It’s like stepping into a fairytale. Ostensibly, I’m entering the Van Cleef & Arpels booth at Watches and Wonders, the Geneva trade fair and media event for Switzerland’s most well-known industry. Except this space is different to anything I have encountered elsewhere.
For starters, it’s designed to evoke the feel of an enchanted forest at twilight. Sprawling vines of oversized glass beads in green and blue hang from the ceiling and the walls comprise dark lacquered panels etched with mystical gold-leaf images of flora and fauna. Van Cleef & Arpels, it’s fair to say, is not like other watch brands. “One of our sources of inspiration that has been there from the very first years is of a benevolent form of nature that’s a bit dreamlike, with a touch of imagination and poetry,” explains Nicolas Bos, the chief executive and creative director.
Founded in Paris in 1906, Van Cleef & Arpels soon developed a reputation as a luxury jewellery house, and its highly decorative aesthetic informed its expansion into watches in 1916. Consequently, it doesn’t make watches as such, but rather, as the brand puts it, “jewels that tell the time”. A notable expression of this sentiment were the “secret watches” that concealed their timekeeping ability behind bejewelled facades. Part of the reason for this obscuration was that it was considered ill-mannered for a lady to look at her watch in the middle of a glamorous soiree. A secret watch was disguised as a bracelet, necklace or pendant that would discreetly reveal the time to the wearer’s eyes alone.
While social mores brought about the first secret watches, the technical challenge of concealing a watch mechanism within a piece of jewellery soon became another incentive, offering a craftsperson the chance to demonstrate their ingenuity and skill. “Maybe I shouldn’t say this at a watch fair,” Bos admits, “but I think that some designers thought that a watch dial wasn’t as nice to look at as the jewellery-work and that it would disrupt the integrity of the bracelet or the brooch. So they thought: ‘Let’s hide it.’ ”
The undercover tradition continues at Van Cleef & Arpels this year with the Ludo Secret Watch. At face value, it’s a belt-like bracelet made of rose gold and bedecked with 185 pink sapphires. So far, so spectacular. Press the two sides of the buckle together and a mother-of-pearl watch dial peeks out. Further clandestine horology is revealed in the brand’s Perlée Secret Pendant range. The six pieces in this collection are each worn on a long necklace and hide their dials beneath rotating covers emblazoned with coloured gems or extravagant cabochons. Behind all this glitz, there’s perhaps a deeper message here consistent with Van Cleef’s romantic vision. A secret watch takes the relatively humdrum business of timekeeping and subordinates its importance to the celebration of beauty.
“Don’t worry about being late for that appointment,” it whispers. “Stop and marvel at the sunset instead.” “Don’t be a slave to time,” it insists. “Remember you’re the person in charge.” It’s a magical idea with a seductive allure. Albeit one that might not stand up to scrutiny outside the realms of a fantasy kingdom.