Pale and powerful watches

Leading marques are refreshing the style palette with ice-cool white watches in myriad materials and textures. Fiona Matthias reports

Richard Mille diamond, jade and ceramic RM 07-01 on rubber strap, £111,000
Richard Mille diamond, jade and ceramic RM 07-01 on rubber strap, £111,000

“White is the perfectly balanced colour, clear and natural in its influence,” wrote Faber Birren, the notable American colour theory expert, in 1961. It’s associated with all things cool, but far from cold; it’s clean and fresh, bursting with energy and promise, yet can also suggest a certain comfort and safety – as well as surrender. The sum of all colours, it has long been a mainstay of watchmaking, in white gold and diamonds, steel, ceramic and rubber. But today is proving to be a real moment, with leading marques conjuring up a dazzling array of pale but powerful pieces, from sporty to sparkling, that showcase extraordinary craftsmanship in a thoroughly modern way. 

The hand-wound Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Concept Flying Tourbillon (price on request) introduced last year confers an air of ice-queen cool. At 38.5mm diameter, held on a hand-stitched “large square scale” white alligator strap, it is one of the smaller Royal Oaks, yet it possesses all the technical pedigree of the Royal Oak family and is unapologetic in its visual boldness. The flying tourbillon itself is an aesthetic treat, nestled in a dial of asymmetric shards sculpted like rocks of ice and defined by diamonds. There are two versions of the timepiece, one with 459 (3.65ct) brilliant-cut diamonds set inside an 18ct white-gold case, and another of 120 (9.98ct) baguette diamonds.

From left: Audemars Piguet diamond and white‑gold Royal Oak Concept Flying Tourbillon on alligator strap, price on request. Chanel ceramic and steel J12, from £4,675
From left: Audemars Piguet diamond and white‑gold Royal Oak Concept Flying Tourbillon on alligator strap, price on request. Chanel ceramic and steel J12, from £4,675

Coolly white with a wealth of mechanical-watch prowess is Richard Mille’s RM 07-01 (£111,000), now in alluring white ceramic with a diamond and jade dial. The RM 07-01 model was introduced in 2014, but evolves year on year. While the jade and diamond piece with white rubber strap is a limited edition for the EMEA region, the marque has an array of case and gem combinations for women based around white elements – all as technically brilliant on the inside as they are aesthetically pleasing on the outside. 

“A driving factor is the personal detail that women desire to be offered when making a decision about a particular watch,” says Timothée Malachard, the brand’s marketing director. “We make sure that there are enormous possibilities in watchcase materials, from precious metals to creations in carbon and/or quartz TPT [thin-ply technology exclusive to Richard Mille], sapphire and ATZ ceramics, with all kinds of strap materials and stone-setting possibilities.”

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While feminine and refined, this white ceramic and diamond model is as tough as they come, Malachard says. “We carry out extensive tests for shock resistance on all our movement designs. The extensive use of titanium, special coatings, mechanical solutions and movement details is identical to those found in our men’s watches.”

There’s undeniable potency, too, in Chanel’s J12 (38mm diameter, from £4,675) in white ceramic and steel – one of the most eloquent expressions of chic-meets-sporty styling. Then-artistic director Jacques Helleu designed the watch for himself in 1999, taking his references from yacht design – particularly the America’s Cup J-Class racing yachts. It first arrived on the scene in contemporary black ceramic, and although other makers such as Rado, IWC and Omega had already developed the use of the material, it was the fashion-conscious J12 that set the benchmark. 

From left: Bremont stainless steel and mother-of-pearl Solo 34 AJ, £2,995. Hublot diamond and stainless steel Big Bang Steel White Diamonds on rubber strap, £8,600. Ulysse Nardin steel, mother-of-pearl and diamond Lady Diver on rubber strap, £9,200
From left: Bremont stainless steel and mother-of-pearl Solo 34 AJ, £2,995. Hublot diamond and stainless steel Big Bang Steel White Diamonds on rubber strap, £8,600. Ulysse Nardin steel, mother-of-pearl and diamond Lady Diver on rubber strap, £9,200

In 2003, the watch announced itself in pristine white ceramic: it was sporty yet elegant, feminine and durable. Then, earlier this year, on the eve of its 20th birthday, the J12 received a sensitive and intuitive makeover by Arnaud Chastaingt, director of the Chanel Watch Creation Studio. Chastaingt’s work has kept the DNA of the original in a one-piece 38mm ceramic case, but with a sapphire case back that now reveals the 12.1 calibre self-winding movement with a 70-hour power reserve. Other modifications included a slimmer bezel, with the number of ridges around the dial increased from 30 to 40; the typeface of its numerals and indexes has been reimagined; the width of the crown and the ceramic cabochon adorning it reduced. The profile has softened and the ceramic bracelet now has elegant, extended links. 

Then there are the water babies of the white watch world – perfect companions for spotting manta rays off Komodo or wild swimming in a Snowdonia river. The Hublot Big Bang Steel White Diamonds (£8,600) makes quite the splash – especially in a range known for its bold colour. Water resistant to 100m, it plays with an industrial feel alongside the gem-setting. At 38mm, it is stainless steel with a rubber strap and its polished bezel is set with 126 (0.87ct) diamonds.

