The Evolution of Fashion Watches
Over the past two decades, some of the world’s biggest fashion houses have made deep forays into watchmaking, pushing the boundaries of watch design in unprecedented and unique ways.
Not too long ago, “fashion watches” were looked upon with gatekeeping indifference, dismissed as a brazenly commercial ploy that made no pretense of milking a designer name for every last drop of profit and lacked the fundamental characteristics of watchmaking as an art — a combination of mechanical ingenuity and mathematical science. Watches made by fashion brands were, in essence, logoed watches with low-cost quartz movements intended to engage the largest audience possible. Today, however, all that has changed. The persistent stigma against fashion watches has created a healthy and necessary antagonism that drove brands to pursue competencies with great thoroughness, and in exploring new heights of branding, hone a style of watchmaking that realizes a wider aesthetic and conceptual vision through clever horology.
No doubt, this sort of design-led watchmaking already existed and can be traced back to the late 1990s and early 2000s when independent watch brands began producing watches of extreme design that were — make no mistake — achieved only through creative mechanics. But when brand persona and aesthetic are parlayed into the equation and embedded in the design, layout and complication of a movement, something new emerges from this union that merits more than a niche appreciation.
Throughout most of the 20th century, Hermès watches were made by major watch companies ranging from Universal Genève to Jaeger-LeCoultre and Rolex, meaning they were expressly produced for Hermès, double-signed and retailed in the latter’s boutiques. It was only in 1978 that the company established its own watch manufacture La Montre Hermès, in Biel, Switzerland to piece together watches designed in Paris.
As with many other watch companies during the quartz age that survived by bringing their so-called enemy into the party, Hermès started producing quartz- powered shaped watches right out of the gate that played to the brand’s equestrian heritage; timepieces that might be termed “fashion watches.” However, the mechanical watch renaissance at the turn of the 21st century became an opportunity for renewed growth. In the same way Hermès vertically integrated the production of objects such as tabletop, crystal glass and porcelain, it approached watchmaking with dogged completeness.
The first of its foundational investments took place in 2006 with the purchase of a quarter share in movement maker Vaucher, a sister company of Parmigiani. Hermès then acquired a stake in case maker Joseph Erard Holding in 2011, before taking over the company entirely by the end of 2013. In between, it added dial maker Natéber to the mix.
Slowly, in-house movements made their way into the house’s most famous shaped watches — the Heure H, Cape Cod and Arceau. But what moved the needle for Hermès was the launch of Arceau Le Temps Suspendu, Dressage L’Heure Masquée and Slim d’Hermès L’Heure Impatiente — a trilogy of poetic timepieces in which mechanics become a statement of a philosophy that is as much about watchmaking as it is about time itself. In these watches, time is portrayed as a hermeneutic experience; a qualitative, rather than quantitative experience of life.
Launched in 2011, Arceau Le Temps Suspendu, or “Time Suspended,” enabled the wearer to “stop” time by pressing a button at nine o’clock. Then, the hour and minute hands would jump into an unreadable position on either side of noon while the retrograde date hand would vanish behind the chapter ring, which is raised above the dial at the lower right quadrant so that the hand slips beneath it. The idea was that this deliberate suspension of time would provide a temporary respite from chronological time, enabling the wearer to escape time, capture or prolong a special moment. The next time the wearer pushes the button, the hands are summoned back to its original position to display the correct time. The module was developed under the direction of Jean- Marc Wiederrecht, founder of the revered complication specialist Agenhor and was added to an ETA 2892.
But then in 2013, Hermès introduced a 38mm version with the in-house cal. H1912 base movement developed by Vaucher. The watch brought yet another twist with the inclusion of a small seconds, which ran in reverse and completed a rotation in 24 seconds instead of the conventional 60 seconds. This way, even when time is suspended, the running small seconds provides the assurance that the watch is still running.
