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Do jewellery watches trump tourbillons?

Do jewellery watches trump tourbillons?

Friday, 13 April 2018
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Carol Besler

“Watches are functional art.”

Carol Besler covers watches and jewelry worldwide.

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5 min read

When it comes to showpieces, the most interesting watches introduced so far this year have been gem-set ladies’ watches.

It wasn’t long ago that only a few companies made tourbillons, and they sold for a premium partly because of their rarity. Now, every watch brand has at least one, whether made in-house or not. The same thing is happening with jewellery watches, with most brands weighing in where previously only a handful had the expertise or the will to tread. Once the purview of brands like Cartier and Chopard that have a tradition in jewellery, gem-set timepieces have become as ubiquitous as, well, as the tourbillon. This is not to say they have become run-of-the-mill; the value factor has held firm. Jewellery watches get more spectacular every year, and now comprise one of the most important segments in watchmaking. Added value is a key reason: there is greater intrinsic value in diamonds and gemstones than there is in a watch that may only have perceived value, something that depends on a collector’s personal desire. Take the famous Paul Newman Daytona, the one owned by Paul Newman, which sold recently at auction for $17.5 million. Its value is based on symbolism and association by previous ownership. Dismantle it or replace the dial with a better one, and you’ve got a pile of components that nobody will want, especially if it has no glamorous provenance. If a jewellery watch, on the other hand, were dismantled, you’d have a pile of diamonds, and those gems have intrinsic value.

Special cuts have become the norm

The jewellery watch is thus a showpiece at least as worthy as a high complication – and when it’s combined with a complication, it represents a double whammy display of high craftsmanship. The Royal Oak Concept Ladies’ Flying Tourbillon, for example, was the model in which Audemars Piguet chose to introduce its first flying tourbillon, and what better than 3.5 carats of diamonds to show it off. This is also the first ladies’ piece in the Concept collection, emphasizing its importance. The latest Hublot million-dollar Big Bang High Jewellery makes a similarly theatrical presentation of a high complication, surrounding (and outshining) the tourbillon cage with 380 invisibly-set tapered baguettes, totalling 13.5 carats. Another example of this is the high jewellery tourbillon introduced in Basel this year by Giberg Haute Horlogerie. The Niura is an openworked double-barrel flying tourbillon set with 2,156 diamonds, with elaborate bow-motif strap attachments that are set with 76 rubies. It comes as no surprise that brand owner Andreas Altmann is a gem-setter and goldsmith by trade, and has worked with other watch brands.

Giberg Haute Horlogerie Niura jewellery watch, a double-barrel-driven flying tourbillon set with 2,156 diamonds and 76 rubies.
Giberg Haute Horlogerie Niura jewellery watch, a double-barrel-driven flying tourbillon set with 2,156 diamonds and 76 rubies.

Even the alignment of gems on the bezel has become more creative. The cult-status Rolex Daytona “Rainbow”, which combines gems with a chronograph complication, was released this year in Everose gold. The bezel is set with 36 baguette-cut sapphires in a graduated color range, and Rolex cleverly matches the indexes on the dial with baguette sapphires that correspond with the colors adjacent to them on the bezel. It contains the automatic Caliber 4130 with a Parachrom hairspring.

Since proportions on a watch dial and case are often dictated by the movement, special cuts have become the norm in order to fit them onto the traditional surfaces of a watch, and that requires a high degree of custom cutting. The baguettes on the Hublot Big Bang High Jewellery only seem as if they are random; each is custom-cut to fit the composition. The same goes for the diamonds in Graff’s new Secret high jewellery watch, in which 35 carats of fancy shaped diamonds – marquise, pear, oval and baguette – are set cobblestone-style in a seemingly random placement that actually took many hours of planning using CAD technology. The same process was used to place diamonds on Corum’s high jewellery Golden Bridge. The gems, cut in fancy shapes, are prong-set in an open style inside two gold-bordered panels that frame its famous baguette-shaped movement, the manual wound CO 113. Altogether, about 5.5 carats of diamonds are set into the watch, giving it plenty of intrinsic value in addition to the value represented by its unique design and storied movement.

Greater use of color

Another trend in jewellery watches is a greater use of color, either with colored diamonds or colored gemstones. Maisons such as Graff, Chopard, Harry Winston, Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels and a handful of Italian jewellers, including Picchiotti, demonstrate a fearless use of color in their watches, and with longtime connections in the gemstone world have access to all the best gems. The big three – ruby, emerald and sapphire – have the greatest value but more are mixing in other gems, often in unusual color combinations. The case and dial of Harry Winston’s new Premier Winston Candy Automatic, for example, are set with not only diamonds but rare aqua-blue Paraiba tourmalines, orange spessartite garnets, red spinels, pink and yellow sapphires and green tsavorite garnets. Van Cleef & Arpels similarly celebrates color in its new collection of floral-themed Jardin secret watches, bursting with pink sapphires, spessartite garnets, multi-colored sapphires and diamonds in three colors of gold. Chopard, whose Red Carpet collection dictates high visibility, introduced an enormous new jewellery watch at Baselworld this year set with pink mother-of-pearl, chalcedony, carved jadeite, turquoise, onyx, diamonds, emeralds and several rows of faceted tanzanite beads.

Haute joaillerie watches are now not only outshining complicated watches but haute joaillerie itself.

Only a few pieces of actual high jewellery display the degree of gem-setting we are now seeing in jewellery watches. Except for large bracelets, most lack the surface area required for such intense setting with the result that haute joaillerie watches are now not only outshining complicated watches but haute joaillerie itself.

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