In the Edwardian era, when the rich congregated to flirt and flaunt themselves over drinks before dinner, men could proudly wear their pocket watches, but it was considered vulgar for women to fret about the time. Women therefore kept watches hidden beneath diamond-encrusted pendants and brooches. That’s how the cocktail watch was born.
The first world war saw women enter the workforce and, as their confidence grew, the cocktail watch shed its disguise. In 1919 Cartier created a bejewelled panther timepiece worn by determined women like Barbara Hutton, the Woolworth heiress, and Wallis Simpson, who later married Edward VIII after his abdication. By the 1960s, ultra-thin mechanical movements allowed Piaget to design stylised cuff watches with lapis-lazuli dials and fine gold bands. The 1970s saw the first quartz, battery-powered watches flood the market; cheaper, more disposable models pushed the cocktail watch out of the limelight for a time.
Today cocktail watches have re-emerged as larger and slightly more masculine accoutrements. Women want quality craftsmanship as well as serious machinery. Corum’s Miss Golden Bridge flexes its mechanical muscle without even a diamond in sight. The case is tonneau-shaped sapphire crystal and inside sits a gleaming engine amid acres of empty space. It redefines what a feminine watch might look like.
Size counts too. The conventional dial diameter of 15mm to 25mm has now increased to 30mm and beyond. Patek Philippe’s new Diamond Ribbon Joaillerie is 33.3mm – it houses a spiralling vortex of 587 diamonds, 12 ruby hour-markers and a moon-phase display. This new mid-size timepiece appeals to both sexes, especially in Asia and the Middle East where men often wear smaller, gem-set watches.
Watches that display their movements’ workings are also popular. Cartier pioneered the Crash, a contorted gold watch conceived in 1967. Legend has it that the Dali-esque dial was inspired by a mangled Cartier watch from the Baignoire collection. A client brought it in for repair following an automobile pile-up and it spawned an entirely new line. Queen Elizabeth is rumoured to wear a diamond-set Jaeger-LeCoultre 101 with a tiny square dial. At least some people are still dressing for drinks in traditional style.