I am shamelessly self-interested when it comes to timepieces; I tend only to get worked up about men’s watches. I am unable to afford much of what I look at but at least I can imagine wearing it – and if I can see myself wearing and enjoying a watch then I do my best to communicate that enthusiasm to others.
Women’s watches are more of a leap for me and when, at the annual fairs, I am shown trays of timepieces that are little more than scaled-down versions of the male iterations, my eyes tend to glaze. Of late, however, my interest in women’s designs has not just been held, but heightened. No longer do my eyes go glassy; instead they widen with excitement.
Take, for instance, this year’s Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) in Geneva; we are far closer now to January 2016 than January 2015 – the date of the fair – and yet my mind keeps turning back to the beginning of the year and to a mesmerising watch: the Carpe Koï by Van Cleef & Arpels. It was a bravura piece of showmanship: a carp in gold and gemstones made into a bracelet that told the time when the fish opened its mouth. Of course, it was not something I would wear myself, but I kept returning to its carefully lit vitrine to look at it again and again.
The carp, inspired by the brand’s 2012 Luck collection, took 3,450 hours to make and arrived right on time to exemplify the revival of interest in concealed women’s watches. And, confirming my own interest, it was bought a few weeks later by a male collector for his wife to wear.
The concealed timepiece is where the paths of jeweller and watchmaker intersect in the most spectacular fashion. According to Nicolas Bos, president and CEO of Van Cleef & Arpels, the tradition of the concealed watch “began in the late 19th and early 20th century”, when there was a move towards jewellery with multiple functionality; for instance, a tiara from which an element could be removed to make a brooch or necklace. “When watches started to develop there was the idea that you could add its functionality to an existing piece of jewellery.”
Now, a century on, this multipurpose approach to jewellery design is being rediscovered and timepieces are being hidden in all sorts of gems. Often, a certain stone will inspire a designer to make a piece of jewellery that conceals a watch, as was the case with a series of creations made by Graff Diamonds. “The inspiration came from a collection of carved emeralds we acquired about three years ago,” says CEO François Graff. “We considered that they would make the perfect faces to hide the watches. We came up with some designs, which led to further ones, which led eventually to a collection.” It includes this year’s showstopping Fascination ($40m), which hides the time under a 38.13ct pear-shaped diamond that can be taken off and worn as a ring.
Indeed, so versatile are some concealed timepieces that they begin to rival the Swiss Army knife for multipurpose use. The Harry Winston Ultimate Emerald Signature (price on request) is a brooch that can also be worn as a pendant or on a ribbon wound around the wrist; the central element of the jewel is hinged so that it can be moved to one side to reveal a timepiece. The house has also come up with what it calls the Jeweller’s Secret (price on request), a powder compact that contains a watch, a piece that is exactly in the spirit of the concealed timepieces of the early 20th century.
“When wristwatches first came out it was not considered elegant for a lady to check the time,” says Cartier’s director for image, heritage and style, Pierre Rainero. “It meant that she was constrained by other things than her own pleasure.” One could certainly make a game of guessing how and where the time is hidden on the various secret watches by Cartier; sometimes there is a lid to be lifted in the form of a panther’s head or a stunning 25.17ct sapphire from Ceylon. But just when you think that the clock face will be found behind, say, a 60-something-carat amethyst, it will be located under a part of the stone’s setting. Likewise, on a design with a 50-plus-carat opal, the time is to be found not by lifting the stone, but by sliding back part of the “fan” of baguette and brilliant-cut diamonds around it (all watches price on request).
Today the appeal of the concealed timepiece lies less in reading the time covertly than the ingenuity of the collaboration between the jeweller and watchmaker. It is therefore perhaps more correct to talk not about secret watches but about jewellery watches that reveal the time in intriguing ways. And as has been seen with the Van Cleef & Arpels Carp Koï and with Cartier’s various interpretations of the panther, whimsical amusement can be added by concealing the hour in a figurative depiction of an animal.
