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Secret Watches

High jewellery with a hidden surprise.

A jewellery watch combines the age-old crafts of gem setting and watchmaking, but a secret watch adds an aspect of mystery. By hiding the watch’s dial under a jewelled cover, a secret watch can masquerade as a bracelet, so only the wearer knows that a time-telling brain lies beneath all that beauty. That’s your little secret to reveal (or not) as you see fit.

Secret watches first came into vogue during the 1920s and ’30s, when art deco design was all the rage. Skyscrapers reached for the clouds, and jazz ushered in a new age when moderne was the zeitgeist. Cultural norms were also upended as rebellious young flappers eschewed traditional women’s roles and went out dancing, drinking, and smoking with the boys. The clever secret watch epitomized this disruptive contemporary attitude in design, while also allowing a lady to discreetly sneak a peek at the time in the middle of a social engagement without appearing rude. Still, given the artfulness of these incredible horological jewels, knowing the time is hardly the point.

With the deco era came the popularity of svelte wristwatches, as watchmakers sought to shrink movements to the slender confines of the wrist. Pocket watches were clumsy and old-fashioned; wristwatches were sleek and modern. Cartier was at the vanguard of this trend when Louis Cartier famously created a wristwatch in 1904 for his pilot friend Alberto Santos-Dumont, who had complained that a pocket watch was not practical to use when flying a plane. Cartier debuted its first secret designs in the early 1900s, and the brand’s oblong Baguette watches became objects of desire in the ’20s. Each year, the house pays homage to its originals with modern interpretations executed using different gemstones. This year’s high-jewellery iteration features a bracelet of 28 rubellite beads weighing nearly 60 carats, mixed with white diamond rondelles and an 18-karat white gold case and cover dripping with white diamonds. The retro dazzler sparkles with 231 brilliant diamonds weighing in at over 3.5 carats. One of the challenges in creating such a bracelet was sourcing large numbers of perfectly matched rubellite beads, a task that requires a minimum of three months. And none other than Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Calibre 101 manually winding movement provides highly accurate timekeeping, should you care to check.

Cartier’s Parisian neighbour Van Cleef & Arpels also has a long history of bejewelled secret watches going back to the 1930s. Rather than revisiting an actual vintage watch, the Heure Marine is a highlight of the Seven Seas high-jewellery collection. The 18-karat white gold secret watch shines with diamonds and sapphires, including two large sugarloaf-cut Sri Lankan sapphires weighing a total of 27.34 carats. The angular stones are stunning end points on the case, which is shaped like a sunken treasure chest. Press the emerald cabochon and the lid opens to reveal a radiant white mother-of-pearl dial.

Bulgari’s Serpenti Seduttori secret watch traces its ancestors to the brand’s snake-themed jewels going back to the 1940s. The beguiling serpent motif is found in ancient Greek and Roman mythology as well as the Chinese zodiac, not to mention the trickster in the Garden of Eden. In recent years, the Rome-based jeweller has reinterpreted Serpenti, offering a collection that encompasses jewellery, watches, and accessories such as handbags and sunglasses, all adorned with sculpted snake heads or snake motifs. The modern Serpenti Seduttori high-jewellery watch encircles the wrist with a cuff of 18-karat white gold completely set with a combination of baguette- and brilliant-cut diamonds that also illuminate the dial. The snake’s hinged jaw is topped with a 15.96-carat cabochon sapphire, while two pear-shaped rubies form its glittering eyes.

Still, given the artfulness of these incredible horological jewels, knowing the time is hardly the point.

Meanwhile at Graff, designers envisioned a garden alive with butterflies when creating the Princess Butterfly secret watch collection. A pillar of the diamond jewellery business, Graff is a relative newcomer to watches, launching its first collection in 2008. Its watch designs take full advantage of the brand’s exceptional sources and skills in the gem trade. The sculpted wings of this year’s showstopper are cloaked in deep blue invisibly set sapphires. This challenging setting technique creates a solid surface of gems with no visible metal prongs. The trick is in cutting small grooves into the underside of each stone and sliding them into a grid beneath so the edges fit together seamlessly. The resulting effect is like a smooth tiled floor of jewels; the stones are painstakingly matched for colour intensity. Available in full diamond, ruby, sapphire, and diamond with sapphire accents, each white gold Princess Butterfly case is also set with 66 baguette diamonds, which trace the contours of the wings.

In 1783, Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun painted a portrait of young Marie-Antoinette holding a rose. This image inspired designers at Breguet to celebrate its most famous client with the La Rose de la Reine collection. The jewellery suite includes a secret watch called Secret de la Reine, which is distinguished by a hand-carved rose blossom cameo on the dial’s cover with Breguet’s signature. Secured to a white gold mesh bracelet, the 18-karat white gold case encircles the flower with a ribbon of diamonds tied with a bow at 4 o’clock. The gems also cover the dial, which features the brand’s hallmark open-tipped hands and a Breguet medallion in mother-of-pearl at 12 o’clock. Unlike many high-jewellery watches that use quartz movements, Secret de la Reine is powered by Breguet’s state-of-the-art Calibre 586 automatic movement outfitted with a silicon balance spring and delivering a power reserve of 38 hours. This secret watch is also available in 18-karat rose gold.

In stark contrast to Breguet’s über-classical femininity, Audemars Piguet’s Diamond Outrage marks the completion of its radical high-jewellery trilogy, which includes the Diamond Punk and the Diamond Fury. Requiring some 2,500 hours to create, the jaw-dropping white gold–spiked cuff is encrusted with more than 50 carats of brilliant-cut diamonds and almost 16 carats of baguettes, totalling an astounding 10,277 stones.

The master gem setter who created this masterpiece mixes the techniques of snow setting—which combines brilliant diamonds of varying sizes in irregular patterns—with invisible setting, which poses a daunting technical challenge on three of the sharp spikes. The frosty points, which range from 29.3 millimetres to 40 millimetres, are intended to evoke icicles in the frozen Vallée de Joux in winter, though the watch might also conjure a beautiful yet deadly medieval weapon. The watch’s mirror-polished dial with blackened gold hands hides beneath one of the bracelet’s spikes. The unique million-plus-dollar watch appears more at home in a gallery’s display case than on a wrist, but the goal, after all, was to be outrageous. Mission accomplished.

Best known for its sporty Royal Oak, Audemars Piguet also has a long and illustrious history of making high-jewellery watches. This legacy is on display at the company’s heritage museum in Le Brassus, Switzerland; a contemporary museum is under construction and is slated to open in 2019. Such historical archives have long been rich sources for designers seeking an elusive muse. So while many secret watches look to a bygone era and channel the spirit of their forebears, Audemars Piguet’s Diamond Outrage audaciously breaks from the past, much like the first secret watches, to stake a claim in the future.


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