WRITER: Sandra Lane
Originally fashion accessories, Dior’s watches are now complicated instruments of time and stunning pieces of jewellery and are the fruit of a collaboration with Switzerland’s Zenith.
Luxury is a whole; the visible and the invisible are as important as each other. So said Christian Dior, one of the greatest haute couturiers of last century, as he explained why the lining of his garments was always as beautifully constructed and finished as the outside.
With that in mind, it seems an anomaly that when the house of Dior pioneered the designer-label watch in 1975, it was intended purely as an accessory – nice to look at, complementing the aesthetic of the house, with only a basic quartz mechanism inside. But that was then, when the world of horology was very different from today. As the 1970s dawned, quartz technology had begun to sweep the world. Those extremely precise, battery-powered mechanisms that required no winding made mechanical watch movements - especially those that needed to be hand-wound – virtually obsolete.
Three decades on and mechanically-powered watches are back at the summit of horology. The poetry of the machine has conquered the perversity of the not-quite accurate (we’re only talking about one or two seconds a day) and the ‘inconvenience’ of needing to wind the watch occasionally. This revival of interest in fine, mechanical watchmaking has, of course, been paralleled in other fields where craftsmanship is the heart and soul of a product, not least of which is the renaissance of haute couture.
In 2001, with the opening of its own watch-assembling and finishing factory, Les Ateliers Horlogers, in a hub of the Swiss watch industry, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Dior signalled its intention to bring its watch collection in from the sidelines to the heart of its business. With the term ‘fashion watch’ increasingly used as an insult in horological circles, it was natural (indeed, necessary) that Dior should seek out specialists whose technical expertise could match the Maison’s artistic and creative prowess. The invisible part of the watches was, after all, as important as the visible.
But it was not Dior’s intention to start making watch mechanisms from scratch, as Laurence Nicolas, who became the CEO and President of Dior Watches and Jewellery in 2008, explained to the trade magazine, World Tempus. “It’s not our vocation to be a watch manufacture but to be a Parisian couture house that offers exceptional timepieces.” Dior would seek out the best specialists to provide it with the necessary mechanical content that would not only be of fittingly high quality but would also “best serve [their] artistic and creative purposes”. It was the same principle that had been followed for years by the couture ateliers, which worked with specialist embroiderers or feather makers.
Dior didn’t have to look far. In 1999, Zenith had been bought by LVMH (also owner of Dior) and it produced precisely the type of mechanism that could become a pillar of the Maison’s watch collection: technically irreproachable and, appropriately, for a house with its roots in haute couture, produced largely by hand.
The collaboration between the two began in 2004, when Hedi Slimane, then the creative director of Dior Homme, designed the Chiffre Rouge chronograph. Slimane, incidentally, had grown up with a strong awareness of horology thanks to an uncle, who was a watch dealer in Geneva. Having chosen the mechanical complexity of a chronograph for the debut of its men’s watch line, Dior naturally looked to its sibling company, Zenith.
Over the course of almost 140 years, Zenith had built a sterling reputation. With more than 300 patents, ten of which were for precision. Among its innovations, one stood out – El Primero, the chronograph movement Zenith introduced in 1969. It was the world’s first self-winding integrated chronograph and thanks to its high frequency of 36,000 beats per hour, it could measure accurately down to a tenth of a second. Robust, extremely precise (it’s certified by COSC, the Swiss authority for chronometry) and offering a 50-hour power reserve, El Primero remains a benchmark for chronograph mechanisms to this day.
Zenith tweaked El Primero to create the Irréductable calibre exclusively for Dior, which it released as numbered, limited editions of Chiffre Rouge models I02 and I03 in 2004. It was the ideal, high-performing ‘inside’ for Slimane’s strongly contemporary ‘outside’. Chiffre Rouge’s asymmetrical, brushed steel case, with its slightly off-centre winding crown and two chronograph pushers is complemented by a clean dial design and – picking up the tailoring codes of Dior Homme – a fine red line running through the metal bracelet, a red ring around the crown and a smoky-grey sapphire case-back, through which the mechanism can be viewed. A 15-piece limited-edition yellow-gold variant was launched in 2008.
