It wasn’t so long ago that watches with fashion brand names on their dials were routinely dismissed as pretenders, mere arm candy for people with more money than good sense or taste. Sure, Michael Kors, Calvin Klein and Guess watches still twinkle obscenely from jewelry store counters, but other brands — ones just as often associated with jewelry, luggage and trench coats — have quietly elbowed their way into loftier company. Most of these companies don’t have their own manufactures devising the next triple-axis tourbillon. In many cases, the movements and sometimes the entire watches of these fashion brands are derived from corporate stablemates like Girard-Perregaux or Jaeger-LeCoultre; some brands have leveraged corporate expertise to build their own watch maisons.
At BaselWorld last month we saw a handful of incredible mechanical timepieces from brands we wouldn’t have looked at twice a few years ago. Here are a few examples. Never again will we take so-called fashion brands lightly.
Louis Vuitton Escale World Time
Louis Vuitton is a name often associated with expensive handbags and luggage, but the company’s timepiece division has turned out some impressive watches for years thanks to the brand’s ownership of movement specialist Fabrique de Temps. One of this year’s novelties, the Escale World Time ($67,000) is a serious contender for the most innovative travel time watch ever built. The Escale uses no moving hands to indicate time. Instead, a series of rotating discs show world time cities, hours on a 24-hour scale, and minutes. A single central yellow arrow points to the reference city and the middle hour ring instantly shows the correct time in 23 other time zones. The inner ring rotates once per hour to indicate minutes.
Those dial discs are all meticulously hand-painted in bright colors reminiscent of the coats of arms and travel symbols Louis Vuitton once custom applied on its travel trunks; each dial reportedly takes 50 hours to complete. The satin-finished white gold case is also a work of art, with a high polished bezel and lugs that appear bolted on, not unlike the corners of those famous LV steamer trunks. While it may not be for everyone, there’s no denying its artistry. It may just be the gift to get the (extremely affluent) globetrotting man who has everything.
Burberry Britain GMT Travel Automatic
“Burberry” to most means the iconic trench coat. In the past few years, the quintessentially British brand has tried to expand that thinking, branching out into fragrances and, more recently, timepieces. While they could have gone the easy route, slapping their name on the dial of a forgettable quartz watch and selling it next to its bottles of aftershave, they instead have steadily created a line of watches that look good and have the chops to hold up under a watch nerd’s scrutiny.
The Britain series has been knocked for aping the shape of Patek Philippe’s Nautilus, but while the watch does resemble Patek’s iconic porthole, it also is different enough to stand on its own. The GMT Travel Automatic ($2,395) ventures even further into unique territory. The brushed and polished steel case is topped with a PVD black steel bezel that has knurled sides and an exposed rubber gasket in contrasting yellow or red. The dial picks up on this color play with either yellow or red hands — both striking — and a bold 24-hour scale that the second time zone hand points to on its 24-hour circuit. Driving the timekeeping is a self-winding Soprod A10 mechanical movement, nicely finished and visible through a sapphire case back. The textured black leather with contrasting stitching finishes off the decidedly sporty look that would look more at home under the sleeve of a leather jacket than a trench coat.
Bulgari Octo Finissimo
Few companies embody the rise of the fashion brand as well as Bulgari. Since its acquisition of haute horlogerie house Daniel Roth in 2000, the Italian brand has steadily turned out impressive watches that have won over watch snobs and fashionistas alike. Elegant design and movement chops are a formidable combination, and Bulgari has hit on the right formula. While its BaselWorld collection introduced several fine timepieces, including a chronograph that makes use of LVMH partner Zenith’s high beat El Primero motor, the real star of the show was the Octo Finissimo ($146,000). It was one of the best watches of BaselWorld this year.
The Finissimo lives up its name, which means “thin” in Italian: Bulgari claims it is the world’s thinnest tourbillon. With its extra apparatus designed to counteract the forces of gravity, a tourbillon is particularly difficult to slim down. But this one comes in at a svelte five millimeters thick. This is thanks to a 1.95-millimeter thick tourbillon that lacks an upper bridge, which also lends a nice view of the “whirlwind” in motion. The watch isn’t bad looking either, in the typical Bulgari eight-sided (the other part of that name) platinum case.
Hermès Dressage L’Heure Masquée
Hermès timepieces are the very picture of taste and understated elegance, inspired by the leather brand’s historic association with equestrian sports. The Dressage line takes its name from competitive horsemanship, and the cushion-shaped case echoes bridle hardware. And the beauty of the Dressage L’Heure Masquée goes well beneath its exterior.
The Dressage L’Heure Masquée ($19,500 in steel), or “hidden hour”, does just as its name suggests. Look at the dial and all you see is a minute hand and a GMT aperture at 6:00. What gives? A press of a button on the side of the case flicks the hour hand out from behind the minute, revealing the time instantaneously. The GMT window also shows a second time zone’s hour, making this an elegant and unique travel timepiece. The calibre H1925 — made by Vaucher, a respected Swiss movement house that now makes all in-house calibres for Hermès — has beautifully finished bridges decorated with a pattern of overlapping Hermès H’s. The watch, available in steel or rose gold, is further proof that there is a big difference between fashion and style.
A Gucci dive watch? It sounds like the punchline of a joke. But the Gucci Dive ($8,600 in steel) is a legitimate diving watch, water resistant to 300 meters and featuring a ratcheting ceramic bezel, thick rubber strap and manufacture mechanical movement.
Gucci’s timekeeping has benefitted from its parent company, Kering, which also owns horology giants Girard-Perregaux and JeanRichard. To those in the know, the Gucci Dive is instantly recognizable as a heavily rebadged Girard-Perregaux Sea Hawk. And that’s not a bad thing; the Sea Hawk is one of the best high-end dive watches on the market today.
Distinguishable by its small seconds, power reserve gauge and 2:00 placement of the date window, the Dive is powered by the automatic G-P calibre 3300 and wrapped in an angular steel or pink gold case, a ceramic timing bezel and handsome dial and handset. It’s a refreshingly tasteful design from a brand more commonly known for in-your-face bling. And when you’re back on the dive boat, your watch will still match your loafers.