Earlier this year, I made a short film for Vacheron Constantin on what are known in marketing circles as “segmenting” watch designs. Translated into civilian English, this means those watches that are so far out there in design that the risk of them ever being sold, let alone sold in any commercially significant quantities, is negligible.
Vacheron’s head of style and heritage Christian Selmoni had already pulled some real corkers out of the company archives, including a spectacular example of the Prestige de la France, a trapezoidal masterpiece launched in 1972. Its unusual case shape is “segmenting” by today’s standards. But this one was from the late ’70s, where Vacheron had really gone to town: the strap was a plaited leather interwoven with gold thread; the gold deployant clasp was gadrooned; and the bezel was covered in diamonds. But what really made it was the dial: a mosaic of tiny squares of tiger’s eye that shimmered and sparkled as I turned the watch on my wrist.
Had it been a car it would have been a Lamborghini Countach with metallic tangerine paintwork, leopardskin seats and a crocodile-trimmed steering wheel – I loved it. I failed to persuade Vacheron Constantin to sell it to me and I have been lobbying ever since for it to be put it back into production.
So far my entreaties have been ignored, but the weather vane of fashion seems to be turning in my favour, as the auctioneer Aurel Bacs explains: “Until recently people were almost appalled by the style associated with Joe Pesci and Robert de Niro in Casino. Watches with hardstone dials were very much the watches that went with those looks.”
But what was once appalling is now appealing. “Now suddenly we see this trend for apple-green Porsches and Lamborghinis, the renaissance of a period of my childhood of which I have fond memories,” says Bacs. As Jane Austen would no doubt have put it, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a man with an apple-green Porsche is in need of a malachite-dial watch.
Indeed, so fond were Bacs’ memories that when he designed a one-off Zenith El Primero to be auctioned for charity, he installed a lapis lazuli dial. “I know of a collector who has a Patek Philippe Nautilus with a lapis lazuli dial,” he explains. “Five years ago we’d have one or two quirky enquiries for something like that; now there would be dozens of enthusiastic bidders.”
It is the same with vintage Rolex. “A hardstone dial in precious jade or coral can quadruple or quintuple the price of a Day-Date or Datejust,” Bacs says. Fittingly, one of the most talked-about Rolex launches this year was the reintroduction of a turquoise-dial Day-Date.
The move away from overcomplicated timepieces towards simpler watches with slim movements has favoured the return of ornamental stone dials. The advantage of an ultra-slim movement is that more space can be given to the dial. Each slice of stone is a journey into the unknown; no one can tell in advance what it will look like. Hardstone dials are also notoriously fragile, with a wastage rate that can be as high as 80 per cent. Because of this, the discs of stone can be as much as 1mm thick, compared to the 0.4-0.6mm of a regular dial. And even then they need to be fixed to a brass plate the thickness of a standard dial for extra stability… all of which can triple the total height within the overall confines of a slim watch.
The most widely used and versatile hardstone would appear to be aventurine, which is characterised by a deep blue colour enhanced with gold-coloured inclusions. Aventurine is a naturally occurring mineral, but watchmaking uses a manmade version. Onyx is another material that finds much favour, on account of a black of great depth and intensity. Other favourites include the aforementioned tiger’s eye, lapis lazuli and malachite. Recent launches show that almost any type of watch is suited to a little hardstone enhancement, whether it is the pared-down, elegant, slimline Parmigiani Fleurier tiger’s-eye Tonda 1950 or the rugged Omega Seamaster 300, which appeared in gold and platinum editions with malachite and lapis lazuli dials earlier this year.
This combination of precious metal and hardstone elevates a classic tool watch to an almost spiritual dimension, as Omega CEO Raynald Aeschlimann explains. “Everyone talks about diamonds but, when you look at malachite, the colour is so intense and every dial is different,” he says. “We have had such high demand that we are working on more high-end Seamasters and looking at other materials, including white onyx.”
Piaget was one of the great pioneers of this trend in the 1960s. “It was the beginning of a new era of audacity for our maison,” says its CEO Chabi Nouri; it was audacity that was permitted by development of the ultra-slim movements for which Piaget became famous.
However, as Piaget’s head of watch marketing, Quentin Herbert, says of the brand’s recent exercises in mere record-breaking: “We lost ourselves in ultra-thin for the sake of ultra-thin. But now we want to come back to the aesthetics. The rebirth of the Altiplano with malachite and lapis lazuli is the beginning of the revival. Models with ornamental stones will be an important point in all our collections to come: watches and jewellery.”
And as Herbert’s remark suggests, the culture of ornament is gender‑neutral: while an aventurine baseplate is the defining feature of a new men’s watch designed by Richard Mille with Pharrell Williams, the brand’s use of a red jasper dial in its RM 037 has done much to establish Richard Mille as a feminine brand too. “The jasper dial is a signature thing for us on women’s watches,” says Peter Harrison, CEO of Richard Mille EMEA, who ascribes hardstones’ popularity to their versatility. “Those hardstones occur in nature and are very hard to clash, whether the case is diamond-set or brown ceramic – the dial is clearly red, but it is a softer red.”
Jaeger-LeCoultre has a white-gold and diamond-set Reverso One Duetto with a Balinese mother-of-pearl dial on one side and, on the reverse, a dark opal dial that reflects tints of blue, green and indigo in the changing light. Meanwhile, niche brand Jaquet Droz is experimenting with the use of petrified wood, which it will launch next year in a new example of its Loving Butterfly Automaton.
“Petrified wood, that is 20 million years old, is something that just brings us back to the realisation that we are we are nothing compared to the age of the earth,” says Jaquet Droz CEO Christian Lattmann. “With this sort of stone you see the history of the planet.”
Whether you want to indicate your taste for apple-green supercars, or simply to be reminded of your green responsibilities, there is a hardstone-dial watch for you.
This story was originally posted on December 6 2019.