Watches With a Sense of Place

Luxury watches have long been defined by their origins. The debate over what qualifies as “Swiss-made,” for example, is just one indication of how seriously watchmakers take their geography.

Recently, however, as provenance has become important to consumers, watchmakers also have begun to approach their craft with a much more granular appreciation for locale. The result has been a number of new timepieces featuring specific details that serve as visual, if subtle, guides to the places that their makers found meaningful.

From dials that depict the ridges of Japan’s Mt. Iwate to inset pieces of stone taken from one brand’s 14th-century Swiss castle, the design elements are as distinct as the companies themselves.

And collectively, the timepieces reflect a growing awareness among watch lovers that a sense of place is as important in watchmaking as it is in viticulture. There, the concept of terroir, a French term that refers to the environment in which is a wine has been produced, is generally understood to affect not only a wine’s taste and price, but also its ability to trigger an emotional reaction.

“With great wines, because of the smell and taste, it will transfer you to 40 years before, when you’re with your grandfather and he teaches you about wines,” Christophe Bourrie, director of global high jewelry and exceptional creations at Piaget, said on a recent video call. “And watches are a bit the same.”

Below are five recent examples of how watchmakers have infused their timepieces with details about places around Switzerland and beyond.

Laurent Lecamp, the managing director of Montblanc’s watch division, loves ice. (Proof: He ran an ice marathon across frozen Lake Baikal in Siberia — twice.)

In March 2021, three months after joining the German luxury goods company named for the highest peak in the Alps, Mr. Lecamp had an idea. Inspired by the brand’s logo, a stylized rendition of the mountain surrounded by six glacial valleys, he paid a visit to the Mer de Glace (in English, Sea of Ice), the largest of the Mont Blanc glaciers, near the French ski resort Chamonix.

“I spent one day touching the ice, and was thinking about Baikal,” he said on a recent video call. “I took a picture of the ‘Sea of Ice’ glacier and went to a supplier in Switzerland and asked him to create the first glacial dial.”

Mr. Lecamp said he wanted to capture the texture, luminosity and interlocking network of crystals in the glacial ice for a new range of dive watches. Working with the supplier, which Montblanc would not name for competitive reasons, the businesses revived a traditional technique called gratté boisé, which involves brushing, by hand, a paste made of cream of tartar over brass dials before moving on to the lacquering stage. (The dial-making process, a total of 30 steps, takes a month to complete and includes a secret step to achieve the illusion of looking into a glacier, according to Mr. Lecamp.)

The result, the 1858 Iced Sea Automatic Date ($3,190), was introduced at the Watches and Wonders fair in Geneva in March in a choice of three dial colors — blue, green and black — that correspond to different colors of glacial ice. (Mr. Lecamp was wearing the blue version during the call.)

“Montblanc never used this glacier concept, but for me, it was clear,” Mr. Lecamp said. “It’s our story.”

To mark its 200th anniversary this fall, the Swiss watchmaker Bovet 1822 plans to produce a limited edition Monsieur Bovet timepiece that incorporates a piece of limestone from its headquarters, a 14th-century castle in the Val de Travers region of western Switzerland.

“A luxury house has to have an address, and for us, this is the Château de Môtiers, just above Fleurier, where the brand was founded in 1822,” Pascal Raffy, the brand’s owner, wrote in an email.

In 1818 Édouard Bovet, the company’s founder, traveled to London and then China. After establishing some trading partners in the southern port city of Guangzhou, he returned to Switzerland and established the watch company. To honor that history, “we have fashioned a beautiful dial made from actual stone of the castle,” Mr. Raffy wrote. “On the other side, there is artwork (engraving and miniature painting) illustrating the voyage Édouard Bovet made from Fleurier to London and then on to Guangzhou.”

The anniversary model, priced at 160,000 Swiss francs, or what would be the equivalent of $162,250, will be limited to 22 pieces: 11 in 18-karat red gold and 11 in 18-karat white gold.

Few watchmakers honor their physical locations quite like Grand Seiko. In collection after collection, the Japanese brand’s design team has captured the natural environment surrounding its two primary facilities, both on Honshu, Japan’s main island.

The first site is the Grand Seiko mechanical movement production facility in Shizukuishi, in the mountains of Iwate Prefecture on the island’s northeast coast. The second is its Shinshu Watch Studio in central Nagano Prefecture, where the company manufactures timepieces that use its Spring Drive technology.

