27th January 2021

Ladies dress watches: hidden gems

Today, the wristwatch is often seen as a predominantly masculine item and indeed one of the last bastions of self-expression for men’s luxury.

Sports watches are accordingly built to almost ludicrous levels of robustness, with the ability to withstand the ocean’s depths or the rigours of space travel proving major selling points for daily wear; perhaps in the same way in which SUVs can traverse the Arctic, but are mainly used for supermarket runs. Nevertheless, the last two decades have seen an increase in the size, ‘toughness’ and the perceived masculinity of an item which was, for centuries, an exclusively feminine item. 

When the first portable clocks appeared towards the end of the 1400’s, these ‘clock-watches’ which originated in Bavaria were the first mechanical time keeping devices small enough to be able to be worn about a person, rather than needing to be carried from place to place. While they were not the most accurate of devices, these pendant clocks soon became prized symbols of wealth and power and were soon being made ever smaller, and in ever more elaborate forms.

It is said that the first ever wristwatch was created for Queen Elizabeth I, who was presented with an “arm watch” in 1571. The fashion for these was immediately formed and, from then on, time keeping for women tended towards the form of the wristwatch, while men’s time keeping remained in the form of the pocket or fob watch for centuries to come.

Of these many creators of ladies dress watches over the centuries, three ‘houses’ in particular stand out from the crowd with their creations, either through the complications of their pieces, the finery of the stones used or the sheer wonders of the designs. To this day Boucheron, Van Cleef & Arpels and Piaget continue to create treasures for the wrist.

If the desire to have a perfectly displayed and accurate depiction of the solar system, picked out in precious stones is overwhelming, then Van Cleef & Arpels will cater to that desire with The ‘Planetarium' watch. Made of rose gold, with the Sun, Venus, Earth and the Moon picked out in precious stones on the dial, the whimsical bracelet will show the exact positioning of these planets to the wearer, and will even tell the time by way of the diamond shooting star that passes around the dial for this purpose.

If slim proportions and a dainty appearance are desirable, Piaget has the ‘ultra-thin’ range specifically for this. The world’s thinnest movement, at just 2mm depth, allowed Piaget to not only make a range of watches that would slip under any sleeve, but also to miniaturise it further and create watches inside of buttons, rings and even cufflinks.

For those seeking the ultimate items of jewellery, with a side-helping of time keeping, the French house of Boucheron will help. A master creator of whimsical bracelets, their pieces are made of only the finest precious stones, into which tiny watches are placed, often behind movable covers also adorned in jewels. Should a lady wish to know the time, with a Boucheron, she would never need to be so vulgar as to be seen looking at an actual watch for this: a mere glance at her bracelet will suffice!

Today, although these three houses (and others) are still producing such incredible objects, ladies dress watches are often available as vintage pieces and regularly come up at auction. As the collector’s market for these watches is smaller than it is for men’s watches, they often represent great value, both as watches, but also as items of jewellery, they are certainly worth watching out for at auction. 

Are you a collector of vintage jewellery? What are your thoughts about ladies dress watches?