This was soon followed by L’Heure Masquée, or “The Masked Hour,” in 2014. The watch came by its name for having an unconventional hour hand that remains hidden behind the traditionally running minute hand until it is activated on demand to display the correct hour by a pusher integrated in the crown. However, as soon as the pusher is released, the hour hand disappears beneath the minute hand once again. With only the minutes shown at any given time, it offered a looser structure of time. Apart from the fleeting revelation of the hour, the watch also displayed a second time zone in an aperture at six o’clock, whose hour also remains hidden under a shade with a generic “GMT” inscription until the pusher is depressed, revealing the second hour, along with the hour hand. The second time zone is set by means of a second pusher at nine o’clock. Both the base movement and module were developed entirely in-house by Vaucher.
In 2017, Hermès unveiled its third installation, Slim d’Hermès L’Heure Impatiente, which emphasized the state of anticipation. Housed in the Slim d’Hermès case introduced in 2015, L’Heure Impatiente measures the time of imminent expectation by enabling the wearer to set the counter at five o’clock to the time of the eagerly awaited event that will take place in less than 12 hours. An hour before it occurs, a retrograde timer at six o’clock begins a countdown, announcing the event’s arrival with a sonorous ping.
In recent years, Hermès began on a similar endeavor with Jean-François Mojon and his firm, Chronode, this time offering a poetic take on traditional complications. It launched Arceau L’Heure de la Lune to much fanfare in 2019. The watch offers a simply stunning and stimulating interpretation of a moonphase complication with the use of two subdials that orbit above a pair of moons to display their current phases in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.
It was followed by Arceau Le Temps Voyageur in 2022, a remarkably romantic take on one of the most utilitarian complications — the dual time. Its name, Le Temps Voyageur, which means “traveling time,” is a literal translation of a satellite subdial that actually makes a voyage around the dial. Home time is displayed in an aperture at 12 o’clock while the satellite dial, when aligned with the reference city on the cities ring via the pusher at nine o’clock, displays the local time accordingly. As intuitive as it is in practice, some mechanical ingenuity is required to update the hour hand automatically as the subdial rotates. To complement the poetic mechanics, the central dial has also been engraved with a fictitious “equestrian” planet, dreamt up by French graphic designer Jérôme Colliard when he created the motif for the Hermès “Planisphère d’un Monde Équestre” silk scarf.
Indeed, among the pantheon of watches that have devoted mechanics to a purely aesthetic goal, Hermès’ use of complications as a launchpad for fantasy and philosophical rumination holds a special place.
Like many of its peers, the production of Chanel watches was initially subcontracted to external Swiss manufactures. The company made its first horological investment in 1993 by acquiring its case and buckle supplier G&F Châtelain. The latter is responsible for producing the ceramic case and bracelet of the J12, which was launched in 2000 and has since become an icon of modern watchmaking and one of the best-selling women’s watches the world over. The case-making facility in La Chaux-de-Fonds now serves as the headquarters for Chanel’s watch division today.
Up until recent years, Chanel relied on external specialists the likes of ETA, Sellita and Dubois-Dépraz for workhorse movements and Audemars Piguet Renaud et Papi (APRP) for premier movements. The caliber 3125 that powered a black ceramic and gold limited edition J12 (H2129) in 2008 was a variation of the Audemars Piguet caliber 3120. It was subsequently followed by the J12 Rétrograde Mystérieuse Tourbillon, which featured a complex and highly unusual tourbillon movement made by APRP with a retrograde minute hand, a 10-day power reserve and a frontally operated crown.
Separately, in 1998, Chanel took a minority stake in Bell & Ross and in 2019, in F.P Journe.
But a key piece of the puzzle was Chanel’s investment in independent watchmaker Romain Gauthier in 2011. An engineer by training, Romain is best known for his superbly constructed and finished movements such as the innovative Logical One and the Insight Micro-Rotor, one of the finest self-winding timepieces in watchmaking. His highly nuanced movements are made possible due to his ability to produce a majority of components including barrels, gears, shafts, balances and even screws from scratch at his workshop. As such, he also supplies Chanel with key components for high-end movements such as the Caliber 1 in the Monsieur de Chanel and aids Chanel’s eight-person team in La Chaux-de-Fonds in the development of such movements.
