Decadent organic and textured goldwork has made a comeback, as the watch world stokes its love affair with the 1970s
By Laura McCreddie-Doak
“I think it’s safe to say they don’t make them like they used to, but then we’re in the business of thinking that,” says Daniel Somlo, director of Burlington Arcade’s famous Somlo Antiques, while lining up a selection of timepieces from the 1960s and 1970s featuring some of the most exquisite bracelet work.
To prove his point, he places a square-case Patek Philippe with a yellow-gold bark effect dial and integrated bracelet next to a Calatrava ref. 3802 from 1997 on a Milanese strap. “Machines and techniques just aren’t the same,” he says. “There isn’t the smoothness anymore; it’s difficult to get that when you’re using techniques such as laser cutting.”
Having gone out of fashion for a while, it seems as though metal straps finished in complex and surprising ways are having a renaissance and it isn’t just those who mastered it the first time around like Piaget who are experimenting with finishes. Newer names such as Chanel are also finding new ways to strap a case to your wrist.
To find the first known watch with a metal bracelet you’d have to go back to the 1790 account book of Jaquet Droz and Leschot. In there is an entry concerning a “watch to be fixed to a bracelet”. Later, in 1810, when the Queen of Naples commissioned Abraham-Louis Breguet to make her a wristwatch, he presented her with an oval repeater watch on a wristlet of hair and gold thread.
Although the advent of WWI saw men strapping their pocket watches to their wrists with leather, for women, watches doubled as jewellery; placed in decorative settings which would have been created by either outsourced or in-house jewellers. It’s no coincidence that some of the brands who are leading the field when it comes to metal working were revered jewellery names before they became watchmakers.
“There were bracelet watches in the 1940s, but they were a lot chunkier; more a bracelet with a watch inserted into it rather than the integrated styles that became more fashionable later,” says Somlo. “In the 1940s and 1950s, after WWII, people wanted tools; they needed robust watches for everyday life. It wasn’t until the 1960s that things got more decorative.”
It was partly fashion – cases were getting thinner and people wanted the bracelets to match – but also due to the rise in skilled craftsman that saw the rise of the integrated mesh bracelets through the 1960s and 1970s. And now it wasn’t just women’s watches; men were slimming things down too.
When Patek Philippe launched its Ellipse in 1968 – its unusual oval case supposedly based on the principles of the Golden Ratio; a divine proportion that equates to 1/1.6181 – it was on leather but it didn’t take long for Patek Philippe to move it on to a far more fashionable gold mesh bracelet, which was created in the Milanese technique. Originating from 19th century Italy, when done by hand, a Milanese bracelet is made by securing metal coils, which are wound in the same direction, with a pin and then shaped using tools. Nowadays even Apple can just get a machine to do it.
While many brands kept their bracelets simple, letting the Milanese speak for itself, others, such as Piaget, Bueche-Girod and Boucheron decided to experiment with hand-manipulating the metal to create hundreds of different finishes mostly inspired by jewellery that was around at the time. Before it started working with Andrew Grima, Omega invented a multi-coloured gold “compression” technique that, according to its Museum in Bienne, “allowed the fusing of alternating layers of this pastel-tinted [blue, pink, yellow and white] gold in mosaic-like patterns”. It became so popular that even Rolex got involved with its bark-finished bracelets, which featured a central panel of worked gold.
“Nugget jewellery [created using the unpolished nuggets] became quite fashionable in the 1960s and 1970s, starting most notably with the oil folks down in Texas,” explains Paul Alteri, founder and CEO of US-based online pre-owned Rolex exchange Bob’s Watches. “Jewellers started making nugget jewellery and putting the bark finish on everything from watches to bracelets, even guns. The trend did not go unnoticed by Rolex and soon they started offered a bark finish to the men’s and ladies Presidents in about 1965. They later offered this style of finish to the DateJust model as well. This continued until the mid-1990s when it was discontinued.”
It wasn’t just Rolex that stopped experimenting with finishes. As with so many decorative arts, the Quartz Crisis put this on hiatus too. All that mattered was keeping the Swiss watch industry going and that didn’t include spending time and money on making things look pretty.
As with every fashion, things are cyclical and, following the slow engorgement of watch cases throughout the 1990s and early Noughties, things have got smaller and with it the integrated, hand-finished bracelet is back.
One of the first inklings of this revival came from Audemars Piguet when it unveiled its Royal Oak Frosted Gold in January 2017 with its hammered bracelet in the Florentine tradition. Directly mirroring how the first straps of this kind were made, Audemars Piguet went to none other than the renowned jeweller Carolina Bucci to develop the technique, which involved using a handheld pulsing drill to dimple the gold.
“I think had to go through seven rounds at different grades in order to get it right,” explains Maria Santillana, former marketing manager at the brand. “If it is too deep it catches on clothing; too shallow and there is not enough reflection. At one point Francois [Bennahmais] thought it wasn’t working but Carolina said she just needed more time.” The result is a bracelet that appears to shimmer as if set with a full pavé of diamonds without the help of a single stone.
Also deceiving with appearances was Chanel, which put its Boy.Friend on a strap that seemed to have been made from steel tweed. To create an effect that mimics the Maison’s most famous fabric, steel threads were woven in the same braiding style as Chanel’s iconic jackets. This was then stamped with the tweed motif. It is a clever bit of design that seemingly turns metal into fabric, which is what Dior has done with its La D de Dior Satine, which has a Milanese strap that has been hammered to mimic grosgrain ribbon; something that was a feature of Christian Dior’s couture.
As if to remind everyone of its pre-eminence in this arena, Piaget has kicked off 2018 by launching its Extremely Lady collection. If the oval case is a throwback to the 1960s the straps are something entirely new. Titled “Fur”, “Frost” and “Wood”, they feature linked precious metal bracelets that have been hand-hammered in unique ways to mimic the properties of their namesakes and to make the structure of the bracelet disappear. The glamorous results are proof that there are still some brands out there who can still make them like they used to.