Why can’t a woman’s watch be more like a man’s? A strange question, perhaps, when female demand is increasingly for mechanical timepieces designed from scratch for women. But it is nevertheless a question being asked ever more loudly, especially by younger consumers, in relation to a specific area of watchmaking – the use of tough, high‑tech materials, often drawn from the aerospace industry, that over the past decade have been the focus of men’s watch designers.
Not that most women want the over-large and brutalist designs sometimes associated with such materials, but even the cerebral world of horology is grappling with the issue of gender identity. Western women now tend to choose larger styles for daytime, while western men are downsizing their watches as the trend for midcentury retro style takes hold. Men in the Asian market, meanwhile, traditionally prefer moderate sizes. So timepieces measuring from about 37mm to 40mm have become the industry sweet spot, with gender largely irrelevant. Add to this tough-looking media campaigns, such as Cara Delevingne promoting her Tag Heuer Lady Carrera (£3,700) with a dark anthracite dial and a titanium carbide-coated case, or Lady Gaga with Tudor’s sporty Black Bay (£2,030), and the growth of female interest in the new materials starts to make sense.
Now top-end watch companies are rising to the challenge by showing that a woman’s watch can, indeed, be made of technical materials like a man’s but also be alluringly feminine. Richard Mille is a pioneer who has, throughout his career, worked with scientists creating custom-made materials. “Women generally get to know these materials through the men’s timepieces, but once they see a feminine interpretation, the floodgates of their interest open,” he says.
Traditionally, the industry has considered carbon fibre, with its intensely black, four-square look, to be intrinsically masculine, but women’s watches are now taking advantage of the material’s aesthetic. The carbon TPT that Richard Mille uses has a shimmering beauty, akin to moiré silk, which he studs with diamonds that glimmer in the blackness, a considerable feat as carbon is very difficult to work. The RM07-01 (£100,000 with diamonds, £58,500 plain) is a perfect blend of high craft and science. “It has a sensuousness,” Mille says, “and can express complex and subtle qualities just like gold.” Explaining the challenge of gem setting, Mille says, “You cannot create claws in carbon to hold a stone. You have to make them in precious metal and capture the stone by drilling a tiny hole in the carbon.” Another brand rising to the challenge of gem-setting carbon is Roger Dubuis, whose Black Velvet collection includes a watch with Paraíba tourmalines (£39,500). “We had the idea of setting gems in carbon to make a light, comfortable watch without compromising the haute horlogerie,” says the brand’s product strategy director Gregory Bruttin. “Our method is patented – the stone is placed in a tiny hole with titanium nails delicately bent over it.”
Ceramic has been the bellwether of high-tech case materials since Chanel launched its iconic J12 in 2000 and is centre stage in the brand’s futurist Code Coco model (£8,800) with its grid design and clasp based on the classic 2:55 bag. Hublot, meanwhile, has developed a new patented ceramic. “Ceramic has traditionally been dark, as coloured pigments burn at high temperatures,” says CEO Ricardo Guadalupe. “Our technique reduces the sintering temperature so the pigments are preserved. The new Big Bang Italia Independent [£16,500] has a bright-green case that captures the female trend for brightly coloured watches.” Van Cleef & Arpels, meanwhile, has solved historic problems with the “padlock”-style gold clasp on the Cadenas (£35,000) by adding ceramic beads inside the new clasp. And Omega has produced a new Planet Ocean (£8,300) in brown ceramic with the brand’s patented Sedna gold.
Titanium, with its qualities of lightness, hardness and comfort, is another new material appearing in women’s models and is nearly as tough to work as carbon. Roger Dubuis has set diamonds and sapphires on black DLC-coated titanium for limited edition Excalibur models (from £16,000), while the FP Journe Elégante, with its discreet diamond bezel, luminescent dial, coloured ceramic insert and special electro-mechanical movement, has a popular titanium-cased version (£13,000). The metal also appears in Urwerk’s UR-106 Flower Power (about £73,000), a perfect balance of traditional craft with its diamond flowers, and innovation with its rotating hour “satellites”, light titanium caseback and baseplate in Arcap, a recently invented iron-free, anti-magnetic alloy. Titanium forms the case and openwork dial on Zenith’s futuristic new Defy Classic (£6,100), too, which is very light for a 41mm model. It also has another in-demand high-tech material, silicon, in its escapement – the first time Zenith has used this innovative combination.
“A silicon hairspring needs little lubrication and is light and anti-magnetic – important for accuracy in women’s watches as many handbags have magnetic closures,” says Raynald Aeschlimann, CEO of Omega. Ulysse Nardin suggests similar reasons for the adoption of silicon in a movement developed in 2015 for women’s watches. It also increases tolerance of temperature variation – the latest model featuring it is the Classic Lady Dual Time (£8,800), its dual-time-zone complication very useful for travelling businesswomen but seldom seen in women’s models; it also has buttons designed with manicured nails in mind. Big brands invent their own silicon variations, often shrouded in secrecy. Rolex uses its silicon-related Syloxi for the hairsprings on its women’s models, such as the Yacht-Master 37 (£29,200), which has a striking ceramic bezel. And at the heart of Patek Philippe’s Ladies First Perpetual Calendar (£71,190) lies its house-invented, silicon Spiromax balance spring.
High-tech materials can also be used to create very artistic dials. The sparkling aventurine dial on the evening version of Omega’s new Trésor (available from October), cased in a new super-polished white‑gold alloy called Canopus, is made by a new, patent-pending process whereby the aventurine is pulverised and then fused to the dial by grand feu enamelling. Meanwhile, Van Cleef & Arpels has created a ceramic that can generate electricity when compressed, and lights up the “stars” on the new men’s Astrological watch. A women’s version is in the pipeline for the autumn – and promises to be a quintessential example of the growing trend for combining cutting-edge technology with feminine beauty.