace moment. The watch looked like a typical Vacheron Constantin, the quintessence of understatement: a 40mm wafer of platinum with just two sword shaped hands. The Traditionelle (£53,400) is so discreet I had to ask Ferla to hand it to me in order to see the baguette diamonds that form the hour markers.
Gem-set watches have tended to come with, if not exactly a stigma, then a certain set of expectations. If one is a prominent member of the local chapter of the Jay-Z appreciation society, contemplating a career at the highest levels of association football, or just a regular patron of the VIP rooms of the casinos of Macau and Las Vegas, then there will be occasions when one is considered improperly dressed without a visibly gem-set timepiece. Although I missed my vocation as a footballer, I admire the oeuvre of Mr Z, and have been known to frequent the gaming tables, but so far, I have managed to muddle through life without a diamond-set watch. Yet having seen the new interpretations of gem-set timepieces by some of Switzerland’s most established and respected brands, I am finding that lure harder to resist.
The timepiece I admired at Vacheron recalls a period in watchmaking in the middle of the 20th century, when the term “bling” had yet to enter the language. As Christian Selmoni, style and heritage director at Vacheron Constantin, explains, “It’s a piece for very special clients who want something in the spirit of the watches of the 1950s or the 1960s to wear to the theatre or opera: super-elegant, super-thin, with the diamonds just there to enhance the beauty of the design. It is a niche watch for a customer who wants something highly precious but not obvious.”
Vacheron is not alone in identifying this niche in the market. In 2016, Patek Philippe made a 40th- anniversary model (about £80,000) of its fabled Nautilus – one of the prototypical elegant sports watches. As well as making the watch in platinum, it chose to enhance the design with baguette-diamond hour markers. Set against the blue ribbed dial, the diamond indexes were almost invisible and the two thousand watches in the series could have been sold many times over. Of course, this has much to do with the high desirability of the Nautilus, but the fact that Patek chose to celebrate the model by using the precious combination of costly white metal and discreet diamond setting is telling.
It is a combination that appeals to Karl-Friedrich Scheufele, co-president of Chopard. Chopard is known for some exuberant watches and jewellery, but the haute horlogerie brand LUC (Louis-Ulysse Chopard) has been run very much in the personal style of Scheufele himself – with almost self-effacing understatement. At the Chopard-sponsored Cannes Film Festival he launched the LUC Black Tie collection (£38,000) of watches with baguette-set bezels or baguette hour markers. “We are mindful about setting in white metal rather than yellow, because it is more restrained and elegant.” For Scheufele the point of using diamonds seems to be that they pass unnoticed. “Depending on how you look at the dial, you don’t see that it’s a baguette right away, which I find attractive. And the combination of black and white diamonds is stunning. I think the reason such dress watches are in demand is to do with a new resurgence of what we call the modern gentleman.”
What Chopard calls the watch for the modern gentleman, Jaeger-LeCoultre deputy CEO Geoffroy Lefebvre calls the “dandyish watch”. As fashion swings away from oversized, overcomplicated designs, Jaeger-LeCoultre has seen new interest in its Master Ultra Thin series, and as well as offering gem-set versions of this classic, it recently launched a skeletonised, diamond-set piece (£63,000) in an edition of 100.
Where once the aim was to pile complications over each other like a micromechanical version of the Tower of Babel, now it is about showing the maximum savoir faire in the minimum amount of height. “The calibre 849 is 1.85mm thick and sits in a case 4.7mm high,” says Lefebvre. “We have chosen to include a gem-set element because we wanted to combine our knowledge of diamond setting and our mastery of high-end watchmaking in the extremely challenging context of ultra-thinskeleton movements.” In this case, the use of diamonds is like using the correct lighting to illuminate a work of art; just as, Selmoni said, a few judiciously used diamonds can enhance the beauty of a classic watch, so they can also spotlight feats of mechanical excellence and refinement.
“This is why we are focusing on diamond watches for men,” says Philippe Léopold-Metzger, president of Piaget. “There is still a market for exceptional cases in which the more diamonds you can put on the watch the better, but there is also a market for thin, beautiful watches with discreet diamonds and the Altiplano range is the perfect answer for us.” In particular, he cites the example of the diamond setting – a mix of baguette- and brilliant-cut diamonds in white gold – on the 900P (£165,000): “This is basically the thinnest watch we have in the collection.” Piaget being Piaget, the Altiplano range offers everything from full diamond coverage to the almost chaste use of baguettes around the time indication at 10 o’clock on the bezel.
Talking of gem-set bezels, one of the most amusing examples comes from Rolex, which recently revived gem-setting on its GMT Master II (£64,900) and according to Mark Toulson, head of watch buying at Watches of Switzerland’s parent company Aurum Holdings, it is proving popular. “Production of this model appeared to cease for a couple of years, but has now restarted,” he says. “It’s my favourite gem-set Rolex because it’s one of the few gents’ watches where the gemstones mimic the standard ceramic bezel, or even the steel model that’s no longer produced. The purist might argue that the diamond hour markers in the bezel don’t provide the functionality of the numbers on the ceramic model, but who cares? It is a cool watch, and for the few people who are lucky enough to own one, they’ll at least know that blue is nighttime and red is daytime. With a statement piece like this I think that’s all you really need to know!”