The pendant watch has its roots in the 17th century — and has sparked several waves of popularity over the years, including the belle époque of the 19th century, the Art Nouveau period of the early 20th century and the 1970s.
Now the style is back, with luxury watchmakers from Jaeger-LeCoultre to Chanel introducing designs inspired by history but with contemporary panache.
“If you look back to the beginning of portable timepieces,” said Paul Boutros, deputy chairman and head of watches for the Americas at Phillips auction house in New York City, “the pendant watch really began as a matter of convenience, a way to transport a watch in a way that looked like jewelry and made a statement.”
In that period, watches were all handmade and very costly — so it was wealthy men who devised ways of attaching their timepieces to chains or lengths of ribbon so they could be worn around the neck or hung from a belt for all to see.
By the 19th century, women had watches and began attaching them to long swaying necklaces, called sautoirs in French, which often were embellished with diamonds and other gemstones.
Then, “in the 1960s and especially the ’70s,” Mr. Boutros said, watchmaking brands that also made jewelry introduced some elaborate pendant watches. For example, in 1971 Piaget made a sautoir watch with a tiger’s-eye dial and beads on a gold chain that sold in 2015 for 23,750 Swiss francs (now the equivalent of $26,515) at a Phillips auction.
“Sautoirs bring together Piaget’s mastery of ultrathin watch movements and expertise in gold craftsmanship,” Jean-Bernard Forot, head of patrimony for Piaget, said during a phone interview from the company’s headquarters in Plan-les-Ouates, just outside Geneva. “This is shown in the creation of the pendants in the ’60s during an amazing period of creativity. We called these long pieces ‘Swinging Sautoirs’ and they became the perfect emblem for the beautiful jet-set society of the time who kept asking for more.”
At the 2023 Watches & Wonders Geneva, the brand unveiled three one-of-a-kind Piaget Sautoir watches (prices on application) as well as updates of some of its most evocative designs from the past.
One Piaget Sautoir is a twisted double-strand 18-karat gold chain, which took 130 hours to make, featuring a 25.38-carat oval cabochon-cut Zambian emerald and an oval 18-karat yellow-gold quartz watch with a malachite dial and a bezel set with diamonds and emeralds.
The second was embellished with turquoise and the third, a particular challenge to the artisans, was an 18-karat braided gold chain with 6.41 carats of diamonds. According to Mr. Forot, it took seven months to make the third Sautoir because the brand “had lost the technique from the ’60s. They patiently found the techniques again, threading the gold by hand into these tiny chains and adding the modern eye on it to make it even more perfect.”
More often than not, a modern pendant watch is also a secret watch, the industry’s term for timepieces with covers that can be moved aside to reveal the time. The style allows the dial cover to be decorated with diamonds and other gems, engraving, marquetry or other artistic embellishments to heighten the sense that the piece is true jewelry, as well as a watch.
This year, Chanel, Van Cleef & Arpels, Bulgari and Jaeger-LeCoultre all introduced sautoir necklaces with hidden dials.
Chanel’s Mademoiselle Privé Lion collection, which debuted at Watches and Wonders Geneva, includes an 18-karat yellow-gold pendant watch with a black lacquer dial, covered with the diamond-set face of a lion on a black background that can be swiveled aside to reveal the time. The quartz watch is accented with 336 diamonds totaling 7.90 carats and hangs on a necklace of black onyx, gold beads and diamonds. Only 20 will be made (price on application).
“A sautoir that secretly tells the time,” Arnaud Chastaingt, director of Chanel’s Watchmaking Creation Studio, wrote in an email, “means a lot of inventiveness to integrate a caliber, to dissimulate the dial, to work the hinges.”
The lion motif was chosen, the brand said, because Leo was its founder’s astrological sign. “Gabrielle Chanel’s personal universe remains endlessly a source of true inspiration to me,” Mr. Chastaingt wrote. “I love the idea of this lion’s face, dear to Mademoiselle Chanel, beautifully and secretly keeping the time.”
