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What’s the deal with ‘secret’ watches? Why all the mystery?

Not to be confused with jewellery watches, secret watches are statement pieces that go the extra step to conceal their time-telling components under complex and luxurious designs. Here is what makes them so desirable.

What’s the deal with ‘secret’ watches? Why all the mystery?

Van Cleef & Arpels' stable of secret watches includes the Dahlia Secret High Jewellery watch, the Secret de Coccinelle, and the Ludo secret watch. (Photos: Van Cleef & Arpels; Art: Jasper Loh)

People from the 19th century were a pretty judgmental lot. Women especially, were subject to a laundry list of patently ridiculous rules of etiquette, from having to walk slowly in public to never speaking of art or music to someone who was uninformed of either.

But there is one no-no that we in the 21st century might still be able to agree on – and that is to avoid checking the time while enjoying the company of others. Since wearing a timepiece to a gathering was far more gauche then than it is now, watchmakers and jewellers came up with a charming solution: Secret watches.

Tiny dials were cleverly hidden within generously bejewelled necklaces, bracelets, brooches, and rings, and could be revealed by the wearer via a disguised mechanism that would pop open an embellished covering. These glittering remnants of history have made the transition into the present day quite effortlessly, often appearing (or not!) in high jewellery collections.

The secret watches capable of exciting today’s beau monde boast poetry, timelessness and technical complexity, and Van Cleef & Arpels is one of a handful of jewellers that has mastered all three.
 

In the Tristant & Iseult, vine leaves and rose bushes inspire this romantically hued bracelet. (Photo: Van Cleef & Arpels; Art: Jasper Loh)

Those who managed to explore A Journey Through the Poetry of Time – an exhibition of the brand’s most dream-like creations, showcased at MBS in February – will know now just how well Van Cleef & Arpels can tell a visual love story. The Aida and Radames secret watch, named for the Egyptian commander who falls for the Ethiopian princess Aida, uses mirror-polished gold segments to recreate the sand dunes around the Nile and blue sapphires for the river. The bracelet is then crowned with a 5.93-carat Madagascan sapphire assembled like a lotus and ringed by more stones and diamonds. From under the lotus, out slides a watch face adorned with lapis lazuli and turquoise marquetry in a fish motif.

In the Tristant & Iseult, vine leaves and rose bushes inspire this romantically hued bracelet. Blossoming from the centre is a 5.59-carat cushion-cut sapphire rose, to represent Isolde resting on a bed of diamond leaves. Tristan is symbolised by a 1.13-carat pear-shaped diamond just below her, set with blue and pink sapphire leaves. Raising the centre will reveal a dial that has been inscribed with the words “Ni vous sans moi ni moi sans vous” – “Neither you without me, nor me without you.”

Van Cleef & Arpels first unveiled its Ludo bracelet in 1934, distinguished by honeycomb or brick motifs woven together with mesh. In 2020, a quintet of Ludo secret watches debuted with an updated design. (Photo: Van Cleef & Arpels; Art: Jasper Loh)

Such treasures are usually original and one-of-a-kind, but adding a secret watch also lends a bit of excitement to familiar, iconic designs. Van Cleef & Arpels first unveiled its now-famous Ludo bracelet in 1934, its flexible design an ode to the fabrics of haute couture and distinguished by honeycomb or brick motifs woven together with mesh.

In 2020, a quintet of Ludo secret watches debuted with an updated design. Three were crafted from 18K yellow gold highlighted with coral, lapis lazuli or chrysoprase, while two unique pieces came in white gold set with sapphires, and rose gold set with rubies. But all feature hexagon-shaped links that have been meticulously adjusted by hand for a seamless finish and a belt-like outline. What’s more, the watch faces can be detached and worn on a long chain as a pendant, or as a clip. The watch can then be replaced by a hexagonal mesh buckle set with precious stones on the bracelet.

The Pompon Margaret allows the wearer to remove the secret watch (located inside the necklace’s centrepiece) and the tassel below it to vary the length of the necklace. (Photo: Van Cleef & Arpels; Art: Jasper Loh)

This transformability is one of the reasons Van Cleef & Arpel’s secret watches are some of the most desired in the world. The Pompon Margaret for instance, allows the wearer to remove the secret watch (located inside the necklace’s centrepiece) and the tassel below it to vary the length of the necklace.

To shorten it even further, one can remove the strands and turn those into two more bracelets. The removed watch can also be turned into a third bracelet that is adorned with diamonds, sapphires and pearls. It’s a lot of effort on the craftsmen’s part to offer wearers this kind of mileage, most of which we don’t see or realise.

The pearls, for example, are threaded using strands of Bruyere silk and secured individually with knots to ensure the stones don’t rub against each or get lost in the event of breakage. And not only do the craftsmen have to hide the watch convincingly, they must also hide the clasps that allow the jewellery to be transformed.

But the point of such elaborate pieces – aside from looking pretty, of course – is to showcase artistry and imagination. None of these are easy to make, and they can’t be mass-produced. Every single petal in the explosion of gold that is the Dahlia Secret High Jewellery watch had to be hand-worked and mirror-polished, and bound in such a way that they quiver when touched, mimicking the way flowers sway in the breeze. Each flower wraps around a closed-set diamond, with just three of them housing yellow sapphires to indicate the position of the secret mechanism. It took over 1,100 hours of work to complete.

Every single petal in the explosion of gold that is the Dahlia Secret High Jewellery watch had to be hand-worked and mirror-polished. (Photo: Van Cleef & Arpels; Art: Jasper Loh)
For the Rubis Secret watch, it took over a year and about 1,500 hours to source for and set the 115 Mozambique rubies (totalling 151.25 carats) and the accompanying white diamonds in the 18K gold cuff. (Photo: Van Cleef & Arpels; Art: Jasper Loh)

The Rubis Secret watch, though comparatively less flamboyant in design, was another considerable undertaking. It took over a year and about 1,500 hours to source for and set the 115 Mozambique rubies (totalling 151.25 carats) and the accompanying white diamonds in the 18K gold cuff.

This dedication to quality, craftsmanship and beauty has earned the House numerous awards from the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Geneve (GPHG), but it speaks to the brand’s creative know-how that its very first win – the Ladies Watch Prize 2005 – was for a secret watch, albeit a fairly simple one. Two more secret watches made the awards list in later years: The Secret de Coccinelle in 2018, and the Frivole Secret watch in 2020, both of which won the Jewellery Watch Prize.

While it may be that trying to hide one’s interest in the time these days has more to do with one’s dexterity with their smartphones than hiding an actual watch face, it hasn’t stopped the industry’s biggest dreamer from giving us little secrets to hold dear.

The Secret de Coccinelle. (Photo: Van Cleef & Arpels; Art: Jasper Loh)
The Frivole Secret watch. (Photo: Van Cleef & Arpels; Art: Jasper Loh)
Source: CNA/ds

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