Nothing is more instructive than checking out the small details worn by those rare individuals who always capture a new movement before most of us even know it exists, scenting an idea on the wind and instantly knowing how to make it work. So when at a recent fashion show I spotted a small, gold-braceleted Cartier Tank Allongée watch, with its elegant, elongated case, on the slender wrist of Milan-based Wallpaper editor-at-large JJ Martin, it was confirmation of a gut feeling – I had just sent my own long-unworn Tank watch to be serviced.
Martin has that knack of always having exactly the right look for the season being shown on the catwalk, as if she has a hotline to designers’ minds. With the watch, she is further ahead than usual. “I’ve been wearing it for some years,” she says. “I’ve long felt that, apart from holidays when a big, sporty watch that will cope with sand is fun, a huge timepiece on a woman can look a little heavy. If you buy a good one to keep for the long term, you want a classically elegant style that goes with everything.”
She seems to be articulating an idea that I and several other female friends have debated recently, without perhaps knowing why. It’s one that turns the much-vaunted notion of the “watch wardrobe” on its head, and Beatrice Rouhier – watch manager at Chaumet, which has recently launched its Liens model in two small sizes (27mm and 33mm) agrees with it. “Women today don’t have time to keep changing their watch from job to cocktail to dinner,” she says. “As a jewellery house our first remit is jewellery watches, and I think most women would love one to wear with evening dress. But they also want a feminine watch that they can wear for most other areas of life – this is why we created Liens.”
I remind her that less than a decade ago Chaumet launched a women’s version of the Dandy, its bestselling men’s design. That, she replies, “was in another era, when a lot of women appropriated their partners’ watches and enjoyed that larger style. But they were not really practical or comfortable for women, who are now seeking out their own designs again. Globally, over the past three years, we have found that with watches, as increasingly with cars or phones, women want a model dedicated to them, not something that stems from a man’s version. We never thought about men when designing the Liens.”
So an end, then, to the old industry adage of “shrink it and pink it”. Women are certainly buying more luxury watches overall – sales increased by 7.5 per cent last year according to World Watch Report, almost 2 per cent more than the market as a whole. To find out why this is happening now I turned to a man who knows a thing or two about smaller watches for women. One of the last collections masterminded by Jean-Christophe Babin when he was CEO of TAG Heuer was the first complete ladies’ range of the famous Carrera, the less overtly masculine versions of which were already a female favourite. Now Babin has transferred through the LVMH network to Bulgari, where one of his first watch projects is – guess what? – a new, smaller watch for women, the Lucea. “I believe there is great potential in women’s watches now, provided they are designed totally from a feminine viewpoint,” he says. “These are daily watches that go from boardroom to dinner, though now a few diamonds are acceptable for daytime, provided they are integral to the design.”
TAG’s Carrera Lady, in 28mm and 32mm sizes, recalls the men’s original in design details such as faceted lugs and a thin bezel, but is feminine in its proportions and comes in a version with a mother-of-pearl dial and diamond hour markers and bezel (£4,295). The Bulgari Lucea is a more adventurous prospect, says Babin. “Bearing in mind that Bulgari is a jewellery house, pieces have to be precious as well as practical – in this case, the bracelet, taken from the classic Serpenti design, was a complex engineering challenge, but jewellery is always measured in microns so the house heritage determines the quality.” The result is a smooth, graceful watch, comfortable to wear even in the heavier gold-and-steel versions (from £6,000) with mother-of-pearl or sunray-guilloché dials and a synthetic-ruby crown with a tiny diamond on top, like the ruby beads that characterise many Bulgari fine-jewellery pieces.
Some commentators have attributed the growth in demand for smaller watches to the Asian market, but Babin says it is a worldwide trend and the real Asian influence has been in bi-colour, “which started its revival with Chinese customers and has now also gone global. It is smart and sporty in equal measure and goes with other jewellery in either white or coloured metal.” The new bi-colour models largely echo the plain, round cases of the Lucea and TAG Carrera, but such is the variety of dial design that they look quite unlike each other. So the new, even smaller 25mm version of the Dior VIII Montaigne, with its distinctive ring of tiny diamonds and fine triangular hour markers, has a smart elegance, even in gold with a diamond bezel (£25,500), whereas Omega’s new 24mm or 27mm Constellation (example pictured above left, £7,360), with its tracery of engraved feathers on mother-of-pearl, is more dressy. The smallest, 27.5mm version of the Jaeger-LeCoultre Rendez-Vous Date (example pictured far left, £23,200) – one of the models that, when launched three years ago, helped to kickstart smaller watches – has clear, art-deco numerals and a date window, while Longines’ Elegant collection of tiny, 25.5mm, automatic, all-bracelet watches (example pictured top left, £2,650) is classic and understated.
The winner of the race to the bottom – in size – is Hermès’ Faubourg, at a mere 15.5mm, but it is in perfectly detailed house style with its finely stitched, twist-round strap or delicate bracelet. “We wanted to create a tiny, elegant watch that reflects our values, though we thought earlier this year it was a little against the trend,” says director of creation Philippe Delhotal. “We are more concerned with making beautiful objects, but in any case it has proved very popular.” So much so that Hermès has become one of the houses expressing femininity in ways other than round and is now launching the 16mm, crocodile-strapped Médor Mini (from £2,700), its square dial hidden under a symbolic Collier de Chien stud. Alongside it sits Zenith’s soft-outlined 33mm Star (example pictured above, £7,300), its plain, round dial within a curvaceous square-shaped case possessing as many diamonds as the wearer wants, and Baume & Mercier’s fluid, slightly elliptical 30mm Promesse (example pictured centre, £1,900), while Chaumet’s Liens is set in curving, open oval lugs.
Ironically, at the heart of the debate lies the rise of the unisex watch. With men’s watch sizes also reducing, designs are merging and it is becoming easier to make one template work for both genders. The original unisex Chanel J12 was adopted by men and women alike, although it is unmistakably a large, sporty model and fans of small styles are better served by the new triple-row 23.6mm-long Première Rock (£3,350). Cartier’s initially unisex Ballon Bleu has added a distinctly male version, though the 33mm model (from £2,930) remains popular with women and has evolved into the 24mm gold-bracelet and diamond Ballon Blanc (£27,400). Individualist Saxony-based Nomos Glashütte set out with unisex intent but finds increasing demand for smaller styles. It started with one size, 35mm, but has since added 33mm round dials (from £1,100) and 27.5mm square dials in pastel shades that seem the essence of modern femininity.
“At one time, women were wearing larger mechanical watches designed for men as a style statement and an expression of their interest in high-end manufactured objects,” says Delhotal. “Now they are returning to smaller designs dedicated to them, with either mechanical or quartz movements.” Zenith’s new CEO Aldo Magada believes the smaller watch is not a trend but “a reality that the industry has ignored. There is an audience for smaller watches – consumers who are more assertive in choosing what they like.” The perennial quartz versus mechanical debate continues into these smaller watches as most houses offer both options to suit women’s different lifestyles, yet it is partially obscured as mechanical movements are usually not offered in very small models like the Faubourg, while the smaller Carrera is automatic, and Zenith, Nomos and Jaeger-LeCoultre do not use quartz. The smaller watch has come about, sums up Laura McCreddie, editor of online women’s-watch magazine Eve’s Watch (www.eveswatch.com), “partly because the Swiss are now creating proper women-sized watches with mechanical movements, and partly because of fashion’s revival of 1920s or 1950s styles, which suit delicate watches. Plus, we’re now secure enough not to think people equate the size of our brains with the size of our watch dials.” So I’m looking forward to wearing my Tank as a symbol of that new-found confidence.