Also at Watches and Wonders Geneva, Van Cleef & Arpels introduced six variations of sautoir secret watches in its Perlée collection. Each one has a 90-centimeter (35.4-inch) 18-karat gold chain that culminates in a 25-millimeter round secret watch with a mother-of-pearl dial surrounded by a diamond-studded gold bezel.
Three variations feature gem-set dial covers. Two, in 18-karat yellow gold, feature emeralds or sapphires; the third, in 18-karat rose gold, has rubies. The other three use cabochon-cut gemstone slabs to cover their dials: pale blue chalcedony with 18-karat white gold, rose quartz with 18-karat rose gold or blue sodalite with 18-karat yellow gold.
“At Van Cleef & Arpels, we see watches from a jeweler’s perspective and combine the reading of time with the notion of adornment,” Nicolas Bos, the house’s president and chief executive, wrote in an email. This gives rise to necklaces, brooches, bracelets and sometimes even rings fitted with a dial.”
Mr. Bos noted that the first Perlée pendant secret watches were introduced in 2019, but were inspired by the style’s 17th-century origins as well as the lapel watches and chatelaines (clusters of chains to hang keys and other household items) that Van Cleef & Arpels made in the past.
“Today,” he wrote, “these references give rise to delicate and unexpected interpretations with creations that allow for a playful vision of time, a time that is both personal and secret.”
Bulgari also tapped its history this year with its one-of-a-kind Secret Watch Necklace Cameo Imperiale, introduced in May during the house’s high jewelry event in Venice.
Inspired by the Monete Bulgari collections of the 1960s, which featured ancient Roman and Greek coins, the house had artisans in Torre del Greco, Italy, a traditional center of cameo carving, create a cameo portrait of Cleopatra. The image of the Egyptian queen then was surrounded with diamonds and pink and blue sapphires, creating a watch cover that resembles an elaborate coin.
The manual-wind watch contains an in-house Tourbillon Lumière BVL 208 caliber skeletonized movement, visible through its transparent sapphire crystal. The 56-millimeter case and the chain, both in 18-karat rose gold, are set with diamonds and rubies (price on application).
“Coins are symbols of evolution, they are an authentic and tangible part of our history, they are captivating as they come from so many centuries ago,” Fabrizio Buonamassa Stigliani, Bulgari’s product creation executive director, wrote in an email. “At Bulgari, we love playing with objects, approaching them differently and creating new ways of wearing jewelry and watches. This pendant watch is a fusion between a jewel and a timepiece.”
Jaeger-LeCoultre’s famed Reverso watch, first created in 1931, has the secret watch concept in its very design: a rectangular timepiece whose case can be pushed to one side, flipped and then pushed back into place to display the other side.
In the case of the Reverso Secret Necklace, a limited edition that debuted at Watches and Wonders Geneva, the case back is set with diamonds and onyx in a geometric floral motif while the dial side is rendered in rose gold, diamonds and black onyx. The rectangular watch is powered by the brand’s Calibre 846, an in-house 93-part manual-wind movement made for the Reverso line (price on application).
The 90-centimeter chain, created in 18-karat pink gold and set with diamonds and black onyx beads, was inspired by the twisted black cord sometimes used as the strap for women’s Reverso watches of the 1930s. Lariat-style diamond-set lugs hug the watch, which has two tassels accented with diamonds and elongated onyx drops.
In total, the brand said, more than 3,000 diamonds weighing a total of 18 carats were used on the Reverso Secret Necklace, and it requires more than 300 hours of gem-setting work.
“With a strong Reverso heritage, and historic pendant watch know-how, we see that there is still a strong market for exclusive watches that bring together the impressive worlds of high-watchmaking and high jewelry in one,” Catherine Rénier, the brand’s chief executive, said during an interview at Watches and Wonders Geneva. “The Reverso Secret Necklace has reopened a creative realm at Jaeger-LeCoultre, therefore we will continue to design and create more Reverso Secret Necklace expressions in the future.”