To cover all its bases, the French fashion house then purchased a stake in movement maker Kenissi in a joint venture with Tudor and Breitling in 2019. Kenissi produces some of the best engineered and most advanced movements on a large scale and is responsible for the robust calibers in the new and acclaimed J12.
However, the watch that first set the watch world on fire was the abovementioned Monsieur de Chanel in 2019. Not only was the Caliber 1 developed internally, but it was also executed with an exceptional level of sophistication both in terms of its movement design and complication.
It features a layout and design that is dictated, on the one hand, by a house style — a series of repeating circles reminiscent of Chanel’s interlocking double-C logo arranged in circularity — and on the other, by technical considerations, which is that the movement has two mainsprings in order to produce a 72-hour power reserve on a 4Hz frequency. Furthermore, to achieve the same concept of overlapping circles on the front, the fourth wheel is located within the main circular bridge on the movement side to drive a small seconds at a rather unusual position on the dial. At the same time, the retrograde minute hand covers an unusually wide 240-degree arc to embrace the seconds counter in an interlock.
With the visual identity of the brand ingrained in both movement and dial design — themselves seamlessly integrated — it achieves a visual purity of coherence, and unity of form and content that are unrivaled by its Swiss counterparts. To top it off, the choice of digital typeface echoes the octagonal jumping hour window, itself reminiscent of Chanel’s perfume bottle stopper while the balance wheel is in the shape of Chanel’s comet.
Following the Caliber 1, Chanel soon unveiled the Calibers 2 and 3 in the Première Camélia Skeleton and the Boy.Friend Skeleton respectively. They were a pair of skeletonized time-only form movements with equally considered and distinctive architectures characterized by circularity. The Caliber 3 even spawned a 3.1 version in the J12 X-Ray wherein the movement plate and bridges were made entirely from sapphire. But last year, the brand unveiled its first in-house flying tourbillon, the Caliber 5 in the J12 Diamond Tourbillon. While the movement echoes the design and finish of the Caliber 1, it was built from the ground up as a tourbillon movement. That it is emphatically aesthetic-driven is less of a surprise; the real surprise was the consideration paid to optimizing the volume of the movement for greater performance within that constraint.
Being smaller than the Caliber 1, the Caliber 5 had only one barrel. However, the barrel occupies half the movement’s diameter, covering the span from the central axis to the edge of the baseplate, allowing it to offer a healthy 48-hour power reserve despite a balance frequency of 4Hz, which is higher than most tourbillons, as well as a diamond-set cage. This is made possible as the watch features a dial that is offset from the central axis, with hands that are driven indirectly by an auxiliary train from the second wheel located at the edge of the movement as part of a circular layout.
As such, the motion works are off-centered, leaving the tourbillon free from obstructions; the aperture size for the tourbillon, like the barrel, can also be taken to its limit, occupying half of the movement’s diameter for maximum visual effect. The fact that technical excellence has a place in the strive for artistry and coherence in movement and dial design — with respect to the codes of the house — is incredibly impressive and a tough act to follow.
The first watches by the world’s most celebrated trunk maker were developed and produced in 1988 by IWC for Louis Vuitton, which enlisted the help of Italian architect Gae Aulenti for their designs. They were the LV-I World Timer and the Monterey II Alarm Travel Watch, both impressively conceived even by today’s standards but were powered by quartz movements.
It was only in 2002 when Louis Vuitton established a watchmaking division, which was based within the facility of its stablemate TAG Heuer in La Chaux-de-Fonds. It launched the now-iconic Tambour, a distinctive drum-shaped watch with slopping flanks, that same year. Given that travel is synonymous with Louis Vuitton, the watch was a GMT, equipped with an automatic movement. The following year, it introduced the COSC-certified Tambour Chronograph LV277 and, this time, the trunk maker turned to yet another of its corporate siblings for its movement and was endowed with the legendary Zenith El Primero.
