Not even a global lockdown could stop the watch industry from holding back on unveiling a respectable number jewellery and high jewellery watches for the Watches & Wonders 2021 show. Run by the Federation International de la Haute Horlogerie (FIHH) based in Geneva, the now virtual exhibition has more than doubled the number of brands taking part. This is mainly thanks to the collapse of Baselworld, its major competitor, and so the FIHH was able to mop up big name deserters such as Rolex, Chopard and Patek Philippe as well as a slew of LVMH Group brands and other small independents, making Watches & Wonders the only international watch show of any relevance and the place to see the most impressive jewellery watches of the year and jewellery watches are the most delightful of all the offerings of the show.
Part jewel, part timekeeper, the gem-set watch allows the designers a creative freedom like no other category. Although previous years have seen a more opulent and extensive offering, considering the doldrums the world is in, the selection was encouraging and speaks of a return to true luxury where there is a market for the most capricious category of watchmaking to emerge from the hallowed horological workshops of Switzerland.
Not surprisingly green - the colour of hope - was in abundance. Bulgari’s Diva’s Dream Divissima is a newly reworked version of its more elaborate high jewellery sister and features eight brilliantly bright emeralds set amongst diamonds in a white gold case. The clever construction of the case allows the gemstones to fall in a rippling ribbon around the dial, showing off Bulgari’s prowess in goldsmithing. According to the Italian jeweller, this new gem-laden design is perfect for everyday wear: so very Bulgari and so very dolce vita. Piaget, which has been known for its exquisite cocktail watches since the dawn of the jet set, does not disappoint and also looks to emeralds to make a splash. The Limelight Gala high jewellery watch matches a striking Australian black opal dial with 83 emeralds and 92 diamonds that spray out like water drops from the sides of the case and bracelet.
Floral motifs are a stalwart of jewellery design and a safe bet in times of doubt. Louis Vuitton takes the well-known Monogram flower and start motifs first seen on its steamer trunks in 1896 and makes it the central feature of the Vivienne Secret watch. The gold button at the centre of the flower-shaped case opens to reveal a miniature mother-of-pearl dial.
In the tradition of Jaeger-LeCoultre’s hand-crafted approach to watchmaking, its jewellery watches are painstakingly entirely made by hand, the old-fashioned way in its workshops in Le Sentier including this exquisite version of the iconic Reverso, which required a 95 hours of work to create the enamel flowers and leaves against a backdrop 626 diamonds. The diamonds are snow-set, a technique that makes the stones appear to have fallen as randomly as snow flakes, a skill far more intricate than the typical symmetrical diamond pavé.
One of the stars of high jewellery watches is Bulgari’s show-stopping Serpenti Misteriosi Cleopatra watch. This extravagant cuff watch is made up of hexagonal links mimicking a serpent’s scale. The scales are set with 4,000 diamonds and interspersed with a vibrant mix of 88 carats of gemstones including aquamarines, citrines, tourmalines, tanzanite and peridot. A dial is concealed under a slice of cherry-bright rubellite.
The safest of all jewellery watches is the diamond-set version and Hermès, that is not known for its diamond watches, surprised with the arrival of the Faubourg Polka watch. The bracelet has a distinctive geometric pattern of slanted white gold links that contrast with the circular shape of the case for a quirky Hermès take on the cocktail watch. Chopard on the other hand, has never been shy of diamonds and the Imperial watch is treated to a generous sprinkling of diamonds paired with a creamy engraved mother of pearl dial. The house’s famous Happy Diamonds watch gets an elegant re-design with a grey mother of pearl dial around which 15 diamonds spin like skaters on an ice rink. Another diamond surprise came from Patek Philippe where the normally sporty Nautilus is now bedecked in 2,553 brilliant-cut diamonds set so close together that the watch appears to be coated in gemstones. This is possible to the snow-setting - mentioned above - that uses different size diamonds to pack them as tightly as possible, with virtually no gold visible through the dense wall to wall diamond carpeting.
Animals and in particular the panther are the domain of Cartier. The house has been making watches featuring this sinuous feline since 1914 yet the designers still manage to find new ways to incorporate the animal into watches. One of the defining characteristics of the panther chez Cartier is the creature’s expressiveness and ever-changing attitude. From snarling to languid to defiant, the panther has been put through a wide range of emotions and this year sees a pensive big cat in the form of the Panthère Songeuse. Relaxed and lost in thought with his eyes half closed, this philosophical panther is draped over the side of the case decorated with stripes of blue enamel and diamonds.
Another gold panther adopts a very different pose in the service of horology. This gold panther obediently wraps its jaws around the gold loop at the top of a watch dial to hold together the La Panthère watch. Two emeralds are his eyes in this stylish all-gold watch that wraps twice around the wrist.
Cartier has never been one for cuddly or cute animals and along with the panther, its beasts of choice include the snake, crocodile and turtle. In Cartier’s hands these rare beasts become objects of great beauty as seen in the Cartier Libre Baignoire watch that has been dressed up as a turtle. The Baignoire watch (meaning bath tub in French) was created by Louis Cartier in 1912. Its shape reminded the design team of a turtle who recreated a tortoise shell carapace using gemstones and enamel patterns to delightful effect.