From its conception, the wristwatch has always been a fashion statement.
Essentially bracelets with embedded clocks, wristwatches were viewed skeptically by the American populace when the trend first came over from Europe. As far back as 1916, The New York Times sniffed that “Vaudeville artists and moving-picture actors have utilized it as a funmaker, as a ‘silly ass’ fad.”
How the times have changed. Today some elite consumers shell out upwards of a million dollars for haute joaillerie watches. Fad or no, these days, adorning your wrist with a watch dripping in jewels has less to do with telling time, and everything to do with showcasing your worth.
If you thought you were hip with your retro Swatch, maybe it’s time for a primer on haute joaillerie.
What exactly is haute joaillerie?
Translated literally, haute joaillerie means “high jewelry,” but in the realm of luxury brands, it has evolved into a movement of its own. Haute joaillerie timepieces are intricate and ornate, truly viewed as a work of art. Each piece is custom-made by hand and tailored to the desire of the customer.
What exactly do these intricate watches look like and who is making them?
Every year, the top jewelers and watchmakers in the world convene for the annual Baselworld Watch and Jewelry Show, in Basel, Switzerland. At the show, designers including Chopard, Hublot, Graff and Bulgari, share their latest custom designs.
The 2016 show included Chopard’s launch of the Chopard Imperiale, a watch with 581 sapphires and a display made of amethysts, creating a luminescent rainbow effect.
Each year jewelers become increasingly innovative. Harry Winston’s “My Precious Time,” for example, is an Art Deco-inspired piece of haute joaillerie with 368 diamonds that acts as a brooch, with a secret, hidden watch. Graff’s “The Princess Butterfly,” pictured below, includes 9.29 karats of sapphires and 5.61 karats of round white diamonds, all set in 18-karat white gold foundation.
Can I afford a piece of haute joaillerie?
Probably not. Since each piece is one-of-a-kind, the prices are wide ranging but will cost you a pretty penny. Price is typically given on application, and can be upwards of two million dollars.
Why haven’t I heard more about this?
Haute joaillerie represents a resurgence of traditional watchmaking and lives at the intersection of fine-jewelry making and horology, the study of watchmaking. With such a limited consumer base, brands are working exclusively with high net worth clients and eschewing social media since the pieces aren’t duplicated.
This sounds difficult to scale.
Well, that’s the point. Just like any garment, watches go through trend cycles. During periods of limited technical innovation, the market often responds with abundant flourishes and gimmicks to entice the consumer.
There’s recently been a return to true luxury to counteract increased accessibility to high-end brands through fashion democratization. In an attempt to regain equity in true luxury, brands are dabbling in experimental ventures, which can entail going above and beyond to reel in customers. Clients are looking for the most advanced craftsmanship, and the more opulent the better.
The tech world has taken note of this as well. In response to underwhelming sales, last year Apple launched a timepiece plated in 18-karat gold that ranges from $10,000 to $17,000. Hardly as steep as a piece of haute joaillerie, though, the smartwatch practically teeters on the edge of “silly ass fad.”