Chiffre Rouge’s 38mm-diameter case is relatively small compared with today’s chronographs-on-steroids but not only is its size more in harmony with Dior Homme’s pared-down modernism, this January’s Salon Internationale de la Haute Horlogerie was notable, among many other things, for the number of watch companies presenting smaller alternatives to the 44mm-plus behemoths. What’s more, at 38mm, the Chiffre Rouge has more than a few female fans – not least the glamorous Laurence Nicolas, who often pairs one with her signature black trouser suits.
Dior had actually begun its 21st century venture in fine watchmaking with a women’s line, no surprise given its roots in haute-couture. A year before Chiffre Rouge, the Maison launched La D de Dior. Designed by Victorie de Castellane, the creative director of Dior Jewellery, this simple watch in a slim, round case echoed the purity of line that has made Christian Dior so celebrated during his lifetime. The intention of the design was that its simplicity would allow endless variations in material and decoration, capturing the essence of Dior’s fashion collections.
In due course, as the partnership with Zenith on the Irréductable calibre proved to be a great success, Dior looked back to the Swiss Manufacture for a mechanism that could take the D de Dior collection into the future. Zenith’s other main pillar, the manually-wound version of its Elite calibre, was perfect for the job. It was simple, beautifully made, technically very fine and, like El Primero, had already proven its worth over many years of use in Zenith’s own collections.
Given the simplicity of the Elite calibre, it’s easy to forget that as with El Primero, Zenith broke new ground when it launched Elite in 1994. More than three years in development, Elite was one of the first watch mechanisms made with computer-aided design. It was exceptionally slim, with the manually-wound version (Elite 631) at 2.84mm thick and the automatic (Elite 671) at 3.46mm. This calibre would provide the quality of ‘engine’ that was essential in order for Dior watches to have integrity as fine objects, with a coherence between the inside and outside.
Knowing that – as Laurence Nicolas has put it – Dior’s clients are looking for “an alternative to the classical watch names and perhaps, above all, a creative aesthetic”, Le D de Dior has become a canvas for a series of artistic finishes, often incorporating fine jewellery techniques. Dials are fashioned from ultra-fine discs of ornamental or semi-precious stone, ranging from mother-of-pearl to brilliant blue opal. Or they may be fully set with precious stones – as in the 38mm model with a snow-set diamond dial, introduced in 2012 - or the magnificent, one-off piece launched the previous year, with its dial in a rainbow spectrum of stones, including emeralds, Paraiba tourmalines, tsavorites, spessarites, spinels, yellow, blue and violet sapphires and amethysts.
The spirit of the Maison has found even greater expression since 2010 through its Grand Soir collection, a series of mostly one-of-a-kind pieces that combine colours and materials inspired by the couture collections and dreamed up in the Avenue Montaigne design studios. The Grand Soir case has a broad bezel, to allow setting with baguette stones – sometimes diamonds but often vivid stones like spinels, tsavorites, sapphires or tourmalines. The strap, in pleated taffeta with a hand-sewn couture-style label inside, or in alligator, may harmonise or deliberately clash with the bezel and the dial will feature exceptional artistic crafts, like mother-of-pearl engraving, miniature painting or stone marquetry.
The Grand Soir watches also contain Zenith Elite movements, the self-winding Elite 671, with a seconds hand and the Elite 681, without. The oscillating weight of the automatic winding system also provides an artistic canvas, often lacquered in a colour to match the dial. Mechanically tough, the quiet efficiency of these Elite movements is perhaps the perfect foil for the flamboyant femininity of the Grand Soir aesthetic.
But, as if it needed to prove its versatility, the Elite calibre last year emerged in a very different guise, the Chiffre Rouge C03, a minimalistically elegant men’s dress watch with a moon-phase complication (Elite 691). The asymmetric brushed steel case is offset by a midnight-black lacquered dial, the pared-down moon display complemented by simple indexes, rather than numerals, and Dior’s signature red appearing as the date display.
Inglorious fashion accessories no more, Dior watches have come a long, long way.