The setting couldn’t have been more dramatic: a wood-panelled drawing room in a magnificent palazzo in Venice, overlooking the Grand Canal, with actor Benedict Cumberbatch reading aloud, framed against a night sky ripped apart by lightning that illuminated the audience with a diamond-like flash. We were gathered in La Serenissima during the International Film Festival to celebrate the legendary 101 jewellery watch, a minuscule masterpiece from stellar watchmaker Jaeger-LeCoultre, for whom Cumberbatch is an enthusiastic ambassador.
The 101 is the famously tiny, enduringly elegant diamond watch, created in 1929, that is powered by the Calibre 101, which remains today the smallest mechanical movement in the world. It’s famous too as the slender, bracelet-like timepiece worn by Queen Elizabeth II for her coronation in 1953; as a princess, she received the gold and diamond watch as a gift from the French president.
In another painted and panelled candlelit salon, we toasted the two new rose-gold and diamond 101 models: Reine (£120,000), the classic, with its miniature square dial in the centre of a bracelet composed simply of two lines of diamonds, and the Feuille (£223,000), the secret-watch version, with its dial hidden behind a sculptural, leaf-shaped cover, opened by pressing a slightly raised diamond – both pieces, revamped and refined very slightly with exquisite details, and glinting discreetly with vintage movie-star glamour.
Discretion was one of the key motivators in the creation of the 101. It happened at a point, during the early years of women’s wristwatches, when it was considered impolite, even vulgar, to glance at the time during a party or dinner. The leisured classes were supposed to have little need to concern themselves with the minutes and hours of the day, explains Stéphane Belmont, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s director of heritage. It was also difficult, seemingly impossible, to make a movement small enough to fit a woman’s watch that would complement refined 1920s jewellery – particularly the elegant diamond bracelets worn with the new sleeveless tubular gowns. Jaeger Le-Coultre took on the challenge to miniaturise a movement without sacrificing precision, and in 1925 revealed the Duoplan, a revolutionary concept in which the workings of the movement were separated onto two horizontal levels – one plate on top of the other – thereby halving the space required. It was also the first movement to have the crown on the back. In 1929, the concept was crystallised and miniaturised even further, resulting in the Calibre 101.
Since that time, the 101 has continued to be made, in different versions, including the Feuille Secret watch of 1959. The level of skill and intricacy involved in making the scaled-down movement means that only 50 or so are produced each year at most, by just a few specialist watchmakers, led by Christian Laurent, head of complications and a passionate advocate of the 101. Extreme dexterity is needed, he explains, to assemble the 98 minute components into a movement weighing barely 1g. Assembly takes two full days (as opposed to a Reverso, which takes two hours), and is so complex that the 101 is regulated by the High Complications department. This iconic watch chimes beautifully with the kind of expertise, exclusivity and classic elegance that is so sought-after today.
For this reason, Jaeger felt the time was right to throw a spotlight on this micromechanical marvel, with its low-key glamour that marries contemporary simplicity and vintage appeal. “For the past five years, we have promoted the feminine side of Jaeger-LeCoultre. Today, 50 per cent of our watches are sold to women,” Belmont says. “We think the market is moving away from very big dials and complications towards something more subtle. We’re seeing a return to classic watches – and the 101 expresses the most extreme refinement possible in watchmaking.”
Signs of this shift towards sleek, “ladylike” elegance can be found in the glistering array of jewellery watches on offer this party season – all celebratory yet discreet enough for cocktails or a Christmas lunch. In fact, this trend seems to hark back to the original cocktail or “dress” watch of the 1930s-1950s that cross‑fertilised jewellery and wristwatches.
Today’s updated versions rely on small – even tiny – square, round or octagonal dials, usually integrated into a band- or bangle-style bracelet or centred on a delicate gem-set chain-like bracelet. Graff takes both routes, embedding a small square dial in a bracelet composed entirely of baguette diamonds, showing the sleek art deco simplicity that has always inspired the jeweller’s founder Laurence Graff. Yellow diamonds, meticulously matched – a Graff speciality – add intense colour and impact to a series of delicate white-gold watches. In one particularly feminine design (price on request), the round, diamond-framed dial sits on a gold daisy-chain bracelet of different cuts and shapes.