“Grand Seiko has always been influenced by Japan’s landscape in some fashion,” Brice Le Troadec, president of the Grand Seiko Corporation of America, wrote in an email. “While there were some amazing dials from the ’70s that may have been influenced by nature, the first proclaimed, nature-inspired dial appeared in a limited edition Spring Drive from 2005. It had a pattern of fir trees and was influenced by the local ‘onbashira matsuri’ festival,” during which local people carry fir trees to the Suwa Shrine.

Today, the Grand Seiko collection has many references to Japan’s natural terrain, including more than a dozen variations of the brand’s Mt. Iwate dial, a celebration of the ridged contours of the mountain that is visible from the brand’s Shizukuishi studio.

The dials are “made by press patterning,” Mr. Le Troadec wrote. “Basically, using a mold, which is carved to create the pattern, and then is pressed onto the brass dial base.”

A Spring Drive GMT watch that debuted at the Watches and Wonders fair in Geneva in March featured a light gray dial with an intricately textured pattern evoking the morning mist that often settles on the Nagano region in winter. Additionally, a dressy timepiece known as SBGK015, introduced in June as a limited edition, had a dial that mimicked the vivid blue and green hues of the water in the underground lakes of Ryusendo Cave, a popular attraction in eastern Iwate Prefecture.

For collectors, the dials “serve as a connection to our craftspeople, who inhabit these places and see them on a daily basis,” Mr. Le Troadec wrote.

Vacheron Constantin has a long history of producing timepieces featuring maps, created by an artistic use of enamel, that pay homage to the watchmaker’s markets. In 1824, for example, the company created a pocket watch whose caseback depicted a map of Europe centered on Italy, where it was particularly popular at the time. And in 1994, the brand rolled out a series of watches dedicated to the 16th-century cartographer Gerardus Mercator; in response, the company received requests from various markets, including Taiwan, for watches featuring maps of their locations, and created limited editions expressly for those markets.

Today, that tradition lives on in Vacheron Constantin’s Métiers d’Art collection (prices on application), introduced in 2005 as a platform for the brand’s artistic flights of fancy.

“Métiers d’Art is a kind of alternative playground for us,” Christian Selmoni, the brand’s style and heritage director, said on a recent video call. “Very often we take this opportunity to showcase our interest in other cultures or sites outside Europe.”

The latest additions to the Métiers d’Art range are four Tribute to Great Civilizations wristwatches based on artworks and objects in the collection of the Louvre Museum in Paris, a partner to Vacheron Constantin since 2019. The watches incorporate a range of techniques — including stone marquetry, gold engraving and micromosaic and enamel work — designed to celebrate the ancient cultures of Persia, Greece, Rome and Egypt.

With a population of about 500 people, La Côte-aux-Fées is a village in the Swiss canton of Neuchâtel, small even by the standards of this remote region in the Jura Mountains.

Located about an hour’s drive north of Lausanne, the village, home to Piaget since the brand’s founding in 1874, is where watchmakers have labored to produce some of the world’s thinnest mechanical watches. And in 2017, they succeeded in breaking the world record with the introduction of the Altiplano Ultimate Concept, measuring 2 millimeters thick. (The record now is held by Richard Mille, which introduced a 1.75 millimeter-thick watch in July.)

To honor the exact moment — Feb. 7, 2017 at 7:47 a.m., local time — that the experimental watch began keeping time, in March Piaget introduced the Altiplano Ultimate Concept Constellation at the Watches and Wonders fair in Geneva. Engraved onto the ratchet wheel was the factory’s GPS coordinates and the name La Côte-aux-Fées, and the background of the dial was awash in stars, illuminated with Super-LumiNova, to replicate the sky above the village at the exact date and time that the concept piece began to operate.

The watchmakers based in La Côte-aux-Fées made the record-breaking watch possible, so creating a timepiece that celebrated their work “was a tribute to them and to the brand,” said Mr. Bourrie, of Piaget.

The brand is now at work on a bespoke version for a client in New York, who ordered an Altiplano Constellation watch with the stars in position on a date that holds meaning for him.

“Obviously those watches are very expensive so it’s not becoming a fashion, but it is something we will do,” Mr. Bourrie said, noting that the Constellation watch retails for $451,000. “Tell me where you were on the best day and best hour of your life and I’ll make a watch that will trigger an emotion. You’ll have your whole life story behind it.”

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