A quiet revolution has been taking place in the watch world, despite the subject being that which often dazzles. It has taken some time, but women have changed their attitude toward the technical aspects of fine watches, and it has forced the jewellery houses to up their game. Mere bijouterie will no longer suffice, no matter what the gem count.
Great watch houses have always addressed women with fine timepieces, but the quartz revolution drove the mechanical movement into secondary status. Women, not being geeks like their spear counterparts, bought watches for different reasons, mainly aesthetic, and the movement simply didn’t concern them. Mesdames Toynbee, Harman, et al, please note: it has nothing to do with sexism. It’s merely the birds and the bees. Women have uncontrollable urges around shoes; men can’t control themselves around gadgets.
Thus, for decades, women would be perfectly happy with just a watch or two, one dressy, one everyday, while men would collect them in quantity. What happened, though, was a cynical move in which certain jewellery houses would offer gem-drenched watches with price tags nudging six-figures, but bearing quartz movements with wholesale prices anywhere between £3 and £300. The great houses would make their own, superior quartz movements, but they were still battery-operated bits of disposable electronics even less complex than the timekeeper in a mobile phone.
Leading up to the current revolution was a curious trend in which the fashionable ladies of Paris and Portofino, Milan and Manhattan were borrowing their partners’ full-sized Rolexes, Panerais, Hublots. They abandoned teensy, fingernail-sized watches best suited to a dowager in a 1920s costume drama than a modern woman. Sizes grew closer between the sexes. What was once the median size of man’s watch, at 32-34mm, is now the ladies’ minimum.
It took a while, but the watch companies realised that women’s tastes had changed in the post-feminist era. High achievers, with their own disposable incomes, modern women have been freed to assert themselves, and they read the same lifestyle magazines as men. Retailers soon learned that women knew and cared more about watches than was previously believed. The gems may still matter, but so do the movements.
Part of the transition was learning that there is a massive difference between a jewellery brand that happens to make watches, and a proper watch specialist that happens to add gems to a fine timepiece. For absolute assurance that the pedigree of a watch is commensurate with its price, the client – female or male – is always most secure with a manufacturer with longevity.
Audemars Piguet is not an arriviste among watchmakers, nor among those now addressing women’s watches. One of the premier brands for nearly a century-and-a-half, it is part of the blue-chip triumvirate that also includes Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin, three houses that have dominated haute horlogerie in the way that Ferrari, Lamborghini and Aston-Martin own the supercar sector.
Audemars Piguet’s archives tell of treasures including minute complications that were integrated into women’s watches at a very early stage. As a Swiss manufacture still in the hands of the founding families and still located in Le Brassus, Audemars Piguet is undeniably watchmaking nobility.
Having embraced the advent of distaff watch connoisseurs, Audemars Piguet has added new mechanical models to its ladies’ selection, but they have had mechanical ladies watches for decades. They long ago ‘feminised’ the Royal Oak, and this year introduced an ultra-thin model in the cognoscenti’s Jules Audemars line, without a shred of compromise to the horological purity.
The new Royal Oak Offshore Ladycat Chronograph is intended – as has the range been since its inception – for sporty clients, but with a dual nature: it can go from pool or golf course to formal soiree without missing a beat. Bearing the colours of the racing catamaran sponsored by Audemars Piguet, it is offered in steel and white gold versions, respectively issued in 150-piece and 10-piece limited editions.
Their dials are eye-catching, inspired by the new boat colours: black, gold, and green, with the latter featured on the subdial hand. The back features the Ladycat logo, celebrating the only boat in this sailing category with a woman at the helm. For the white gold version of the Royal Oak Offshore Ladycat, with black mother-of-pearl dial counters, the bezel, case and folding clasp are set with a total of 323 diamonds.
Crucially, the 37mm cases house mechanical self-winding Calibre 2385 movements, with chronograph functions including the measuring of intervals up to a 12-hour period. The manufacture movement has a 40-hour power reserve, and is water-resistant to 5 bars. The Ladycat Chronograph clearly establishes its place as a descendent of a genre-defining sport watch with a pedigree going back 40 years.
Strictly for on-shore duty is the classically-styled Extra-Thin Jules Audemars, which could cause of a 180-degree turn of the earlier horological role reversal: at a generous 41mm in diameter, men might be tempted to borrow it. An understated pink gold case is accented with a slim bezel set with 95 brilliant-cut diamonds.
Audemars Piguet enhanced the guilloché silver-toned dial with facetted hour-markers including a gem set at 12 o’clock. Minimalism counters the dimensions, to the extent that the watch only uses two hands, with no seconds hand to complicate the look. Power comes courtesy of the extra-thin self-winding Calibre 2120, visible through the transparent case-back. This allows the wearer to examine the 22k solid gold oscillating weight. Only 2.45mm thick, and composed of 212 parts, the movement operates at an uncommon 19,800 vibrations per hour. It is the sort of movement any connoisseur would covet, regardless of gender.
Clearly, quartz hasn’t had its day, and it will always outsell mechanical, and on an exponential scale. It’s easy to forget that mechanical watches, despite the enormous growth, are sales-wise to quartz what Wagyu beef is to a Big Mac. But those timepieces at the pinnacle of watchmaking tick with lever and gear and spring, and the most fastidious women are, at last, becoming gearheads who appreciate them.
(Your London, 2013)