Traditional Watchmaking Gets Galvanised By Gemstones and Gold

Rolex gemmologist checks the quality of diamonds

Luxury is a fast-changing industry. Luxury watchmaking, not so much. Hampered by tradition, classicism, and, more often than not, a lack of vision, it tends to be set in its ways. One of those ‘ways’ is to consider that gem-set watches are a) for women, b) for the bling-loving crowd of hip-hop entertainment, or c) for wealthy clients from the Gulf region with no watchmaking savvy. Yes, there is prejudice and snobbery afoot where gem-set timepieces are concerned, as alluded to in the Unusual Suspects companion piece to this story. The truth is that mechanical timepieces with abundant gem-setting skills on display are in high demand, especially those whose sizes and styles make them compatible with the tastes of men. Yes, men. Cue shock and outrage.

Just the other day, I was invited to a high-brow cultural event in my hometown of Paris, in a posh setting, by a brand whose approach is very conservative. A senior member of staff, young but far from having a penchant for what might be considered the thug life (cringeworthy though such thoughts might be), confessed an amazing fact to me: his dream watch is one of their most famous references…with a rainbow bezel.

Patek Philippe Ref. 5711/1300A (discontinued)

More Specific

That only went to confirm what I have grown to see and understand about this specific segment. Perfectly legitimate complicated timepieces (mechanical of course) elevated with a large number of gems are increasingly popular, with an increasingly large population. This audience is more diverse in gender, age, origin and regards for watchmaking classics than one might think. But there is a certain style involved, along with a certain prestige associated with the baguette cut. Round gems generally do not qualify. Oddly enough, the name of the game is not going overboard. Setting a bezel is just right. Using baguettes as indices on the dial is spot on. Extending said baguettes to the entire dial is already on the daring side. Pushing it to slather the whole case seems very polarising. Going full-bracelet-and-lugs-plus-everything-with-a-surface on top of any of the options above puts a watch in a more difficult position, both in terms of style, perception and of course, logically, price.

More Expensive

For an excellent case in point, one just needs to take a look at Patek Philippe’s growing number of gem-set references. This should serve to underscore the point that there is considerable interest in the matter from even the most traditional brands. Something obviously shifted when the Genevan brand acquired Salanitro, the city’s largest gem-setting specialist for watches. It was even more obvious when Patek Philippe released the platinum-cased, ruby-bezeled perpetual calendar chronograph Ref. 5271P in 2022. Seeing how Ref. 5271P represents a 60 percent price increase on plain vanilla Ref. 5270P, it leaves little to the imagination as to why the firm chose to add 5.25 carats of baguette rubies. That premium might be characterised as exorbitant or is it conservative? Whatever the case (no pun intended), the buying public is unfazed. The watch can still double your money, and then some, on the secondary market, should one choose to go that way. This very high premium put on the upper crust of gem-encrusted timepieces seems a reasonable explanation for the emergence of such plush pieces. Such watches, as this story presents it, includes the slew of 41mm Audemars Piguet Royal Oaks bedecked with baguette diamonds and sapphires the brand has recently unleashed.

Jacob & Co. Timeless Treasure

More Complex

For a long time, it was considered easy – too easy really – for brands to just add gems on a bezel to make a quick buck and sell it to whomever. The fact of the matter though is that high-end gem-setting is another kettle of fish entirely. Any sort of setting that stops at round diamonds of small size is indeed nothing special, with the exception of snow setting of course but we digress. There are machines that have become very good at this sort of prosaic work, which is hardly discussed at all and what we will say about this is that you should consider what role machines play in setting gems as prominently as you consider the role of machines in movement finishing.

Back on point then, the more exclusive gem-setting approach relies on a different type of cut and a much more elaborate kind of setting technique. It uses baguette-cut gems, which demands roughs that are better, larger and suffer a larger loss of weight during the cutting stage. They lend themselves perfectly to invisible setting, which is widely used for this type of adornment. It is the most demanding of all techniques. It requires the gem-setter cut two grooves along the longest sides of the baguette gemstone. That groove will help snap the gem in place in a purpose-crafted bezel, or dial, or caseband. This results in a tight arrangement of rectangles, with virtually no gaps between them and no prongs to be seen; the gems are shown unobstructed and in all their glory. The last and perhaps most important part of this process is the following: setting a closed part of a watch such as the bezel, which admits almost no light in, demands only the very best – that means the clearest and purest gems.

