Rebecca Ross, Associate Specialist in Watches at Christie’s in New York, looks at the history of women’s watches while identifying the most sought-after pieces on collectors’ radars
A brief history of women's watches
The wristwatch has undoubtedly become a statement item for the modern man, but, believe it or not, it was women who first made the statement. Dating all the way back to the 16th century, wristwatches were seen as a feminine pursuit. While men proudly sported pocket watches, it was women who were the first to wear watches on their wrists, primarily in the form of jewellery. Although certainly admirable for their elegant and artistic exterior, their function was not of much consequence.
In the 19th century, many manufacturers such as Vacheron Constantin and IWC were producing lavishly decorated bracelet watches for women, adorned with jewels set in elaborate case designs. A slightly later example would be a 1950s platinum Rolex bracelet watch that we offered in New York in 2014, set with approximately 135 marquise, circular and baguette-cut diamonds, but with a concealed and barely-there dial.
Recently, fine jewellery has met fine watchmaking in a collaboration welcomed by many manufacturers. More watches embraced by women now possess both aesthetic qualities as well as inner magic, offering beauty and brains, and the result is so much more enjoyable.
Some iconic ladies’ watches that merge form and function are the Cartier Crash, the Patek Philippe Twenty-4 and the Rolex Datejust, but technically speaking even these models go only as far as time-only, or feature a simple date wheel. Introduced in the mid- to late-20th century, they are still in high demand as attractive and useful timepieces, not to mention for their importance in horology and the histories of the brands.
But recently we have seen a major shift in female collectors’ wish lists to include larger and more complicated watches — watches that are not made distinctively for a woman. Historically, most watches that were designed specifically for women were smaller, diamond-set, with elaborate gems or perhaps attached to a brooch or necklace. However, as times change, we are beginning to see a crossover in design.
Men’s watches, including the vintage military look, are appealing, certainly with the larger dial formats with more features, and undoubtedly have a unisex aesthetic. Even more apparent, however, is that women need a watch to keep up with their busy lives, a timepiece that is highly functional, robust, and can multitask — many of the same needs that are included in the engineering of a man’s watch.
Nowadays, we are seeing that the options for women are growing rapidly. Manufacturers are recognising the demand for function but with a slightly more feminine aesthetic. Therefore, more and more brands are introducing such models with increased complications featuring lighter colours, more variation in materials or a smaller size to the male counterpart.
Secondly, we are seeing women adopting men’s watches as their own, despite their original intention. The RM007 features the 18k gold rotor with micro-ball compartment, which enables efficient rewinding of the mainspring. At 45mm overall length, it is available with various complications, materials and different colours, with skeletonized dials and diamond-set bezels: in fact, pretty much anything a woman could ask for.
Initially iconic for men, and now iconic for women, the Daytona is a timeless model. Labelled the ‘Daytona Beach’, possibly because of its playful looks, in 2002 this model became available in four colours: green, blue, pink and yellow. The dials were made either of chrysoprase (the blue and the green versions), or mother-of-pearl (the yellow and the pink versions), and the watches came with lizard straps matching the dial colour. An instant classic, the Daytona Beach is one of the most collectible of modern watches.
The future of women’s watch collecting
Watches have become more than just an accessory. They hold meaning, often offer a story, and allow the wearer a connection with the past. Women have the luxury of choosing a dress watch for the evening, a Rolex GMT to travel, or a vintage Omega Speedmaster on the weekend.
Vintage watches are a great way to create style without being flashy. Not only can women decide whether to make a statement or not, but they can also collect a wide range of watches to invest in. In fact, investments for women in watches is bigger than ever.
One has the option of collecting Tiffany & Co. pendant watches from the late 1800s, Art Deco Cartier Tank wristwatches from 1919, or even Patek Philippe coin watches from the 1950s onwards. I believe the future for women’s collecting is not so much about what society thinks is right, but what is right for the individual. The collecting community has become all-inclusive.
There really is something out there to suit everyone’s tastes and desires, and that is something that is undoubtedly set to continue.
A longer version of this article was published in the Spring 2017 edition of Revolution magazine