‘ is the most universal form of art; its importance is understood wherever you’re from,’ says Vanessa Cron, historian and one of the hosts of Christie’s Education’s online course, Behind the Curtain: and Watchmaking Houses. ‘At the same it’s a very intimate and personal kind of art,’ she adds, a sentiment that would be shared by many watch collectors drawn to the special distillation of craftsmanship and design, precious materials and history embedded in a fine timepiece.
The course provides an overview of the and watchmaking houses whose masterpieces have pushed technical and aesthetic boundaries, and who embody the traditions and style that continues to capture the . Throughout the course Vanessa, alongside the watch expert Antoine G, will reveal the storied histories and visionary figures behind six and six watch brands, and explain how they became leaders in contemporary luxury.
‘It is not a comprehensive list,’ Vanessa points out, ‘but an introduction to some of the most influential houses.’ Collectors and aficionados of high and watches will gain a connoisseur’s insight, with ach of the 12 s focusing on a single house listed below. Finally, Christie’s and watch specialists will join two additional sessions to discuss the auction market and commercial side of the brands. Participants may choose to take the full , either or watches, or single sessions.
Founded in 1875 in , is responsible for many pioneering is best-known for the Royal Oak. Created in 1972 by , according to Antoine ‘one of the 20th century’s greatest watch designers,’ it launched at the time of the ‘ ’, when the S watch industry was losing market share to cheap and accurate electronic Japanese watches. The Royal Oak ed another kind of innovation: the first luxury sports watch, its octagonal bezel with inset nuts taking design cues from vintage diving helmets.
After attending the historic 1887 exhibition and auction of the French crown jewels, Frd Boucheron embarked on a series of designs that would come to the . Jewels such as his 1905 aigrette, made for an Indian maharaja, demonstrate the incredible workmanship that remains the calling card today. In 1893, Boucheron became the first to open a boutique on Place in Paris — apparently choosing number 26 because it was the sunniest and therefore corner of the square. ‘Paris is the of high making,’ confirms Vanessa, and Place , also the location of Boucheron, Cartier, Chaumet Van Cleef & , is its ancestral home.
The Swiss watchmaker Abraham-Louis founded his first shop in 1775 in Paris, providing timepieces to figures such as Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette and Napoleon I. He was known to all the European courts, as well as being the watchmaker of reference for diplomatic, scientific, military and financial elites. The No. 217, dating to 1800 and 's masterpiece, was sold at Christie’s Geneva for CHF 3,245,000 in 2016. It boasts extra complications such as a day and month calendar, power reserve and most importantly, an equation of time indication — the quantity that needs to be added or subtracted to switch to the mean time which arbitrarily divides a day into 24 hours.
Well-known for its snake-motif pieces, which Vanessa describes as ‘a different type of — an accessory you could wear,’ Bulgari was founded by the Greek Constantine in 1884. Based in Rome, it became synonymous with jet-set celebrity in the 1960s: Sophia Loren was photographed wearing an important diamond necklace at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival and Gina Lollobrigida wore the firm’s emerald and diamond at the premiere of The Sound of Music. One of the most famous jewels from the period was Bulgari’s magnificent emerald and diamond necklace that Richard Burton bought for Elizabeth Taylor as a wedding present in 1964. When sold by Christie’s in 2011 it fetched US$6,130,500.
Cartier was founded in 1847 by Louis-Franç Cartier, whose sons would go on to establish the brand celebrated today. Alongside its mystery clocks, the Tank watch, inspired by the vehicles of the First World War, is its most enduring horological signature. ‘Although the Tank’s are military, today its design language represents the elegance and luxury that the house,’ Antoine says. ‘Rudolph Valentino wore a Tank in the 1921 film, The ,’ he continues, ‘this was a coup for Cartier and one of the first celebrity endorsements.’ Called by King Edward VII ‘the of kings and the king of ,’ Cartier’s has defined and redefined style and elegance. ‘Inspired by cultures far from Place , Cartier in turn influenced around the world,’ asserts Vanessa. From the belle and art through Panthère and Tutti-Frutti, and more recently the minimalist, whimsical Love and Juste un Clou, Cartier’s designs chart a of legendary forms.
