Behind the Curtain: Jewellery and Watchmaking Houses

19 Apr 2021

Jewellery is the most universal form of art; its importance is understood wherever youre from,’ says Vanessa Cron, jewellery historian and one of the hosts of Christies Educations online course, Behind the Curtain: Jewellery and Watchmaking HousesAt the same time its a very intimate and personal kind of art,’ she adds, a sentiment that would be shared by many watch collectors drawn to the special distillation of craftsmanship and design, precious materials and history embedded in a fine timepiece. 


The course provides an overview of the jewellery and watchmaking houses whose masterpieces have pushed technical and aesthetic boundaries, and who embody the traditions and style that continues to capture the worlds imagination. Throughout the course Vanessa, alongside the watch expert Antoine Géraud, will reveal the storied histories and visionary figures behind six jewellery and six watch brands, and explain how they became leaders in contemporary luxury. 


It is not a comprehensive list,’ Vanessa points out, but an introduction to some of the most influential houses.’ Collectors and aficionados of high jewellery and watches will gain a connoisseurs insight, with each of the 12 lectures focusing on a single house listed below. Finally, Christiejewellery and watch specialists will join two additional sessions to discuss the auction market and commercial side of the brands. Participants may choose to take the full programmeeither jewellery or watches, or single sessions. 


Audemars Piguet 

Founded in 1875 in SwitzerlandAudemars Piguet is responsible for many pioneering watches, but is best-known for the Royal Oak. Created in 1972 by Gérald Gentaaccording to Antoine ‘one of the 20th centurys greatest watch designers,’ it launched at the time of the quartz crisis, when the Swiss watch industry was losing market share to cheap and accurate electronic Japanese watches. The Royal Oak represented another kind of innovation: the first luxury sports watch, its octagonal bezel with inset nuts taking design cues from vintage diving helmets. 



After attending the historic 1887 exhibition and auction of the French crown jewels, Frédéric Boucheron embarked on a series of designs that would come to epitomise the belle époque. Jewels such as his 1905 diamond aigrette, made for an Indian maharaja, demonstrate the incredible workmanship that remains the maisons calling card today. In 1893Boucheron became the first jeweller to open a boutique on Place Vendôme in Paris — apparently choosing number 26 because it was the sunniest and therefore sparkliest corner of the square. ‘Paris is the centre of high jewellery making,’ confirms Vanessa, and Place Vendôme, also the location of Boucheron, Cartier, Chaumet and Van Cleef & Arpels, is its ancestral home. 



The Swiss watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet founded his first shop in 1775 in Paris, providing timepieces to figures such as Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette and Napoleon I. He was known to all the European courts, as well as being the watchmaker of reference for diplomatic, scientific, military and financial elites. The No. 217, dating to 1800 and considered Breguet's masterpiece, was sold at Christies Geneva for CHF 3,245,000 in 2016. It boasts extra complications such as a day and month calendar, power reserve and most importantly, an equation of time indication — the quantity that needs to be added or subtracted to switch from the real time given by the sun, to the mean time which arbitrarily divides a day into 24 hours. 


Bulgari (BVLGARI) 

Well-known for its Serpenti snake-motif pieces, which Vanessa describes as a different type of jewellery  an accessory you could wear,’ Bulgari was founded by the Greek jeweller Constantine Sotirios Boulgaris in 1884. Based in Rome, it became synonymous with jet-set celebrity in the 1960s: Sophia Loren was photographed wearing an important diamond necklace at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival and Gina Lollobrigida wore the firms emerald and diamond jewellery at the premiere of The Sound of Music. One of the most famous jewels from the period was Bulgaris magnificent emerald and diamond necklace that Richard Burton bought for Elizabeth Taylor as a wedding present in 1964. When sold by Christies in 2011 it fetched US$6,130,500. 



Cartier was founded in 1847 by Louis-François Cartier, whose sons would go on to establish the brand celebrated today. Alongside its mystery clocks, the Tank watch, inspired by the armoured vehicles of the First World War, is its most enduring horological signature. Although the Tanks origins are military, today its design language represents the elegance and luxury that epitomises the house,’ Antoine says. Rudolph Valentino wore a Tank in the 1921 film, The Sheik,’ he continues, this was a coup for Cartier and one of the first celebrity endorsements.’ Called by King Edward VII the jeweller of kings and the king of jewellers, Cartierjewellery has defined and redefined style and elegance. Inspired by cultures far from Place Vendôme, Cartier in turn influenced jewellers around the world,’ asserts Vanessa. From the belle époque and art deco through Panthère and Tutti-Frutti, and more recently the minimalist, whimsical Love and Juste un Clou, Cartierjewellery designs chart a roll-call of legendary forms. 