Boucheron also offers both styles. In the graphic monochrome Damier Cabochon watch (price on request), a tiny dial is integrated in a streamlined pavé-diamond bracelet, the corners of each articulated section studded with onyx cabochons in a pattern inspired by the tiled floors of Parisian hôtels particuliers. The 26 Vendôme watch (price on request), part of the collection celebrating the grand reopening of the brand’s restored Paris flagship boutique this month, takes the octagonal form of the Place Vendôme, on a slinkily narrow white-gold bracelet composed of slender baguette diamonds, set horizontally, all edged in a fine line of black ceramic, powerfully contrasting vintage style with high-tech material. Boucheron asserts that the shift towards smaller, ultra-feminine jewellery watches is also linked to the idea of time-telling as more of an emotional than a mechanical concept.
Harry Winston has gone small, intricate and supremely feminine with the platinum Marble Marquetry watch (price on request) in diamonds and sapphires: the octagonal dial echoes the Winston logo, while the sapphire starburst motifs reference the marble floor of the New York Fifth Avenue flagship store. The Mini Twist all‑diamond watch (£40,200), meanwhile, is a contemporary adaptation of a style by the jeweller’s late, great designer Ambaji Shinde from the 1960s and 1970s. Entwined lines of leaf-shaped, brilliant-cut diamond-set elements wind around the wrist, through the flexibility of an inner gold chain, and then clamber over the circular dial.
Chopard’s creative director Caroline Scheufele continues to ensure that her signature Happy Diamonds watches keep pace with changing tastes and fashions, as they have since their launch in 1976. Now, she says, “I have had many requests for small dials, so I created a collection with a small dial measuring less than 2cm, but still bearing our signature dancing diamonds.” In this new series , the stones roll merrily around the diminutive dial in a diamond-edged case, some ornamented with a line of baguettes, others with a trefoil motif or a pavé-diamond bow.
Hermès’ newest watches, launched this month, are all “bijou size” to respond to the demand for reduced proportions and narrower dimensions. This shift, confirms Philippe Delhotal, artistic director of Hermès Watches, comes after “years of big diameters”. He has designed the Klikti – with its neat rectangular dial, flanked by white-gold elongated oval links wrapped together with diamond-pavéd elements, on an alligator strap – to be “feminine, precious and delicate, and so comfortable you can forget it’s on your wrist”. The new Médor Rock (from £2,950), with its playful pyramid-shaped “stud” cover, is also scaled down and comes in several incarnations on narrow leather straps, including a dramatic bright blue or white, and a black or red lacquer-cased version criss-crossed in diamonds for cocktail wear. “To create charisma within a very small watch is the Holy Grail,” says Delhotal. “You have to harmonise the details so that they interact with great subtlety and create a strong character. Just as with poetry, you have at your disposal very few words to say a lot.”
At Dior, Victoire de Castellane offers up the petite and perfectly formed La Mini D de Dior (from £3,000), a miniature version of the nostalgically retro-styled La D de Dior, with its sweetly simple, open-faced round dial. La Mini D de Dior Rose des Vents (£3,500) sits upon a black satin strap, the dial incorporating the lucky wind-rose motif, while La Mini D de Dior Satine, with its silky Milanese mesh strap in steel, yellow gold or rose gold (£22,000), now comes with dials of malachite or lapis lazuli, their deep, velvety richness contrasting with the minimalism of the design.
Chaumet’s downscaled Hortensia Eden (£4,310), intended specifically for cocktail wear rather than full-on ballroom, has a mirrored dial rimmed with diamonds and dressed simply with three strategically positioned sculptural diamond flowers, all on Milanese woven stainless-steel bracelets. Meanwhile, Van Cleef & Arpels offers the exquisite, seasonally themed Snowflake Fleurette all-diamond watch (price on request) in platinum, while David Morris makes an all-diamond mini version of its signature rose-cut-diamond white-gold watch (price on request).
For those seeking something fashionably small but less restrained for the party season, several of the latest watches manage to downsize while also firing up the fantasy element. Two striking watches in Piaget’s Sunlight Escape collection (price on request), Blue Moment and Emerald Star, cleverly introduce jewellery’s ubiquitous classic single-stone concept to watches: both are centred on elegant, attenuated rectangular mother-of-pearl dials, framed in diamonds, one set at the top with a single, impressively large (6.09ct) Madagascan sapphire, the other with a square emerald-cut Colombian emerald (1.89ct) – both on delicate white-gold bracelets in a foliate design composed of marquise-cut diamonds and more sapphires or emeralds. In Chanel’s latest Coromandel collection, inspired by Mademoiselle’s beloved antique Chinese lacquered screens, the romantic swooping bird of the white-gold Vol Suspendu (price on request) shelters a precious drop of time amid its outspread diamond feathers, the tiny dial in a teardrop-shaped case.
Whether it’s a design that’s delicate and desirably discreet or one that embraces scaled-down high-octane drama, small and exquisite is the way to wear your rocks around the clock this festive season.