Gem-Studded Watches Are Not Just Status Symbols

When Roger Federer stepped onto Wimbledon’s Center Court in July for the tennis tournament’s 100th anniversary ceremony, he sported not a new racket but a new watch — the 40-millimeter Rolex Perpetual Oyster Cosmograph Daytona “Orange,” priced at $75,150.

With 36 trapeze-cut cognac sapphires on the bezel and 11 of the baguette-cut gems as hour markers, the watch added Mr. Federer to a bandwagon on the run: men who wear watches adorned with precious stones, a trend that has fit smoothly into an age where gender fluidity has become ubiquitous.

Fashion brands from Balenciaga to the Swedish streetwear brand Hope have filled their collections with similar items for men and women. Elaborate neckpieces were part of masculine haute-couture looks for fall 2022 from Dolce & Gabbana and Jean Paul Gaultier x Olivier Rousteing. Everyone, regardless of gender, has been invited to buy handbags from Joseph Duclos and Moynat. And watch brands, including Audemars Piguet, Chopard and Zenith, no longer distinguish their collections by men’s or women’s watches, but by case size.

“The watch industry is following the fashion and jewelry industry at a slower pace,” Patrick Graf, chief commercial officer for Bucherer Group, with 33 watch boutiques in the United States and 36 in Europe, wrote in an email. “But the U.S. is definitely trendsetting when it comes to an increasing number of men buying and wearing precious stone watches.

“However Europe is catching up, and after Federer’s Wimbledon appearance, the demand is increasing even further,” he added. “Social media also helps a lot in convincing men that there is nothing wrong with wearing nice jewelry or a watch with gemstones.”

Mr. Graf acknowledged that gemstone-set watches are a small percentage of the total number of timepieces sold worldwide. “However, our revenue with gemstone watches is increasing year by year in the high double digits. We are just at the beginning,” he wrote.

Nathalie Marielloni is the vice curator at the International Horology Museum in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. She said one of the earliest references to what we now think of as a wristwatch was “a clocke” on an armlet studded with diamonds and pearls, described in “The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth” (John Nichols, 1823) as a 1571 New Year’s gift to the queen from the Earl of Leicester.

In the same century, pocket watches with precious and semiprecious stones were made for men in Geneva, an unexpected result of the 1558 Calvinist ban on ostentatious jewelry and clothing in the area. The ban exempted mechanical objects, so watches became a way for jewelers and other artisans to express themselves with gemstones or specialty techniques like engraving and enameling. (The ban was enforced for about 200 years but, curiously, was never formally rescinded.)

In the late-18th and early-19th centuries, Ms. Marielloni said, the maharajahs and other noblemen of India had gem-set pocket watches made for them, a trend that picked up in the Islamic world. “A very beautiful example from Patek Philippe is an 1882 pocket watch with a diamond-set inscription from the Quran,” she said, noting it sold at Sotheby’s in 2011 for 41,180 pounds (the equivalent of $48,695 today).

Continuous production of gem-set wristwatches for a male audience would not occur until the middle of the 20th century, when they increasingly gained popularity in the Middle East, Ms. Marielloni said. Europe and the United States did not follow until the late-20th century and early 2000s — with help from an unexpected source.

“This is when these big, key rappers started wearing gem-set watches; it became a status symbol,” she said.

Personally, Ms. Marielloni noted, she prefers to wear men’s vintage watches. “Some women wear big watches, and some men wear smaller, discreet and elegant watches,” she said. “I think the new generation of collectors — people in their 20s — are even more versatile between genders, and this is slowly changing the watch industry.”

Emmanuel Gueit, a freelance watch designer who has worked with brands like Piaget, Tiffany & Company, Rolex and Graff, said, “When I started my career in 1986 at Audemars Piguet, I designed the first Royal Oak with baguette-cut diamonds on the entire watch. Such pieces were really popular for the Asian market, especially Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

“Around the year 2000, the demand fizzled somewhat, but now it is coming back very strong with a global acceptance and appreciation,” said Mr. Gueit, who designed the Royal Oak Offshore in 1993, which would become a frequent horological canvas for gemstones used by other designers. In July, for example, the Royal Oak Offshore Selfwinding Music Edition (in 37 or 43 millimeters, price on request) was introduced by Audemars Piguet, with gemstones invisibly set on both the blue aventurine dial and the surrounding bezel.

Ms. Marielloni, who holds a gemology degree, stressed that current designs would not have been developed without recent advances in gem-setting and cutting techniques.

“On older watches, the stones were mainly decorated with more irregular Asian-cut or rose-cut stones — totally incompatible with today’s symmetrical standards,” she said. “In order to arrange gemstones on a watch case, you must be a very good cutter and setter. If you are not good at what you do, you can really ruin a lot of stones and gold.”

