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Well-kept secrets

“There are no secrets that time does not reveal,” are Jean Racine’s wise words. As the history of watchmaking unfolds, secrets and time are indeed revealed.
Pooja Agarwal explores the world of secret watches.

By Pooja Agarwal

Photos Philippe Lacombe

The concept of hidden watches was born in the 19th century: in fact, amongst the first wristwatches ever made, the 1868 design by Swiss watchmaker Patek Philippe for Countess Koscowicz of Hungary, was a ‘secret’ watch. Why all the mystery?

During the olden days, in a male-dominated society, it was not considered a necessity for women to keep track of the time. “‘Secret’ timepieces carry a hint of nostalgia reminiscent of an era when good manners implied occasionally peeking at the time without being noticed,” explains Caroline Scheufele, Artistic Director and Co-President of Chopard. Essentially, a secret watch is one with a cover over the dial that can be flipped open or moved aside to reveal the dial and the time. “While early pendant, brooch and wrist watches utilised covers or lids to offer a discreet way for a woman to tell time, today’s secret watch covers are predominantly decorative,” notes Roberta Naas, editor at WorldTempus.

There is indeed a fine line between a bejewelled bracelet and a secret watch. Back in the days, the Hungarian countess’s precious possession was an ornate, rectangular, yellow-gold piece set with diamonds, which was more jewellery than timepiece. Even though it enclosed the first timekeeping mechanism designed for the wrist, its primary purpose was that of decorative jewellery; it showcased the highest art practised by jewellers with enamel and diamonds. When pressed open, the gold case revealed a key-wound movement with cylinder escapement.

Les Eternelles Signature Morganite secret watch mounted on an 18-carat white gold case with a cabochon-cut morganite weighing 43.64 carats surrounded by brilliant- cut diamonds. Quartz movement. Unique piece.
Les Eternelles Signature Grenat secret watch mounted on a 18k white gold case with a 39.92 carat Grenat carmine central stone. Paved with 91 yellow sapphires (2.5 ct), 79 fancy orange sapphires (30.4 carats), 87 spessartite garnets (2.5 ct) and 1,171 diamonds. Quartz movement. Unique piece. Winner of the 2016 Grand Prix de l’Hologerie for the best High-Jewellery timepiece.
High Jewellery Serpenti 40mm. White gold head and rose gold tail.
Set with two rubies (0.5 ct) and 3.92 carats of marquise and brilliant cut diamonds. Quartz movement.

“Secret watches have come back nowadays because the world
of precious watches is changing towards jewels that give time rather
than timepieces enriched with stones.”
Benjamin Comar

Fashion forward

Increasingly popular in the 1930s and ’40s, secret watches are back in vogue, thrusting the natural beauty of gemstones into the limelight and leaving the stressful passing of time out of sight.

The house of Hermès constantly builds on its heritage of that era. Initially intended for hunting parties, dog collars were adapted to serve as belts during the 1930s. A source of inspiration, the Hermès leather strap with its iconic Clous de Paris pyramid-shaped studs was later transformed into the Médar ‘secret’ watch in 1993. Back in 1962, fashion icon Liz Taylor was wearing a fabulous Bvlgari Serpenti watch coiling up her imperial arm, while filming Cleopatra in Rome. A true mark of nobility. According to Richard Burton – her Mark Antony on set and lover in real life, “The only word Elizabeth knows in Italian is Bvlgari.” Today, such concept timepieces have become statement pieces, embodying the quintessential savoir-faire of high jewellers and watchmakers.

Technical prowess

Needless to say, secret watches are not only complex to produce but fitted with exceptional technical features.
For the second year running Chanel is presenting its new high-jewellery watch models – Les Eternelles de Chanel – at the Grand Prix de l’Horlogerie de Genève. Conceived as a capsule collection, they pay tribute this year to the House’s iconic quilting pattern. “Diamond squares enhanced with exceptional stones are juxtaposed in a play of mirrors; they evoke the Couture spirit of Chanel and conceal a precious watch dial. It leads to a modern vision of secret watches using our timeless quilted motif,” explains Chanel’s Fine Jewellery Director, Benjamin Comar.

With the secret watch ‘Signature Grenat’ Chanel raises the bar: “Like a precious embroidery, the 18-carat white gold cuff is quilted with diamond squares and sprinkled with orange sapphires. At the centre, a 52.61-carat carmine garnet delicately opens to reveal a watch set with diamonds,” adds Comar. Another exceptional piece, the Signature Morganite Secret Watch hides a paved-diamond watch face under a 43.6-carat facetted sugarloaf cabochon-cut morganite.

Finding the appropriate stone or eloquent motif to conceal the watch entirely is of the essence. Exposed to unique technical challenges, Van Cleef & Arpels’ High Jewellery Production Director explains: “the Rubis Secret Bracelet Watch is nestled inside the bracelet: nothing is visible from outside. While designing it, the ateliers were faced with many great challenges. Of course, the main task was to hide the watch inside the bracelet, by positioning the drawer system for the timepiece module on the round structure, demanding both precision, and innovation skills.” Moreover, the quartz movement took 1,500 hours of jewellery craftsmanship: in white and pink gold with diamonds, the watch is enhanced with 115 oval-cut rubies weighing 151.25 carats.


Creative inspirations

In the world of secret watches, no inspiration seems too bold. With a shared fascination for time and inventiveness, Haute Joaillerie and Haute Horlogerie come together to celebrate Haute Craftsmanship. Whether exploring the animal or floral kingdom, motifs mimic flora, fauna, insects, reptiles and birds, often showcasing rare, large- sized gemstones.

A butterfly? For the first time, Graff’s iconic butterfly motif conceals a hidden watch. A contour of tapered gemstone baguettes outline the butterfly’s paved wings; a work of art on a satin watchstrap. Invisible, an innovative jewelled push mechanism reveals the secret 17-mm watch’s mother-of-pearl dial.

A snake? The Bvlgari Serpenti bracelet watch is based on the Roman jeweller’s eponymous signature collection. The 60-year-old historic model now bears the weight of time: the snakehead hinged cover lifts to reveal a diamond- paved watch dial beneath, evocative of Bvlgari’s rich jewellery heritage.

A crocodile? Every year, Cartier proves its craftsmanship and creativity in presenting a series of unique secret jewellery watches during the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH). The daring Haute- Joaillerie Montre Crocodile fully paves the wrist like a cuff with 1,447 diamonds and a cabochon-cut emerald forming the eye of the reptile.

“Secret watches have come back nowadays because the world of precious watches
is changing towards jewels that give time rather than timepieces enriched with stones,”

Concludes Benjamin Comar. •

Secret Princess Butterfly. 33.3 x 42.5 mm white gold case set with 23.14 carats of brilliant and baguette-cut diamonds on the edges. Quartz movement located in a 17-mm mother-of-pearl dial. Pre-selected by the Jury of the 2016 Grand Prix de l’Horlogerie for the best High-Jewellery Timepiece category.
High Jewellery Crocodile Secret Watch set in grey gold with 1,447 brilliant-cut diamonds and one cabochon-cut emerald.