As the new CEO of Jaeger-LeCoultre, Daniel Riedo has wasted no time in tackling important questions, yet perhaps none is as bewildering as “What do women want?”
“Women today are asking for more artistic pieces, more handmade pieces, in short, more watchmaking content,” observes Riedo. “They are asking for legitimacy from watch brands as they are starting to do with cars. How can we make the metal more artistic and precious?” Even with its admirable reputation in building technical watches for men, Jaeger-LeCoultre sees a future for itself in crafting imaginative pieces for women, and, according to Reido, is now devoting more resources than ever before toward these kinds of watches, which tap into a range of watchmaking arts and disciplines, including familiar complications.
Jaeger-LeCoultre’s approach is just one facet of what has become a renaissance in watchmaking for ladies. As was the case with men’s watches a few years ago, a combination of growth, new ideas, and competition has generated a ferment in creativity. Where watch companies used to simply reduce their men’s models in size and add a row of diamonds or a similar flourish, many of them are now making unprecedented efforts in design, technology, and the application of decorative arts, some familiar to watchmaking and others completely new.
The recent emphasis on decoration and technology for ladies’ pieces may be simply a logical progression of the craftsmanship inherent in watchmaking. Tourbillon makers, responding to a flood of the once rare complications, started making fancier tourbillons. Likewise, the standards among decorative crafts, known as métiers d’art, have also progressed into the realm of showmanship: mother-of-pearl dials are now engraved or inset in the marquetry style; engine-turned surfaces are now hand-engraved, sculpted, or covered in enamel.
Much of this creative push in ladies’ high-end watchmaking started with jewelry companies like Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels and has now spread to the haute fashion brands. Couture and watchmaking do share key principles—products are made with only the finest materials and crafted with extreme attention to detail—though this new surge has an added element of flamboyance. Consider the timepieces in the Dior VIII Grand Bal collection, which use an inverse automatic movement (developed in collaboration with Soprod manufacture)that places the rotor on the dial side for the sole purpose of visual interest. These are not just set with diamonds but also with colored gemstones and feather marquetry, and are patterned after fabrics like lace, pleats, or dotted voile. In the highly limited Pièce Unique collection, the rotors are set with exotic colored gems that are rarely, if ever, seen in watches, including Paraiba tourmaline, tsavorite garnet, orange spinel, and Australian opal. The ornamental details are a clear nod to the glitter of a Dior ball gown. Meanwhile, the technical element connects the decoration to the values of watchmaking.
“The complications that we incorporate into our creations serve first and foremost an artistic and creative purpose,” says Laurence Nicolas, president of Dior Montres. “Our clients are looking for an alternative to classic manufactures: a creative aesthetic equipped with quality movements. Technically, the weights, sometimes with a great deal of material cut away or even composed of feathers, are a real technical achievement because their different designs require a new calculation of the inertia for each model.”
Chanel’s most recent timepieces are equally surprising. Years after its successful J12 model, the brand has branched out into complicated watches, like a jeweled ladies’ flying tourbillon, and enamel watches crafted by artisans of the highest caliber. Camellias (Coco Chanel’s favorite flower) are represented in miniature on the enameled dials of the Mademoiselle Privé collection, which has grown to include several enamel disciplines including grand feu enamel and the “Geneva technique” of using many coats of transparent enamel.
The major watchmaking houses with heritage are not ignoring the trend. While Patek Philippe’s latest pieces adapt its complicated watchmaking style for ladies, Vacheron Constantin’s style for ladies comes from its history, which it is now revisiting. In the 1870s, two widows of the Vacheron family, Catherine Barthélemy and Louise César Vacheron, controlled the company in conjunction with Jean-François Constantin. Together they helped refine the arts of miniaturization and decoration in the manufacture, nurturing skills that only a few watchmakers at the time possessed. The three Métiers d’Art Florilège watches that Vacheron Constantin unveiled this year update this style with intricate enamel and guilloche flowers inspired by the botanical illustrations in the book Temple of Flora by 18th-century botanist/explorer Robert John Thornton.
Although Cartier’s complicated pieces for men are attracting notice, its jeweled and artisan timepieces have been a cornerstone of creativity in ladies watches, and the company has become even more prolific in recent seasons. This year it introduced 40 new high jewelry pieces and nine models in its Métiers d’Art collection. A recently introduced piece is the Cartier Microsculpture Scène Panthères, which raises the bar for watchmaking’s artisan skills, from engraved and hand-finished gold to miniature sculpture. Five sinuous panthers (three adults, two cubs) seem to stalk the movement components in a deep, open-works dial, a feat that required 160 hours of handwork. The panthers are carved out of 18-karat white gold against a backdrop of black onyx, and surrounded by savannah foliage.
On the technical side, there are now complicated movements being made specifically for a ladies’ watch. Louis Vuitton has introduced a tourbillon movement created especially for ladies (made by elite workshop La Fabrique du Temps, which LVMH acquired in 2011). The movement of the Tambour Monogram Tourbillon employs a micro-rotor for winding, not to only to make the watch svelte but to provide an unobstructed view of the tourbillon cage through sapphire crystals. The design of the cage and bridge represents two petals of Louis Vuitton’s trademark monogram floral pattern, which comes together as a complete motif once every minute when the components align.
“First we thought, what is the most beautiful complication?” says Hamdi Chatti, Louis Vuitton’s vice president of watches and jewelry, who represents the new school of thought in Switzerland. “Then we thought, how can we make this interesting for women? Some people have said that women are not interested in complicated watches, but that is not the problem. The problem is that watchmakers have not understood how to make complications interesting for women.”
Cartier, 800.227.8437, www.cartier.us; Chanel, 800.550.0005, www.chanel.com; Dior, available at Westime, 310.289.0808, www.westime.com; Jaeger-LeCoultre, 800.552.8463, www.jaegerlecoultre.com; Louis Vuitton, 866.884.8866, www.louisvuitton.com; Vacheron Constantin, 877.701.1755, www.vacheron-constantin.com