One of the most important swords ever made was the ceremonial piece for Napoleonimperial coronation,’ says Vanessa, it incorporated diamonds from the French crown jewels, including the Regent Diamond weighing 141 carats.’ The sword was created by Marie-Étienne Nitot who, with his son François-Régnault Nitot, became the official jeweller to Napoleon. In 1889, the company became Chaumet under the leadership of Joseph Chaumet. The maison went on to win prizes at all of the international exhibitions and supplied jewellery to many of Europes royal houses. 


Patek Philippe 

Its said that fewer than one million Patek Philippe watches have been made since 1839. Thatless than some very high-end Swiss manufacturers produce in a year. Patek production is so detailed that it takes nine months to make its most basic watches, and more than two years to produce some of the more complicated timepieces. ‘Patek is a legendary name in watchmaking historyunique in terms of skill and execution,’ Antoine says, in keeping with the companys slogan, You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation, their timepieces are built to last.’ Iconic models such as Nautilus — designed by Gérald Genta — as well as Calatrava, and more recently the Aquanaut, are synonymous with fine watchmaking. 



Among the worlds most recognisable luxury brands, Rolex watches are the essence of quality and practicality, and indelibly associated with tennis, sailing, motor racing and Mercedes Gleitzes record-breaking 1927 swim across the English Channel. Many of the models’ DNA originates in tool watches’ designed for special purposes: the GMT-Master was created at Pan Ams request for a dual-time zone complication for its pilots to combat jet lagLikewise, the Submariner was made specifically for divers. An Oyster Perpetual chronometer accompanied Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay to the summit of Mount Everest in 1953. 


Tiffany & Co. 

Dating to 1837, Tiffanys is one of the worlds oldest jewellers. The company catered to the wealth and taste of Americas Gilded Age tycoons, and in 1887 acquired a number of pieces at the auction of the French crown jewels. ‘Jewellers from around the world attended,’ says Vanessa, but the one who bought the most was Tiffanys, more so than the French houses.’ The Great Depression and Second World War saw a decline, but in 1955 the firm was taken over by Walter Hoving, marking a turnaround in the companys fortunes. A year later, Parisian jewellery designer Jean Schlumberger opened his salon at Tiffanys, and when Breakfast at Tiffanys, starring Audrey Hepburn, was released in 1961 it proved a powerful advertisement for the brand. 


Van Cleef & Arpels 

Founded with the opening of a boutique in 1906 at 22 Place Vendôme where the firm remains todayVan Cleef & Arpels has always been at the forefront of innovation. In 1933 it patented the ‘Mystery Set’ — a technique that allows for the setting of stones so that no prongs are visible. Another creation uniquely associated with Van Cleef & Arpels is the Zip’ necklace, a virtuosic design thought to have originated as a result of a conversation between the artistic director Renée Puissant and the Duchess of Windsor. Flora and fauna motifs and the lucky’ four-leaf clover-inspired Alhambra collection are also signatures. The maison has long taken inspiration from good luck charms,’ Vanessa says. Launched in the 1970s, the Touch wood” bangles relate to gem-set wooden rings made in the early 20th century, showing that luck has been part of its spirit from the beginning. 


Vacheron Constantin 

Established in 1755, Vacheron Constantin is the oldest continually operating Swiss watchmaker. Famous for its advanced complications and house-built movements, in 2015 it announced the most complicated watch ever created in celebration of the companys 260th anniversary. Featuring 57 complications including multiple calendars and a carillon striking function, the ref. 57260 pocket watch was commissioned by an American collector, and took three master watchmakers eight years to build at an estimated price of US$8m. In the era of smartphones we take time for granted,’ says Antoine. Yet the mechanical representation of time, which is an intangible concept, continues to fascinate,’ he reflects. From a simple hours and minutes manual-winding calibre to the Vacheron Constantin ref. 57260, watches are enduring manifestations of complex engineering and abstraction, something that has long captured our imagination.