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Style: Fashionably Late

Jill Newman

A few years ago, as Hermès watchmakers in Switzerland were hard at work developing the innovative Nomade travel timepiece, a call came from Jean-Louis Dumas-Hermès, the company’s chairman and CEO in Paris, who had conjured up a new idea for the watch. "Let’s take this concept of a traveler’s watch even further," he said, "and add a functional compass."

It took the Swiss watchmakers two years to complete the Nomade, which is powered by an auto-quartz movement that combines quartz and rotor technology as an energy accumulator to achieve a 45-to-100-day power reserve, and features, of course, a compass. The model finally debuted late last year. While Dumas-Hermès is hardly a watch expert, he has a passion and enthusiasm for timepieces and, more importantly, for anything that bears his family name. The executive brings a new perspective to the art of watchmaking, and he is known to push the limits of his watchmakers, even when they say something cannot be done.

The latest timepieces to bear the Hermès name represent a growing trend in the fashion world, where large and powerful fashion houses are increasingly making a more serious commitment to watches. Traditionally, megabrands such as Gucci, Christian Dior, and Versace licensed their names to watchmakers who created designs that were more about style than substance. Over the past few years, however, those same fashion houses have opened their own Swiss watch factories, combining the latest in watchmaking technology with designs that reflect each house’s distinctive image. In fact, these fashion houses are even forging new ideas in watchmaking. While some concepts, like fashions themselves, may survive only a season or two, others may be longer-lived.

For example, when Chanel’s artistic director, Jacques Helleu, decided to create the brand’s first men’s timepiece, he was determined to develop a heavy-duty, radiant black surface to reflect the spirit of Chanel. It took seven years to develop Chanel’s J12 with its innovative and durable black ceramic case and link bracelet. This sporty timepiece is also available in a chronograph with an ETA movement that is certified by the Official Swiss Chronometer Testing Agency (COSC). "We are not limited by the traditional watch mind-set," says Maggy Siegel, a watch industry veteran who is now vice president of fine jewelry and watches at Chanel. "We come from a different perspective and can think outside of the box. Still, we are serious watchmakers."

As Chanel prepares to introduce its watches for the first time at the world’s largest watch fair in Basel, Switzerland, in April, the focus will continue to be on more complicated and sporty models, all made in the company’s state-of-the-art facility in La Chaux-de-Fonds. Its best-sellers, though, are its signature models that portray Chanel’s world-renowned icons. One style features a camellia-shaped pavé diamond case; another has a bracelet made of pearl strands; and the gold Matelassée has a metal link bracelet that echoes the company’s famous quilted leather goods.

Hermès, like Chanel, has masterfully blended its most recognizable icons into functional timepieces, which have quickly become status items. Harking back to the company’s heritage as a premier saddle maker, the Harnais watch is encased in a bridle leather strap; the Arceau has design elements inspired by a harness; and the Kelly reinterprets the hardware used on the brand’s famed handbag named for Grace Kelly.

Hermès stands apart as one of the few, perhaps only, fashion houses that has demonstrated a long-standing interest in watches. Its watch brochure proudly flaunts a 1911 photograph of the chairman’s mother as a young girl wearing a watch fob attached to a bridle leather strap on her wrist. Guillaume de Seynes, managing director of Hermès watches and the nephew of Dumas-Hermès, sees this early wristwatch adaptation as a symbol of the brand’s historically innovative view of developing timepieces.

Long before Hermès created its well-known scarves, ties, and handbags, it applied its saddle-making skills to leather straps for timepieces. Its first wristwatch was made by Jaeger-LeCoultre in 1920, and was followed by inventive designs such as a belt watch for golfing that was created in 1928 for the then Prince of Wales, who later became the Duke of Windsor after abdicating the throne in 1936. Finally, in 1978, when Dumas-Hermès took over the company, he established the Hermès watchmaking facility in Biel, Switzerland. Over the past few years, the Hermès collection has evolved to include stainless steel and gold models and even a mechanical men’s chronograph, and more complicated timepieces are in the works for this year.

Dumas-Hermès is not the only fashion executive with a passion for watches. Christian Dior’s flamboyant designer John Galliano has also taken an interest in developing status timepieces. His designs exhibit a distinctly fashionable edge, as seen in the Dior 66, an 18-karat gold or stainless steel model with a bracelet that resembles a bike chain. In a nod to luxury, the gold Riva, available with either a quartz or automatic movement, is adorned with a chaotic sprinkling of diamonds around the case.

Even Tom Ford, creative director for both Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, plays an integral role in watch development down to the smallest details. Ford created the new Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche collection, which is a simplistic yet stylish line of brushed steel or rose gold timepieces, some with diamond accents.

In keeping with Gucci’s sleek and modern sensibility, the fashion powerhouse’s watches are streamlined and contemporary, in stainless steel with simple diamond accents. As the brand aims to expand its presence in the high-end watch market, it has added an 18-karat gold mechanical timepiece that houses an ETA 7001 Peseux movement with the capacity to run as long as 44 hours.

Just a few years ago, however, Gucci’s widely distributed watches were considered a mere fashion accessory. In 1997, after 23 years of licensing Severin Montres to produce watches bearing the Gucci name, the house bought back its license as part of a broader company objective to invest and expand in luxury watches and jewelry. And two years ago, Gucci’s management formed Gucci Group Jewelry and Watches, which encompasses Boucheron, Bédat & Co., Yves Saint Laurent, and Gucci watches. To enhance its creative process and manufacturing capabilities, Gucci Group purchased the design studio and production facilities of Swiss watch designer Dino Modolo.

While most fashion houses are careful to maintain a close connection between their timepieces and their stylistic images, two of the most serious watches to emerge from the fashion realm have a completely nonfashion-related common bond. Soon after Louis Vuitton launched its limited Tambour Louis Vuitton Cup automatic chronograph to celebrate the brand’s famed sailing race, Prada introduced an America’s Cup–inspired timepiece produced through an intriguing partnership with IWC of Schaffhausen, Switzerland. Prada is testing the horological waters with a limited, numbered series of 2,000 GST Chrono-Automatic Prada timepieces made by IWC. These 40-millimeter watches evolved from IWC’s GST Chrono-Automatic, one of the watchmaker’s most popular sport models. Prada’s partnership with IWC commemorates the Italian luxury brand’s participation in this year’s America’s Cup sailing race. (In the 2001 event, Prada’s Luna Rossa won the Louis Vuitton Cup to become the challenger for the America’s Cup.)

Prada’s CEO, Patrizio Bertelli, took a personal interest in the watch venture and had a very clear vision of the type of timepiece that would bear the Prada name. When asked why he introduced a Prada watch, Bertelli responded: "There is always room for a new idea. It is a great mistake to think that the market is already saturated and that we have seen everything."

Chanel, 800.550.0005, www.chanel.com; Christian Dior, 800.321.4832, www.dior.com; Gucci, 800.234.8224, www.gucci.com; Hermès, 800.441.4488, www.hermes.com; Prada, 888.977.1900; Versace, 877.485.9994, www.versace.com; Yves Saint Laurent, 212.832.7100, www.ysl.com

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