As Van Cleef & Arpels prepares to debut the latest model of their iconic Cadenas watch, Vivienne Becker celebrates the art of the watch as a jewel.

In the wondrous world of watches, furiously ticking with technological wizardry, the pendulum is swinging seductively towards women’s watches and particularly towards extravagant, fabulously feminine, gem-smothered jewellery watches. A meeting of style and art, they are jewels that happen to tell the time, works of art balancing high-wire horological feats with fantastical artistry. In style terms, jewellery watches embody today’s strong, determined, but resolutely feminine woman – a reaction or alternative to the androgynous “boyfriend” watch trend, with its oversized masculinity highlighting a slender female wrist. At the same time, these masterpieces show that women are taking their watches seriously, building watch wardrobes, as men do, with a timepiece for every occasion, every mood and every time of day. The creation of high jewellery watches – fusing haute horlogerie and high jewellery, both demanding breath-taking virtuoso skills – has become one of the most dynamic and fast-growing sectors in watchmaking today. 

Van Cleef & Arpels’s 2015 update of the Cadenas watch. Courtesy of Van Cleef & Arpels.

This is set to be revealed in Geneva at January’s annual Salon Internationale de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH), showcasing the latest models, designs, ideas and flights of horological fancy from the world’s leading watchmakers. For the great master jewellers, such as Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels, with watchmaking embedded in their heritage, ingenious and beautiful jewellery watches, will, of course, always be their realm, uniting the two primary aspects of their business. Piaget, pioneer of the 1960s design-driven, fashion-focused jewellery watch, made possible by their 1957 invention of a tiny mechanical movement, are now very successfully contemporising their avant-garde designs of the 1960s and 1970s, huge openwork cuffs and gold-mesh straps with hardstone dials. Even the most serious of watch brands, the purists like Jaeger-LeCoultre, are now turning their attention to lavish, gem-encrusted women’s watches, as in the one-of-a-kind versions of their successful Rendez-Vous series. 

But one of the surest signs that the jewellery watch has truly arrived comes from Van Cleef & Arpels, who will unveil a dramatically different, lavishly bejewelled version of their iconic Cadenas watch at this year’s SIHH. The Cadenas is one of the great designs of 20th-century jewellery history: a sublime marriage not only of jewel and watch, but of form and function, line, proportion, scale and volume. A perfect balance of sensual fluidity and architectural rigour – its slinky snake-chain strap, the geometric rounded link and chunky rectangular lock-shaped structure seamlessly integrate design, craftsmanship and material. 

A 1936 model of Van Cleef & Arpels’s Cadenas watch. Courtesy of Van Cleef & Arpels.

The Cadenas was first created in 1935, marking a departure from the flat, monochrome diamond-set wristwatches of the 1920s, anticipating the powerful cocktail or so-called “retro” style of the 1940s, with its pumped up, three-dimensional compositions of stylised, frozen movement and exuberant gold and coloured gems. The idea was based on the cadenas or padlock motif, fashionably mechanical and machine-age in look and feel, yet also a symbol of union and enduring commitment, the seal of a long-lasting relationship, perhaps, even of our relationship with time. It is rumoured that the piece was inspired or suggested by the Duchess of Windsor, (who came up with the idea for Van Cleef’s famous zip necklace) or by the Duke of Windsor, for whom a Cadenas was designed in 1938.

This early Cadenas watch from 1936 is made of diamonds and platinum, and originally belonged to the Duchess of Windsor. It sold at Sotheby’s Geneva in 2011 for $409,230.

The Cadenas, emblematic of Van Cleef & Arpels’s style and ingenuity, was designed first and foremost as a bracelet, with a tiny watch dial set discreetly into the central up-standing rectangular gold motif, an integral part of the padlock that forms the clasp. The dial was cunningly angled on the slanted inner plane of the lock, so as to be glimpsed effortlessly, elegantly, and above all, discreetly, by the wearer. A far cry from today’s mobile phone on the dinner table, it was considered the epitome of rudeness to be seen checking the time at a dinner or cocktail party. The Cadenas was the height of fashion throughout the 1930s and 1940s, with some variations, such as accents of rubies or a sprinkling of diamonds. Van Cleef & Arpels’s clients clamoured for it: Paulette Goddard, an avid jewellery collector, bought a white gold and diamond version in 1940. 

A white gold cuff watch by Piaget sold at Sotheby’s Geneva in November 2014 for $77,400. 

The fresh, new 2015 versions of the Cadenas add quintessential femininity and gem-allure to the powerful, instantly recognisable lines of this classic jewellery watch. Van Cleef has subtly improved the dial and clasp: since time-checking is no longer taboo, the dial is larger, easier to read, with twelve hour markers, while the clasp has been fitted inside with two small ceramic beads for easier and more secure fastening. But most thrillingly, and significantly, catering to the fast-escalating lust for the jewellery watch, the Cadenas is now showered with gemstones, covering the watch with a new radiant softness that plays with sheen, tone and texture. The new jewellery models come in white or yellow gold, the diamonds “snow-set,” in an immaculately precise yet random arrangement of different sizes that produces a shimmer like sun on snow, a technique that was pioneered by the watch industry. The most sumptuous models are entirely snow-paved in diamonds, with a line of princess-cut diamonds along the top ridge of the rectangular padlock. And one irresistible, lust-inducing version is created in rose gold, paved with a subtle blend of diamonds and pink sapphires. The Cadenas, designed in 1935, in a style of modernism that will always be modern, takes on a mantle of contemporary femininity to become the quintessential jewellery watch for a new generation of women watch collectors. Time has never been so precious.

Vivienne Becker is a jewellery historian and contributing editor for FT’s How to Spend It.