‘One of the most important swords ever made was he piece for Napoleon’s ,’ says Vanessa, ‘it incorporated diamonds from the French crown jewels, including the Regent Diamond weighing .’ The sword was created who, with his son -Ré , became the official to Napoleon. In 1889, the company under the leadership of Joseph . The went on to win prizes at the international exhibitions and supplied to many of Europe’s royal houses.
It’s said that fewer than one million Patek Philippe watches have been made since 1839. That’s less than some very high-end Swiss manufacturers produce in a year. Patek production is so detailed that it takes nine months to make its most basic watches, and more than two years to produce some of the more complicated timepieces. ‘Patek is a legendary name in watchmaking history, unique in terms of skill and execution,’ Antoine says, ‘in keeping with the company’s slogan, “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation”, their timepieces are built to last.’ Iconic models such as Nautilus — designed by — as well as Calatrava, and more recently the Aquanaut, are synonymous with fine watchmaking.
Among the world’s most luxury brands, Rolex watches are the essence of quality and practicality, and indelibly associated with tennis, sailing, motor racing and Mercedes ’s record-breaking 1927 swim across the English Channel. Many of the models’ DNA originates in ‘tool watches’ designed for special purposes: the GMT-Master was created at Pan Am’s request for a dual-time zone complication for its pilots to combat jet lag. Likewise, the Submariner was made specifically for divers. An Oyster Perpetual chronometer accompanied Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay to the summit of Mount Everest in 1953.
Tiffany & Co.
Dating to 1837, Tiffany’s is one of the world’s oldest . The company catered to the wealth and taste of America’s Gilded Age tycoons, and in 1887 acquired pieces at the auction of the French crown . ‘Js from around the world attended,’ says Vanessa, ‘but the one who bought the most was Tiffany’s, more so than the French houses.’ The Great Depression and Second World War saw a decline, but in 1955 the firm was taken over by Walter Hoving, marking a turnaround in the company’s fortunes. A year later, Parisian designer Jean Schlumberger opened his salon at Tiffany’s, and when Breakfast at Tiffany’s, starring Audrey Hepburn, was released in 1961 it proved a powerful advertisement for the brand.
Van Cleef & Arpels
Founded with the opening of a boutique in 1906 at 22 Place where the firm remains today, Van Cleef & has always been at the forefront of innovation. In 1933 it patented the ‘Mystery Set’ — a technique that allows for the setting of stones so that no prongs are visible. Another creation uniquely associated with Van Cleef & Arpels is the ‘Zip’ , a virtuosic design thought to have originated as a result of a conversation between the artistic e Puissant and the Duchess of Windsor. Flora and fauna motifs and the ‘lucky’ four-leaf clover-inspired Alhambra collection are also signatures. ‘The has long taken inspiration from good luck charms,’ Vanessa says. ‘Launched in the 1970s, the “Touch wood” bangles relate to gem-set wooden rings made in the early 20th century, showing that luck has been part of its spirit from the beginning.’
Established in 1755, Vacheron Constantin is the oldest continually operating Swiss watchmaker. Famous for its advanced complications and house-built movements, in 2015 it announced the most complicated watch ever created in celebration of the company’s 260th anniversary. Featuring 57 complications including multiple calendars and a carillon striking function, the ref. 57260 pocket watch was commissioned by an American took three master watchmakers eight years to build at an estimated price of US$8m. ‘In the era of we take time for granted,’ says Antoine. ‘Yet the mechanical representation of time, which is an intangible concept, continues to fascinate,’ he reflects. From a simple hours and minutes manual-winding to the Vacheron Constantin . 57260, watches are enduring manifestations of complex engineering and abstraction, something that long captured our imagination.