In recent years a sustainedly creative interpretation of the animal kingdom has come from Chopard, where co-president Caroline Scheufele has succeeded in turning everything from peacocks to prawns into timepieces and jewellery. Strangely, given it is a prickly creature, Chopard’s Hedgehog (price on request) is irresistibly strokeable, and upon pressing its brown-sapphire-set snout, the pincushion of moonstone spikes that is the little animal’s back opens to reveal, in the manner of a Russian doll, a baby hedgehog clutching a small timepiece.
One of the most emblematic of these animals-cum-watches is, of course, Bulgari’s Serpenti (price on request). Representing a snake coiled around the wrist, its gem-set head concealing the time, the Serpenti is an example of the symbiotic relationship between vintage pieces and current production. In May Christie’s sold two 1960s Serpenti secret watches for a total of almost CHF 1.3m (about £881,709); at the same time the vitrines of the famous Roman jeweller were full of dazzling new takes on this most iconic of creations. “We produce the bracelet in Italy and the head in Switzerland; it’s the perfect marriage between Swiss know-how and Italian craftsmanship,” says Bulgari’s creative director Fabrizio Buonamassa. “We are starting work on different executions for secret watches; it is a strong trend, and we will have a great evolution in Serpenti.”
Talking of snakes, Lady Macbeth’s line “Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t” has a particular resonance for concealed watches, as the innocent flower is just as capable of hiding the time as big cats, fish, hedgehogs and venomous reptiles. The stylised, circular representation of a flower, is, thanks to its geometry, a gift for watchmakers, as demonstrated by, among others, Jaeger-LeCoultre, which has just launched a very delicate and dainty design (£290,000).
There are some houses with a particularly strong link to the floral world, such as Chanel. “One of our first jewellery watches was a camellia with a secret watch underneath [price on request],” says international watch director Nicolas Beau. “For Chanel the inside has to be as beautiful as the outside. Gabrielle Chanel was known for taking as much care of the inside of her jackets as the outside, so the idea of having something beautiful hidden is in the house’s spirit. Our designers, jewellers and watchmakers have a very strong consciousness that they must give each part the same amount of care, whether it’s the watch face, jewel or the hidden part.” A new diamond-set secret watch (price on request) has been added to the Camélia collection, the emblematic bloom of which had to be handled with care: on one proposed design the dial was in the flower’s centre, but Beau felt that that the replacement of pistil and stamen by a timepiece was somehow wrong. “The dial has to be hidden to respect the balance of the flower.”
A hauntingly beautiful example of the genre released this year is Boucheron’s ivy watch (price on request). A naturalistic sculpture in white gold and diamonds, the jewel seems to bind itself around the forearm. Creative director Claire Choisne explains that its “puissance végétale” and “force naturelle” would have been destroyed by the clumsy positioning of an obviously visible timepiece; so instead one has to peek beneath an ivy leaf to find the clock. Even though the Lierre de Lumière, as it is known, is classically contemporary, Choisne always has Boucheron’s rich history at the front of her mind; in this instance brand eponym Frédéric Boucheron’s admiration for the ivy that used to grow under the arches of the Palais Royal, where he opened his first shop in 1858.
By contrast, the design team at Audemars Piguet, another brand with 19th-century roots, were under strict instructions from CEO François-Henry Bennahmias to “say bye bye 19th century, hello 21st century” when creating a statement jewellery watch for this year’s SIHH. The name Diamond Punk gives some idea as to the result: a bold cuff of diamond-set pyramids (£521,400) that has an almost vambrace-like presence. The time is read by sliding aside one set of pyramids to reveal the face. “You don’t need to be in a high-end gown to wear it,” enthuses Bennahmias, “And nobody would know that it’s a watch.” Last year AP made one high-jewellery timepiece to present at the January fair, which sold to a collector in Hong Kong; following the SIHH this year, seven Diamond Punks were sold around the world and there are plans for a sequel version. As far as concealed watches are concerned, it would appear that the secret is well and truly out.