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For many in the world of watchmaking, the phrase' fashion watch' carries a certain stigma. There is a perception that watches made by companies that aren't all about the timepiece are less credible and concerned more about the name on the dial than the substance of the design. Of course, there's a grain of truth to this, but in many ways, so-called fashion watches bring a sense of playfulness and wonder to an industry renowned for its seriousness.
This is interesting because, in many ways, the great fashion houses and the premier watch brands are cut from the same cloth. Hermès and Patek Philippe (for example) both speak the language of exclusivity and tradition and extol the virtues of craft and timeless design. A Hermès bag will last a lifetime, and as we all know, you never really own a Patek Philippe, merely hold it in perpetual trust for your descendants. It's certainly true that this is one reality of those brands — they create exceptional objects that are intended to always be relevant, never obsolete. At the same time, these makers are businesses with an imperative to innovate and iterate, offering a fresh assortment of prestigious delicacies with some regularity.
In some corners of the world of Haute Horlogerie, there is a discomfort with the inevitability of this cycle, the nature of which is seemingly at odds with the narrative of the unchanging and enduring object; especially when said makers offer a new dial variant every other month.
Makers more fluent in the language of fashion don't seem to be caught in the same existential trap. Fashion is — in essence — changing, seasonal, fleeting. Acknowledging this gives couturiers, no matter how haute, permission to change as they see fit, to chase or set the trends. This freedom from the sometimes rigid constraints of watchmaking tradition allows brands like Hermès, Chanel and Louis Vuitton, all relative newcomers to the space, to offer an alternative point of view.
Let's first look at Chanel, who first took to watchmaking in 1987 with the Première. It didn't take them long to see the benefits of investing in the space, purchasing La Chaux-de-Fonds-based manufacturer G&F Châtelain in 1993. The real breakthrough, though, came in 2000 with the launch of the J12, an under-acknowledged icon of modern watchmaking. While other brands pioneered the use of ceramic, Chanel popularised it. On top of that, while the dive watch aesthetics of the J12 are hardly unique, the fact that Chanel can play and disrupt with them so freely is compelling. Beyond the J12, Chanel's in-house watchmaking capacity has become a force to be reckoned with. In 2016, Chanel started developing their own in-house calibres, starting with the Calibre 1, made for the masculine Monsieur de Chanel. They followed that up with Calibre 2, a stunning skeleton movement made to resemble the Camélia, Coco Chanel's favourite flower. In the subsequent years, they'e released more calibres, developing new movements for specific cases, which is a particularly high-end approach to movement development. What Chanel is doing with their own watches is impressive enough, considering the fact that the brand owns stakes in Romain Gauthier and F.P. Journe
Louis Vuitton has also been making timepieces since the late 1980s and has recently been making a concerted push in the high watchmaking space. Of course, the LVMH group has a number of significant watch brands in its portfolio; Hublot, TAG Heuer, Zenith, and Bulgari are the big four, but Louis Vuitton's own watches are impressive. In 2011 the brand acquired La Fabrique Du Temps, a high-concept manufacture that today serves as the heart of the brand's haute horlogerie offerings, such as the GPHG-winning Tambour Memento Mori (with Anita Porchet enamelling) and the more recent Tambour Opera Automata. Behind these outre designs are Michel Navas and Enrico Barbasini, watchmakers with decades of experience working for Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, Gérald Genta and Franck Muller. The founders of La Fabrique Du Temps, Navas and Barbasini are amongst the most talented behind-the-scenes watchmakers working today. Expect to see a whole lot more of their work in coming years, as the Gérald Genta and Daniel Roth brands have been revived under Louis Vuitton's La Fabrique Du Temps name.
Hermès has been making watches for a little longer than its fashionable peers, with the oldest known being a bespoke piece from 1912, but its fair to say that watches like the Cape Cod and the Arceau really set the tone for Hermès contemporary watchmaking. However, the Slim d'Hermès really showed what the French label could achieve on the wrist. With an impressive calibre developed by Vaucher Fleurier (part-owned by Hermès) and minimalist custom font, this slender timepiece showed us that a simple dress watch could be effortlessly chic. However, it's the brand's impressive métiers d'art pieces that showcase what exquisite craft, creative freedom, and a fashionable sensibility can achieve. The fabulous — and often unique — scenes of animals and equestrians equal anything produced by an equivalent watchmaking house and manage to do it with a sense of humour and whimsy rarely found elsewhere.
These examples demonstrate that fashion houses — when they put their minds to it — are more than capable of creating best-in-class haute horlogerie and doing so with a style that adds a touch of spice to traditional Swiss watchmaking. The space, up until now has been dominated by big players in the fashion space, but with brands like Missoni and Elie Saab ramping up their own watchmaking efforts to get a slice of the action, wrists on the runway are set to become hot property.
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