The world of horology has largely revolved around men. The gendered stereotypes track: it’s dauntingly technical, and therefore it’s male-dominated; “It’s all in the engineering,” they say, and therefore it’s male-dominated. But as countless women in the STEM field (that’s science, technology, engineering, and mathematics for you) might argue, since when were science and technical know-how reserved for men? As most sartorial cliches go, traces of such antiquated norms can be found in fashion history.
Up until the early 20th century, men were still wearing pocket watches – or “portable clocks”, as they were called. Meanwhile, women were wearing watches as pendants for the simple but absurd reason that women’s clothing was made sans-pockets. It wasn’t until wristwatches were marketed as bracelets for women until men, too, found time-telling migrating from the inner linings of their coats to their wrists.
While some would assume this ultra-thin timepiece from 1967 that Elizabeth Taylor once owned is quartz-operated due its slim profile, it’s actually powered by the ultra-thin hand-wound Piaget 9P mechanical movement that measures only 2 mm thick.
Women have long been wearing wristwatches not just for their time-keeping function, but as objects of desire. Clock the photo of the consummate watch and jewellery fiend Elizabeth Taylor and her man Richard Burton at the top of this article. On her wrist is a stunning yellow gold timepiece from Piaget created in 1967 that featured 36 diamonds framing the iridescent opal dial. It’s a thing of beauty powered by a feature that will make watch geeks swoon: the ultra-thin hand-wound Piaget 9P mechanical movement that was introduced in 1957.
Today, watches have clearly graduated from being just a man’s world. But I remain a layman in this domain. And so I looked to the expertise of the women who know their stuff. I spent an afternoon visiting the boutiques of four watch houses, to see what feminine timepieces mean for watchmakers.
The dial of the Possession watch is rotatable.
My first stop of the day was Piaget, where I was shown the headliners of the Maison: the sporty Polo, the Possession and the slim and elegant Altiplano ranges. The Possession, in particular, was what caught my attention. Its diamond-set bezel rotates, much like a fancy, ultra-elegant egg-timer. In place of numerical hour markers, diamonds tell the time.
Though designed especially for women, there’s no stopping anyone else from wearing this mischievously interactive ticker. The personality of the Possession lies in its transference of know-how and technical finesse. In 1990, the Maison crafted Possession rings that spin freely when in contact with one’s fingers. Applying this playful mechanism to its timepieces, the Possession watch does the same: it spins, turns, and delights.
The only Italian Maison on my list, my experience with Bulgari was one of intrigue and curiosity. I’ve always registered Bulgari more as a house of high jewellery, so my knowledge of its horological endeavours was limited, to say the least. But its snake-like Serpenti designs have been married with the brand’s timepieces since the ’40s.
One-of-a-kind design: the Bulgari Serpenti reshapes our understanding of how a timepiece should look like.
Elizabeth Taylor famously donned a Serpenti bracelet watch on the set of Cleopatra in 1962. The Serpenti is best known for its recognisable coils made from a technique called Tubogas. The piece is surprisingly lightweight and easy to slip on despite its deceptively ornate spiral. Crafted from rose gold and stainless steel, this is one watch where its coils are as conspicuous as the dial. I’m not sure why one might take their Serpenti swimming, but reader, she swims – the Serpenti is water-resistant up to 30 metres.
Over at Chopard, I was introduced to the house’s signature Happy Sport – a playful yet elegant timepiece collection that was designed for women, by a woman. In 1993, artistic director and co-president of Chopard, Caroline Scheufele, wanted a sports watch that combined diamonds and steel.
Think of the watches from Chopard’s Happy Sport collection as a personal pinball machine – a diamond-encrusted one, that is.
I tried on the Happy Golf model from the line, which as its name suggests, is an homage to the grassy, classy sport. The case measures a dainty 33mm, for wearers who prefer a more understated presence. The fun part of this watch? The diamonds dance and glide across the dial! I was instantly taken by this whimsical feature. On a day of back-to-back errands, I can easily see these moving gems being a moment of casual magic. Think of it as a personal pinball machine – a diamond-encrusted one, that is.
My last stop of the day was Jaeger-LeCoultre. By far the most memorable timepiece from this visit was the Reverso, a dual-faced automatic that flips and clicks to showcase a completely different dial. The Reverso was born of a challenge: entrepreneur Cesar de Trey was invited to come up with a watch that could withstand bumps and knocks during polo matches.
The best known feature of the Reverso by Jaeger-LeCoultre is its case that can be flipped over.
True enough, an ingenious solution was born: a case that could flip to protect the glass and dial underneath. Personally, the history embedded in its practicality is the draw for me here. Created in 1931, the Reverso embodies the height of modernity and the ripple effects of Art Deco. The Reverso Duetto, impressively, is an extension of de Trey’s original challenge – the two dials display a different time zone each, perfect for any jet-setter now that travel is a thing again.
The myth of gendered timepieces is as hollow as the myth of gendered fashion. From diamond dials to unapologetic ornamentation, there seems to be a notably more playful approach to these ‘ladies watches’. But the assumption that femininity necessarily equates to frivolity is a dated one – the rise in complications found in women’s watches is a clear sign that the age-old world of watchmaking is finally inching towards gender neutrality. The watches here may have been designed “for women”, but who’s to stop anyone from wearing them?