Watches: The Jeweler vs. The Watchmaker

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Watches: The Jeweler vs. The Watchmaker

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“Cartier invented the wrist watch,” Pierre Raniero, the company’s director of image, style and heritage, declared as he sat his office in a surprisingly nondescript building in central Paris.

(But few things are entirely clear in the watch world: Breguet, Patek Philippe and Girard-Perregaux all say they produced timepieces for the wrist before Louis Cartier made one for an aviator-friend in 1904.)

And, Mr. Raniero added, the house pioneered turning the functional item into a gloriously stylish one by adorning its wristwatches with gemstones.

(Other claimants, get in line.)

Regardless of which house was first, a dazzling effect was produced. And, as brands have sharpened their focus on female buyers in recent years, the category is continuing to expand.

“Women like a little bling on their watches,” said Sue Perry, the content director at David Perry & Associates, the New York-based publisher of custom magazines for jewelry and watch retailers.

“Even sporty watches, like Tag Heuer’s Aquaracer and Rolex’s Yacht-Master 40, mix diamonds and gemstones with no-nonsense features like rubber and tough fabric straps,” she said. “And it’s a trend that crosses all price points, including bridge lines like Michele,” the Miami-based women’s watch company that is part of the Fossil Group.

“One of the reasons behind this is that diamonds — in more discreet doses — have become an everyday look,” she said.

And, Ms. Perry said, “we’re seeing a fashion throwback — the gem-encrusted bracelet watch — making a return. This is not for everyone’s lifestyle, but there is a consumer who wants that extra razzle-dazzle in a special-occasion timepiece like Bulgari’s Serpenti, which is really coming on strong.”

But should a prospective buyer first consider the watch, or the embellishment? After all, at its heart, the creation process is either jewelry companies adding movements to their jewelry or watch companies adding gemstones to their watches.

Laurence Graff has made his name purchasing some of the world’s biggest and best diamonds, the kind that have their own names — like the 1,109-carat Lesedi La Rona, the largest rough diamond in existence, which he bought in September.

So his company has become the place for a woman who wants a diamond ring that tells time, or a diamond bracelet watch with a huge slice of emerald covering its dial, or a watch hidden under diamond-covered butterfly wings that fan open to reveal the face, designed to complement her butterfly earrings.

Mr. Graff’s son, François, the company’s chief executive, said, “Despite the concept of secret watches being age-old, dating back to the 1920s, we are receiving more requests for jewels with hidden timepieces as well as cocktail watches featuring innovative diamond-setting techniques and technical movements. “Our Spiral, Snowfall and Floral automatic timepieces cater to this demand,” he said, “ and as such we intend on extending our collections of secret and jeweled timepieces.”

The house’s design director, Anne-Eva Geffroy, sitting at her drawing table in the company’s Mayfair townhouse in London, said Graff’s focus on beautiful gems “ allows us to give our own touch to watches using these exceptional stones. It really starts with the stone, and what the stone suggests.”

Snowfall, created by the house’s design team, is a collection of necklaces, bracelets and earrings made of mesh sprinkled with diamonds to resemble a dusting of snowflakes.

They wanted to add a watch to a bracelet, but needed “the thinnest movement possible,” Ms. Geffroy said.

So they had the Swiss company that produces Graff’s movements make a 5-millimeter-deep unit that could slide unobtrusively into the design.

Downstairs in the brand’s workroom, Raymond Graff, the production director (and Laurence Graff’s brother), and Sam Sherry, the head of technology, demonstrated how designs are turned into products. “We are basically making jewelry,” Mr. Graff said, “so we start with wax,” the traditional method of creating a sample of a design.

Prototypes then are made in resin or steel and perfected until they are “fluid and smooth, so they feel nice on the skin,” Mr. Sherry said.

“A lot of jeweled watches can be hard and mechanical,” he added, but “we want our watches to be jewelry, not cold, hard watches.”

In contrast, the watch is the starting point at Vacheron Constantin.

“We make all our own movements,” said Leslie Kobrin, the brand’s president of the Americas, who came to the watchmaker after serving as vice president of business development at a fellow Richemont company, Van Cleef & Arpels (“When I came to V.C. from V.C.A., all I had to do was lose the A,” she joked.)

Ms. Kobrin’s view is that a jeweled watch should come from a watch company. “Many houses have access to beautiful stones,” she said, “but they have to go out-of-house for their movements.”

Sure, Vacheron Constantin can simply “add a diamond on a bezel,” she said, practically sniffing. But its artisans also can create the Ottoman Architecture watch from the brand’s Métiers d’Arts Fabuleux Ornements Collection, engraving and chamfering a gold disc to create a delicate, lace-like piece that then is set with half pearls, worthy of Ali Baba’s cave.

As for the future, Ms. Kobrin said, “What I see evolving is the segment of jeweled watches with serious mechanical movements inside,” as well as “high-low fashion trends reflected in watches, such as a multicarat diamond watch made in steel, with an automatic caliber. Women want watches they can wear and enjoy every day.”

In Cartier’s offices, Mr. Raniero pulls out illustrations showing how jeweled watches have reflected the times..

As early as the 1700s, women wore timepieces disguised as pendants or dangling from a belt.

The early 1900s saw lots of colorful watches, inspired by the Ballets Russes and its 1910 production of “Scheherazade.” After World War I, “black was very big, as women were in mourning,” he said.

And in the 1930s and ’40s, gold became important. “It’s something we’re seeing again today,” he said.

So, which to buy: a jeweled watch from a jeweler or one from a watchmaker? It all depends on whom you ask.

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