In the collecting community, we throw around the term “fashion watch” like a four-letter word. It’s not quite the same as a “mall watch,” which is generally taken to mean mass-market mediocrity whether it’s sold at a mall or not. “Fashion watches” are worse – mall watches with the added offense of being dreamed up by luxury fashion or jewelry brands – as if they have any sense of style or watchmaking.
A generation ago, fashion watches were the ones that spread then-new quartz technology around the world; nowadays, this design-first thinking can lead to some of the best mechanical watches around. And increasingly, a fashion-forward approach belies some serious watchmaking underneath. Open-minded collectors would do well to take these fashion watches seriously.
Fashion watches ascended after the 1970s Quartz Crisis, though they’d been around before that. Even today, I feel a sepia-toned saudade (a fancy Portuguese word with no direct translation that roughly translates to a bittersweet, nostalgic longing) for the days of a fashion house like Hermès stamping and selling a Universal Geneve chronograph, all the way back in 1940.
When Joe Thompson broke down the “four revolutions” that shaped the modern watch world as we know it, he called this fashion watch revolution of the 1980s the Second Revolution (quartz was the first). Starting in the ’80s, led by Swatch and then Fossil and Guess, a generation of watch brands shifted the focus from (not so) new quartz technology to a fresh, fashion-first aesthetic. No, you didn’t need to buy a quartz watch because of its electronic accuracy, you needed one simply because it looked cool. Oh, and you didn’t need one, you needed two or three or four. Swatch, after all, was a portmanteau of “second watch.” And with a new drop every season, often with hot contemporary artists like Kiki Picasso, there’d always be a new one for you to pick up.
Sure, Swatch started the fashion watch revolution with cheap plastic toys that sold for about 35 bucks, but soon, fashion and jewelry brands – ever quick to seize on or start a trend – recognized the opportunity and the fashion watch moved upmarket to mid-market luxury accessory like Louis Vuitton bags or Gucci loafers or tiny dogs that could be carried in purses. Traditional European houses of luxury and leather got involved: Chanel launched its first watch in 1987; Louis Vuitton in 1988; Fendi in 1989. Soon, fashion brands and jewelry houses alike got serious about watchmaking. While many got into watches the “easy” way – that is, licensing their name out so others could sling cheap quartz watches using their valuable mark – soon, they started pursuing their own mechanical watchmaking capabilities or developing deeper partnerships with well-known Swiss suppliers.
Chanel acquired a manufacturer in La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1993; Chopard introduced its L.U.C. collection in 1996; Cartier introduced its CPCP (Collection Privée Cartier Paris) in 1998; Hermes acquired a stake in Parmigiani Fleurier’s Vaucher movement manufacturer in 2006; that same year, Ralph Lauren entered a partnership with Richemont to develop high-end Swiss watches. In most cases, these efforts led – and in many cases, continue to lead – to some beautiful watches complemented by compelling watchmaking. Cartier, like Chopard, is a jeweler, not a fashion house, but one with a long history in watchmaking (indeed, Chopard founder Louis-Ulysse Chopard was a watchmaker). Still, it’s these diverse interests in jewelry and accessories besides watches that give it a perspective – not to mention a clientele – more like a fashion house than a manufacturer devoted solely to watches. For brands like Cartier, design comes first. And for a lot of their clients, watches are just jewelry that happen to tell time.Perhaps no watch better exemplifies what can happen when this design-first approach and pure Swiss watchmaking come together than the Cartier Tortue Monopoussoir from its CPCP. Introduced in the late ’90s, it features a movement from Techniques Horlogères Appliquées (THA) – the former watchmaking shop of François-Paul Journe, Vianney Halter, and Denis Flageollet – but the watch itself is pure Cartier, with a design based on its vintage Tortue (French for turtle) chronographs from the early 20th century, updated for the modern era.
Sure, the Tortue Monopoussoir featured a movement by some of the hottest indies of the day, but just as importantly, it just looked damn good – the white gold one with the blue print, specifically. You don’t need to understand the differences between column wheel and cam-and-lever chronographs (that comes later) to appreciate that this watch is just a beautiful object. But for those who do care to look under the turtle’s shell, there’s top-level watchmaking to be found too. And it’s a fashion watch.Why? Because fashion watches take good design as a first principle and then work backward from there to create something horologically significant. For Cartier, its designs – namely, its beautiful shaped watches – have always been its calling card. Like making a chronograph or even a perpetual calendar, good design is a craft. Design can be a complication. And who knows design better than, well, designers? Fashion and jewelry designers make beautiful products for a living, at enormous scale. It’s a little provincial to assume that watches are beyond their capabilities. And let’s be honest, sometimes modern watch design is a little lacking. I groan when I have to scan a QR code for a restaurant’s menu – do we really need all those new watches with QR codes on the dial? Take Hermès. Sure, it makes watches now, but it doesn’t make just watches. It makes bags and scarves and very expensive horse saddles (not that I’m judging; that horse probably thinks my watches are very expensive), so you can bet that when it makes a watch, it’s going to bring some of this inspiration – and a whole lot of equine knowledge – to whatever it makes.
When Hermes galloped onto the high-end watchmaking scene in 2011, it did so with Le Temps Suspendu, a complication that literally suspends its timekeeping with the press of a button. Seriously, what watch brand would think to build a complication like that? Stop doing the one thing your entire product, your entire business, is centered around? No way. But for Hermès, the timekeeping is secondary anyway, so there’s hardly a difference if you flip it off for a few minutes.
Nowadays, these fashion brands are investing more in watchmaking than ever before. Unlike those initial efforts a few decades ago, they’re not content with licensing out their name to produce a few cheap quartz tchotchkes. Instead, they’re putting actual technical know-how behind their fashion-famous marks. Over the past few years, Chanel, Hermès, Louis Vuitton, and Gucci have all invested serious money in watchmaking. In 2021, Gucci debuted its first line of fine watches – sure, they’re decked out in diamonds and bees, because, well, Gucci, but they also feature tourbillons and skeletonized movements, all assembled in La Chaux-de-Fonds.