In 2009, just as waves of innovation — technical, aesthetic and conceptual — unfolded in the wider watch world, Louis Vuitton unveiled the Spin Time. In place of a traditional hour hand were 12 miniature rotating cubes that rotated one by one to reveal the new hour, offering an innovative take on the jumping hour complication. It was conceived by Michel Navas and Enrico Barbasini, founders of the Geneva-based atelier La Fabrique du Temps. The immensely talented duo is best known in modern times for having developed the Tourbillon Double Spiral caliber for Laurent Ferrier, their former colleague at Patek Philippe, and subsequently, the Micro-Rotor, one of the finest, most elaborately constructed time-only automatic movements in watchmaking, equipped with a natural escapement.
Just two years later, in 2011, Louis Vuitton acquired the technical powerhouse, which gave it an in-house capability beyond its peers, particularly in terms of exotic and highly complex watchmaking. To make this fully known, Louis Vuitton unveiled the Tambour Minute Repeater that same year. The watch combined a GMT and minute repeater, which chimed the wearer’s home time, as indicated in an aperture at the center of the dial.
Less than half a year later in 2012, it snapped up specialist dial maker Léman Cadran, which gave it a distinct advantage over not only its peers but most watch brands. Finally, in 2014, the entire watch division was consolidated in a brand-new, 4,000-square-meter manufacturing facility in Meyrin, on the outskirts of Geneva.
The years that followed were spent reaching for the stars, beginning with the Voyager Flying Tourbillon Poinçon de Genève, a drastically openworked movement that attained the Geneva Hallmark, which is an achievement it shares with only six other watch brands, to the Tambour Twin Chrono, a dual chronograph with a differential display to measure split time and the distinctive Escale Worldtime that features three concentric disks for the hours, minutes and cities with the latter hand painted with the city abbreviations and corresponding nautical flags inspired by the monograms relief sculpture of a skull with an enameled snake coiled around it. When a serpent-shaped pusher at the side of the case is depressed, the minute repeater chimes the time while the dial springs to life. The snake moves its head to reveal a jumping hour aperture in the shape of a Louis Vuitton monogram star on its forehead while the tip of its tail moves across the retrograde minute scale just below the hour glass that measures power reserve. At the same time, the skull winks to reveal a monogram flower in its right socket and its jaw drops to reveal the words: “Carpe Diem.” The startlingly nuanced scales of the snake that incorporate the Louis Vuitton monogram were enameled by none other than Anita Porchet while the engraving was done by Geneva-based craftsman Dick Steenman.
This year, to mark its 200th anniversary, Louis Vuitton unveiled the Tambour Jacquemart Minute Repeater 200 Years, a one-off creation that reinforces the house’s used on vintage Louis Vuitton trunks. It also unveiled the Escale Spin Time Central Flying Tourbillon which located the tourbillon cage at the center of the movement rather than the more customary location at six o’clock while the lone central minute hand was replaced by a rotating disk. Subsequently, it redesigned the Tambour case to feature subtly concave flanks in the Tambour Moon Flying Tourbillon Poinçon de Genève, which was equipped with an artfully openworked movement with a cage in the shape of the brand’s signature monogram flower.
In recent years, the brand has continued to make rapid strides, culminating in the magnificent Tambour Carpe Diem in 2021, which combined a miniature automaton with a minute repeater, along with a jumping hour and retrograde minutes display. A virtuoso union of artistic crafts and mechanical ingenuity, the watch features a immense expertise. The watch is a cathedral minute repeater that activates nine tiny jacquemarts across the dial including a spaceship, planets and monogram flowers when a slide is pushed. The misty, galactic dial and its inhabitants were once again the work of engraver-and- enameler duo Dick Steenman and Anita Porchet.
Crucially, the complex, high complications at Louis Vuitton are executed in bold, highly contemporary and at times edgy designs, not unlike a certain signature street style it has brought to the fashion sphere. Evidently, in these “fashion watches,” the seamless integration of aesthetics and mechanics are met with added tension from a distinct house style, finely honed in a segment that prizes visual expression above all. In balancing these variables, they manage to move watchmaking in directions previously unimagined.