Women’s Timepieces Are Finally Getting the Attention of Watchmakers

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- The ladies’ wristwatch dates back to the early 1800s, but its golden age may just be emerging, thanks in part to Paul Newman. When the hammer came down on Newman’s Rolex Daytona three years ago for $17.7 million at a Phillips auction, it supercharged the revivalist trend in men’s watches.

Vintage designs from the 1950s and ’60s were suddenly everything, and this dictated smaller cases, which in turn dictated smaller movements. (The Newman watch was 37.5mm across; in recent years, sports watches tended to start at 40mm.) When it became more commercially promising for brands to develop them, a new generation of smaller, thinner calibers emerged, with silicon escapements, ceramic bearings, and other state-of-the-art components.

Which all means that women are now more likely to find an automatic watch—with a seconds hand, date window, and even a tourbillon—that doesn’t feel like a hockey puck on their wrists.

Technically speaking, diamonds add more intrinsic value to a watch than an innovative mechanical movement, so there’s still plenty of sparkle in this horological segment. Melt a tourbillon down, and you’re left with a pile of metal. Take a jewelry watch apart, and you have a pile of precious stones.

Carat count remains the standard by which women’s watches are evaluated on the high-end secondary market; winners at auction lean heavily on the gem-set side. And gem-setting is evolving: Piaget calls its technique serti descendu, or cut down.

Several other brands, including Patek Philippe, favor similar methods, but all of them are essentially a variation on the prong setting, which positions a gem with as little metal showing as possible. This allows more light to enter the middle of the diamond so more can be reflected out the flat top facet—that is, more dazzle for the dollar.

Hours of hand-setting make jewelry watches limited in production. And because rarity is a large factor in valuation, a jewelry watch is as important as a high complication. Here are some new ones to look for.

Piaget Limelight Gala

Women’s Timepieces Are Finally Getting the Attention of Watchmakers

Introduced in 1973, the Limelight Gala was worn by Jackie Onassis and Elizabeth Taylor. The distinctive asymmetrical lugs extending from each side of the case cry out for bling, and Piaget delivers several versions. This one is set with diamonds and sapphires, using the serti descendu technique in which claws and grooves grip the stone. The bracelet is hand-­engraved gold. Price upon request

Patek Philippe Calatrava Diamond Ribbon Joaillerie

Women’s Timepieces Are Finally Getting the Attention of Watchmakers

Patek Philippe doesn’t do diamonds very often, but when it does: Wow. Instead of standard pavé, the 4.4 carats of diamonds on this dial are arranged in a hypnotic swirl pattern. The applied numerals are blued gold, and the case, which measures 36.5mm wide by 8.23mm thick, is 18-karat white gold. $73,710

Rolex Day-Date 36

Women’s Timepieces Are Finally Getting the Attention of Watchmakers

The Day-Date is known as the “president’s watch” because so many U.S. presidents have worn one, but this 36mm ­version is more of a “first lady’s watch.” The dial is paved with 542 diamonds, and the hours are marked with baguette-cut ­sapphires in a rainbow of colors—a look made famous by Rolex. The center links of the ­bracelet are set with an additional 412 diamonds, and there’s yet an additional 52 on the bezel. $128,000

Parmigiani Fleurier Tonda Double Rainbow Flying Tourbillon

Women’s Timepieces Are Finally Getting the Attention of Watchmakers

The gradient of colored sapphires on the bezel is matched by an inner ring surrounding a slice of aventurine that displays the colors in reverse. In between is a field of snow-set diamonds. The 40mm case contains an ultrathin movement, with a platinum micro-rotor and a tourbillon escapement integrated into the main plate. $178,000

Vacheron Constantin Traditionnelle Tourbillon

Women’s Timepieces Are Finally Getting the Attention of Watchmakers

Vacheron’s first tourbillon watch geared toward women measures 39mm wide by 11.22mm thick. “Two years ago, we launched caliber 2160, which is compact and self-­winding, ideal for the design of a ­feminine version,” says Christian Selmoni, the ­maison’s style and heritage director. The jeweled model has 559 ­brilliant-cut and baguette-cut diamonds totaling more than 6.5 carats. $197,000

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