A favorite diamond reference of hers: a one-of-a-kind 31-millimeter triangular watch made by Patek Philippe in 1991. The crystal over the dial was a 13.43-carat flat and transparent portrait-cut diamond, which Christie’s said was the third-largest known portrait-cut diamond. The auction house sold the watch for 3.48 million Hong Kong dollars ($4.89 million) in late 2016.

The complexity of such settings is why brands turn to companies like Gil Sertissage, one of the most important suppliers of diamonds and diamond settings in the watch industry. The company, based in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, works with many high-end brands (nondisclosure agreements bar it from identifying them) and holds several patents for settings in carbon, ceramic, sapphire and mother-of-pearl.

Jonatan and Alexandre Gil run the company, founded by their grandfather. “With settings, men’s watches tend to be more technical, more straight-lined, with a somewhat more aggressive design,” Jonatan Gil said. “For example, they use baguette-cut stones set with an invisible technique where you don’t see the metal holding the stone.

“Round diamonds with four prongs holding each brilliant-cut white stone are, however, on top of the list of what our clients want,” he added. “But in the last three or four years, colored stones, especially sapphires, are making a strong comeback.”

Mr. Gil said he sees a connection between gem-set watches and geopolitical events. “During the period of Covid and now with the uncertainties in wake of the war, we see more people investing in gemstone watches, as they find safety in their inherent value,” he said.

He also noted that while diamond prices have fluctuated, the price of the good quality melee diamonds — the industry term for gems of less than two-tenths of a carat, and the type of stones used most often by the watch industry — have gone up 25 percent since December 2021.

In June the New York City-based watch and jewelry brand Jacob & Co. presented a new iteration of the 49-millimeter Opera Godfather Musical Watch ($1 million), a timepiece with a tourbillon escapement and a musical function that plays 120 notes of the theme song from “The Godfather,” which is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

“There is a lot of new money around from crypto and successful entrepreneurs, and wearing something loud on your wrist is one way to show what you have achieved,” Benjamin Arabov, the company’s chief executive, said about the timepiece, which is set with 1,024 diamonds.

But Mr. Arabov noted that anyone can be successful: “We are not focused on gender but rather on what the customer fits in their wardrobe and creativity.”

Gender-fluid self-expression is nothing new, as evidenced by, among many other examples in history, the Hijras of India (with a recorded history spanning 4,000 years), Native American cultures that talk about two spirits, the peacock men of the Elizabethan era, the popularly pared-down 1920s styles of Coco Chanel, and the traditionally feminine fabrics and cuts used in the 1960s and 1970s by musical iconoclasts like David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix and Mick Jagger.

Maja Gunn, a professor of crafts with a focus on textiles at the Swedish arts university Konstfack, finds current trends exhilarating. “In my opinion, we are living in the most exciting times,” she said. “Now, the mainstream is less afraid of this crossing of traditional gender borders, and I believe this is influencing the rising popularity of watches with gemstones as well.”

Yet fashion designers still face one problem: Our bodies, regardless of gender identifications, are different. That requires several versions of similar items. “With watches, it is easier,” Dr. Gunn said. “It really makes sense to present one watch for all. Of course, you also increase your target group by doing that. And the watches with rainbow-colored gemstones are great to match with the rest of your outfit.”

Rolex led the way with rainbow-colored sapphires circling the bezels in the 1980s on models in the Day-Date and Cellini collections. In 2021 Hublot released no fewer than 11 rainbow creations — both in the round Big Bang and the cushion-shape Spirit of Big Bang collections (from $60,000 to $790,000).

This year, the H. Moser & Cie Bucherer Blue, a monochrome blue sapphire wristwatch that was a collaboration between the Moser watch brand of Schaffhausen, Switzerland, and the Swiss brand Bucherer, is to be available on Sept. 22 ($119,900).

Another introduction this year was the TAG Heuer Carrera Plasma, adorned with lab-grown diamonds, on the 44-millimeter case and dial ($358,550). “These shapes and the single-diamond crown would not be possible with natural stones,” said Carole Forestier-Kasapi, TAG Heuer’s movement director, “and there is also potential for using lab-grown diamonds in a more technical way inside the movements.”

Ms. Marielloni of the horology museum said that while jeweled watches once were reserved for royalty, that “changed drastically in the end of the 19th century thanks to the riches of the modern-day industrialization.”

“And now, through social media, anybody can almost touch these products — you can almost have access to these incredibly expensive timepieces,” she said. “Today, everybody is allowed to dream.”

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