Hermès diamond, mother-of-pearl and stainless steel Arceau Cavales on chantilly alligator strap, £7,550 for the 36mm and £6,250 for the 28mm
Hermès diamond, mother-of-pearl and stainless steel Arceau Cavales on chantilly alligator strap, £7,550 for the 36mm and £6,250 for the 28mm

Ulysse Nardin’s Lady Diver (40mm, £9,200), water-resistant to 300m, is built around the self-winding calibre UN-320, and has a unidirectional rotating bezel, making it a proper diver’s watch. Its 18ct stainless-steel case is set with 19 diamonds, while its dial is white mother-of-pearl with eight diamonds and the white rubber strap, with stainless-steel elements, is set with a further 80 diamonds. 

“For this particular watch, the balance lies between the sporty, masculine elements and the femininity that it has to convey,” says Augustin Nussbaum, the brand’s head of product development. “For instance, the watch case is smaller, the lugs are thinner and inclined to fit a smaller wrist.” A major challenge on this type of watch, he says, is to create harmony between the materials – and that is where its impact and intrigue is made. “The rubber that is on the strap, on the bezel and on the crown, is made with different technologies. The dial also has a material that is very different to the matte rubber. It is either a shiny dial or a mother-of-pearl one, but it has to perfectly suit the rubber colours.”

Breitling stainless steel Superocean Automatic 36 on rubber strap, £2,760
Breitling stainless steel Superocean Automatic 36 on rubber strap, £2,760

Breitling’s Superocean Automatic 36 (£2,760), launched in March, is aimed at women with its 36mm compact case in stainless steel. It is water-resistant to 200m and is built around Breitling’s calibre 17, self-winding, with a power reserve of about 38 hours, and held by a white Diver Pro II strap. As CEO Georges Kern said at the collection’s launch, these watches are “for people who want to explore the oceans, whether they are active in watersports or in clean-up initiatives”. The first Superocean appeared in 1957, and then, as now, the driving force was “Dive with it, surf with it, swim with it”. There has rarely been a better invitation to jump in. 

From diving in deep to reaching for the skies: Bremont recently extended its traditionally male pilots’ watches with the Solo 34 AJ – the “AJ” stands for Amy Johnson – available with a mother-of-pearl dial and lizard strap (pre-order, £2,995). “Our Solo range was designed to nod to the classic pilot watches of the ’40s: beautifully simple and very traditional,” says co-founder Giles English. “No pilot ever forgets their first solo flight and the exhilaration as the wheels leave the runway, and it’s this feeling that inspired the Solo. Nick [English] and I grew up with aviation in our blood, and Amy Johnson was a childhood hero of ours. Her historic flight from England to Australia in her DH-60 Gypsy Moth back in 1930 was truly remarkable, even by today’s standards. She embodies all that the Solo range represents.”

Jacob & Co white-gold and diamond Brilliant Mystery Baguette, price on request
Jacob & Co white-gold and diamond Brilliant Mystery Baguette, price on request

“The Solo 34 is feminine and classical in style but not ‘precious’. Much smaller and slimmer than the classic Bremont cases, it is still built using our unique Trip-Tick case construction [made from three distinct parts]. The steel is hardened to be seven times tougher than that of your normal steel watch, and there are nine layers of anti-reflective coating applied to both sides of the sapphire crystals. All of this houses an automatic chronometer-rated movement.” 

Natural mother-of-pearl, as seen on the Solo 34, adds tone and texture to a dial – and, while there are challenges inherent to using such a brittle material, it pays off in a look that’s versatile enough for both day and eveningwear. 

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Last year, Hermès Horloger launched its Arceau Cavales (£7,550 for the 36mm, £6,250 for the 28mm) with striking mother-of-pearl marquetry. The original Arceau was created in 1978 by Henri d’Origny, and this latest iteration retains the original case shape in two sizes, 28mm and 36mm, and the same unique, asymmetrical lug design. 

“Our idea was to propose a jewellery timepiece that our client could use during the day instead of wearing it only with an evening dress – something we call a bijou de jour, with a light and singular diamond setting for a more discrete and versatile look,” says Philippe Delhotal, artistic director of Hermès Horloger. The stainless steel, quartz Cavales features an inner bezel ring set with 70 diamonds.

“To escape from traditional jewellery timepieces while demonstrating our craftsmanship, we wanted to take things one step further, playing with marquetry and mother-of-pearl, which itself is a semiprecious material.” Employing this intricate technique on the delicate substance was a new step for the watch division, but one embraced “with special care” by the Ateliers d’Hermès Horloger – and to stunning effect. 

There will, of course, be those who contest whether white even counts as a colour, so for the naysayers, here’s some transparency: Jacob & Co’s Brilliant Mystery Baguette (price on request), where time appears suspended as its black triangular hour and minute hands move within sapphire-crystal panes. It is quartz-driven and has a diameter of 44mm in polished 18ct white gold set with 172 (14.70ct) baguette white diamonds. The inner ring is set with 40 (2.56ct) baguette white diamonds, while the bezel possesses another 40 (2.14ct) baguette white diamonds. 

Faber Birren noted that “colour may have no great intrinsic value unless it is tastefully and artistically employed”. Luckily it’s in safe hands.

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