High Fashion Watches Take on Haute Horology

By Rhonda Riche

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Luxury watch enthusiasts can be terrible snobs. While haute horology sounds a lot like haute couture, collectors tend to be a little critical of high fashion watches from fashion houses, dismissing them as frivolous. At the same time, they offer something that more hidebound watchmakers don’t—bold design and extra luxurious appeal.

Historically, there are reasons that designer timepieces were considered “less than.” In the 1990s, for example, fashion houses commonly licensed their names to outside companies who turned out inexpensive, quartz (battery-powered), and logo-bedazzled watches.

As luxury became more exclusive in the new millennium, savvier maisons realized that they needed to take their watchmaking as seriously as they created their couture. Enter the “Swissification” of high fashion watches, with labels like Chanel, Louis Vuitton, and Hermès buying up established manufacturers to elevate their credibility. Not only are luxury labels bringing high style as an option, fashion and jewelry brands started to surpass established watch brands by matching their mechanical innovation.

Louis Vuitton, the famed Paris luxury brand, began its foray into high-end horology in 2002 with the Tambour, a mechanical watch whose most distinctive feature is its large drumlike case. (Tambour is French for drum.) The brand next approached an operation called La Fabrique du Temps in Geneva to shore up their savoir-faire as a luxury watchmaker. Just as former Louis Vuitton creative directors such as Marc Jacobs and the late Virgil Abloh were given free rein to play around with the brand’s signatures, Fabrique du Temps master watchmaker Michel Navas has carte blanche to bring his vision to life through the LV lens.

This year, Louis Vuitton celebrates its Haute horology anniversary with the Tambour Moon Mystérieuse Flying Tourbillon Volant, a timepiece that uses its highly complicated movement as a key design element (the watch’s components look like they are levitating) is one example of why. This timepiece is not only a feat in technical terms but also materials. It is a generous 45mm case sculpted from platinum with a polished finish. It is the ultimate in opulence.

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For fashionistas, this example of extraness may not come as a surprise, but Swiss high-end watchmakers are a notoriously traditional bunch. For the last decade, it feels like established brands have shied away from making interesting new dial displays and case designs. Brand after brand is busy introducing heritage timepieces based on archival pieces. And while there’s nothing wrong with big retro energy, it’s also fun to have something a little more forward to look at as well.

Chanel High Fashion Watches Hand Model

Chanel has long been challenging the norms of watchmaking design. The Maison presented its first collection of watches, the Premiére, in 1987. In 2000 it introduced the gender-fluid, ceramic J12 collection. In 2022, Chanel is going back to the future with the limited edition Chanel Wanted collection, an instant wardrobe of the brand’s most recognizable styles: the J12, Prèmiere, Boy·Friend, and Code Coco re-envisioned using the fine watchmaking techniques.

Another house that has successfully remixed its timekeeping division is Gucci. Back in 1972, Gucci was one of the first major fashion brands to manufacture their fashion-forward mechanical watches. Today, they are the largest producer of fashion watches in the world. But last year, Gucci launched its High Watchmaking collection that includes daring complications like flying tourbillion and jump hour movements.

Gucci’s creative director, Alessandro Michele, is said to have had his hands on the design process. His influence is apparent in the use of unusual materials such as the coloured sapphire crystal case GRIP SAPPHIRE. In haute horology, finishes, gem setting, and materials are considered as important of a complication as a tourbillion, and this playful take on the digital jump hour watch proves the brand’s bona fides. The watch is easy on the eyes, but working with crystal to form the case’s body is extremely difficult, making the Grip Sapphire even more delightful.

Gucci is having a moment with its many takes on brand signatures like the interlocking GG or the red and green “web” stripe, but Bulgari helped set off logomania in the 1970s, with the BVLGARI BVLGARI. The brand’s name is featured prominently on the bezel, making it the first time a logo became the prominent decorative element on a high-end watch.

Bulgari, founded in 1884, is one of the oldest Italian jewelry houses. The timepiece was a hit and the brand decided to get as serious about watchmaking as it did about making jewelry. They started up Bulgari Haute Horlogerie SA responsible to oversee Bulgari’s watch production in Neuchâtel in 1980. This lab of creativity resulted in a series of horologically significant watches like the record-breaking (for thinness) Octo Finissimo Chronograph GMT Automatic. These innovations have put the brand in watchmaking’s elite centre.

Bulgari High Fashion Watches

Timepieces like the Bvlgari Aluminium GMT Amerigo Vespucci also emphasize that there is nothing more luxurious than comfort. By embracing ultra-light materials such as Aluminum and Rubber, the brand has produced a sporty watch that feels as refined as a [Patek Phillipe] Nautilus or [Audemars Piguet] Royal Oak.

Haute joillerie house, Chopard has also earned a place in the haute horology pantheon with record-breaking movements and well-regarded technical watches like the Mille Miglia. The 2022 Race Editions feature high-end materials like an 18-carat rose gold and a chronometer-certified chronograph. With a brand like Chopard, the house’s rich history in luxury impacts sportier timepieces through exclusivity (it’s a limited edition) and the use of premium materials like its rich leather strap.

Another Maison that has gained much respect in the watch space is Hermès. Best known for its instantly recognizable timepieces like the Clipper, the Cape Cod, and the Medor, Hermès is equally adept at creating high-concept takes on time-telling. This year, at Watches and Wonders (an international trade show for the watch and jewelry industry,) the house unveiled The Arceau Le Temps Voyageur, which features a very clever “travelling time” function.

Hermès’ Haute horology offerings have always had a poetic element but the Arceau Le Temps Voyageur represents a genuine technical and aesthetic challenge with its the “travelling time” gravitational counter that floats across a dial decorated with imaginary continents, moving from real-world city to city and time zone to time zone.

Van Cleef and Arpels High Fashion Watches

Masters of high jewellery Van Cleef & Arpels also bring a whimsical element to their timepieces. They are famous for using one of the most ancient clockworks, the automaton, to animate watches that tell the time in a whole new way. For example, with the Lady Arpels Heures Florales Cerisier (also introduced at Watches & Wonders 2022), instead of hands or pointers, the watch employs tiny blossoms that open and close to indicate the hours.

A final note on the appeal of haute horology fashion watches. There is, in purist circles, an abject horror of aftermarket additions such as customizing bezels and dials with bezels. Haute horology fashion watches come with sizzle, so you can preserve the provenance of your timepiece.