Hublot Big Bang Integrated King Gold Rainbow

More Desirable

Fortunately, the tastes of watch lovers are evolving. Under the pressure of, one must admit,hip-hop aesthetics going mainstream and infusing all segments of luxury; entertainment icons becoming billionaires and increasing their role as trendsetters; and the worldwide enrichment of the 0.01 percent, it has become a sign of taste, wealth and access to wearing a rose gold Daytona with 47 multicolored baguette-cut sapphires. Perhaps not coincidentally, these are the most expensive of all Rolexes on offer on the popular Chrono24 platform; yes, the pricing here makes for a far-from-perfect example but it does serve to illustrate a point.

For the life of you, do not mention a diamond-set platinum Rolex to a fanatic; he might immediately have a stroke. The brand is discreetly making unique and very rare pieces for high-six-figure sums, which it calls ‘off-catalogue’. These watches do not appear in the brand’s official communication, but are available, although in very small quantities; by available, we mean that they are made and sold, not that you could get lucky and just find one. These watches are nicknamed by the letters at the end of their reference number such as SARU or SABR, with the latter sometimes dubbed Aurora Borealis. If one is to believe the incredible premium these pieces command on the secondary market, a gem-set Rolex is the hottest thing out there. To this surprising fact, there is a historical explanation to consider. Geneva, however Calvinist and sometimes rigid in its approach to spending and ostentation, has been a major caterer of overt luxury in watches for more than two centuries. It is only logical that Patek Philippe and Rolex see an opportunity and seize it; it is culturally obvious for them.

Setting the case of the Jacob & Co. Timeless Treasure

More Luxurious

There were early signs of this phenomenon. The rainbow bezel craze of the late 2010s was intense and widespread. Every brand had to have one on their roster, as we noted in the Unusual Suspects. Do not be fooled by their relative disappearance from watch-related news; they are still very much in demand. One needs only take a look at the steady stream of Hublot novelties for confirmation, and that Rainbow model without any gems at all a couple of years ago that we love. There, I must render unto Caesar and all that. Because 15 years ago, Hublot’s Million Dollar Big Bangs and subsequent fully diamond-clad timepieces opened up a new realm within watchmaking – hyper luxury, hyper pricing, and hyper carat weight. Such attempts had been made previously, but the watches failed to sell and were scrapped for parts. Then in 2015, Jacob & Co. released its USD 18-million Billionaire, complete with 260 carats of emerald-cut white diamonds, actually sold it, and then started making an entire collection based on that concept. The process culminated recently in its USD 20-million Timeless Treasure, entirely made of 216 carats of Asscher-cut yellow diamonds; the Asscher-cut is one of the most challenging in the world of jewellery, making the baguette-cut seem like child’s play.

More Extensive

Indeed, Jacob & Co.’s juggernaut success is another case in point. The brand confessed to me to not being able to keep up with demand for any of its full-set watches. The NYC-based brand excels at creating 20-, 30-, 40-carat timepieces, where it pairs coloured gems with tourbillons, automata, minute repeaters, music boxes and the entire array of their singular mechanics. The fact is they seem to be selling them in the USA, in Europe, in Dubai, in Singapore as well as in all of Southeast Asia. This type of product is integral to the brand’s identity since it comes from the world of high jewelery, and further from the brand’s signature combination of the same with inventive complications. The strategy is bearing fruit as the watches have met with the aforementioned positive response all over the world. So strong a fact is this that Jacob & Co are about to double down on the coloured-gem Billionaire thing, as a 2023 catalogue entry seemed to suggest; the fully-set piece is about to arrive with 100+ carats of rubies and emeralds.

Vacheron Constantin Les Cabinotiers Grisaille High Jewellery – Dragon

More Exclusive

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Vacheron Constantin is regularly releasing high-complication pieces from their Les Cabinotiers line with baguette-cut diamonds on the bezel, such as Les Cabinotiers Grisaille High Jewellery Dragon (which we missed in print but made a special note on in our coverage on Luxuo – Ed). These pieces are not merely bespoke; they are unique pieces made with a specific sort of clientèle in mind, and they are not meant as showroom pieces only. Lower on the scale of exclusivity, the Overseas has also benefited from a baguette enhancement on its tourbillon iteration. Overall, there is a constantly growing number of pieces offered from a variety of brands. They show that elegance is a more flexible term than we sometimes like to think. And it so happens that Singapore, amongst the most high watchmaking-savvy markets in the world, is in love with these pieces.

This article first appeared on WOW’s Spring 2024 issue.

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