Luxury watchmaking isn’t just about using diamonds and precious metals, these days the more innovative brands are transforming the pedestrian into something priceless.
Alchemy is generally thought of as the quest to turn base metal into gold; however, this esoteric art was actually a tad more complex than simply this fool’s errand.
It was a philosophical and protoscientific tradition that had ideas of purifying, maturing and perfecting certain objects at its heart. Transmuting base metals into gold was one part of that, but it was also concerned with creating an elixir of immortality; devising panaceas that could cure all ills and attempting to develop an alkahest, or universal solvent, that would dissolve any substance in came into contact with (how this solvent was to be contained was not entirely thought through…).
And it was the elusive philosopher’s stone that was the key to all these processes.
As marginally unhinged as all these may sound to a modern mind, what lies at the heart of it is the desire to transform the pedestrian, the everyday, into something more precious, which is exactly what lies at the heart of innovations in modern watchmaking.
While mechanical developments are available to the privileged few, materials are anyone’s to play with.
Presenting wondrous time…
Dior VIII Grand Bal Coquette
The most playful of all is the Dior VIII Grand Bal Coquette watch. The Grand Bal collection, with its decorative dial-side rotor, is intended to make the wearer think of the swish of the skirts on one of Dior’s ballgowns (the movement of the rotor from side to side mimicking the movement of the dress’s material) and this is no exception.
Based on a Mexican dress from the fashion house’s 2015 collection, on this particular Grand Bal the rotor is made from that most everyday of items – feathers. However, being Dior, those feathers are tipped with sapphires and radiate from a pink pleat that is edged with tsavorite garnets.
From feathers to the humble needle and thread, which Piaget has used to stunning effect on its Altiplano with precious-thread embroidery dial. Despite most of us only digging out a needle and some cotton in order to darn a hole, the history of embroidery as an art is intricately linked to that of our civilisation.
Although works such as Homer’s Iliad mention fabrics decorated with sewn designs, it is from Asia that the technique of beating gold or silver into leaf that was then cut into ribbons and mixed with thread. And it is that Piaget references with this delicate pine tree design that has been hand-sewn onto black satin.
Add in some diamonds and a white gold case and cotton is elevated to silk.
Rado True Open Heart
However, diamonds are not always necessary in order to render something precious. Rado has made its name using ceramic for its timepieces.
The process that forges ceramic is as close to alchemy as we get in modern times, especially when it comes to Rado’s plasma high-tech version of the material, during which gases are activated at 20,000°C in order to transform white ceramic into a material that looks like metal but without any being used in the process.
For this True Open Heart, which was shortlisted in the Innovation category for the Eve’s Watch Awards, Rado experimented with mother of pearl, slicing it into discs so thin that the movement can be glimpsed in the upper half of the dial, as if through smoke or oil slicked on water.
Roger Dubuis Black Velvet Paraiba
A transformation of sorts is at play with Roger Dubuis, though rather than materials being altered it is the wearer’s perception, for with this Black Velvet Paraiba the brand has created the first carbon-fibre watch for women. Carbon fibre is used on lots of muscular manly watches such as the Hublot Big Bang or U-Boat’s Classico; it looks like the material Batman would have a watch made out of and is certainly not used for women’s watches. Well, until now.
Part of the iconic Velvet collection, it manages to feminise the main material without hiding it, thanks in no small part to the bezel encrusted with Paraiba tourmalines, which, due to carbon fibre’s ridiculous hardness, Roger Dubuis had to invent a now-patented technique to set.
The result is something that is almost disconcertingly light on the wrist and that feels simultaneously decadent but also indestructible – not usually the case when that many precious stones are involved. It is strangely a real daily wearer. That is if you’re used to spending tens of thousands on everyday wear.
More everyday but still arresting is the mirror element in Chanel’s J12 Mirror. Since its launch back in 1999, the J12’s iconic ceramic form has become a foil for the Maison’s creativity. It’s been diamond coated, given a moonphase, and even had a flying tourbillon installed in it. This Mirror version is simpler but no less impressive.
The reflective inner circle means that the numerals imprinted on the glass appear as shadows on the dial.
As well as being a clever detail, it could also be seen as a meditation on the shifting, intensely personal nature of time and how it is perceived.
The original alchemists would certainly have approved.