The secret watch was invented during the roaring ’20s, when it was more important for a lady to be luxuriously adorned than it was for her to know the time. Dials were hidden behind hinged or swiveling covers that were elaborately gem-set, engraved or enameled, just as men once wore pocket watches with elaborately decorated covers. The recent revival in secret watches may be a sign that we have come full circle; this is nothing if not the age of adornment, and although most women own a sensible daytime watch and at least one elite complication, it is increasingly essential to have a watch that is more jewel than timepiece.
Cartier was one of the first to begin creating secret watches and produced some wonderful pieces in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s. This year’s Les Heures Fabuleuses collection is a tribute to that tradition, with decorative watches that are also bracelets, brooches, pendants and rings. Each dial cover is a removable brooch, pendant or serves as a ring (a preening peacock made of diamonds, jade and ruby, a snake set with yellow and white diamonds, or a diamond parrot with an emerald eye.)
Likewise, Bulgari’s ladies’ watches tend to reflect the brand’s heritage as a master jeweler, including its fearless application of bold colored gemstones. The cases of the Mediterranean Eden secret watches (there is a jewelry collection of the same name) are set with diamonds, colored gemstones and mother-of-pearl in various combinations. The peek-a-boo cover, with its open-work construction, pivots out to reveal the dial.
Louis Vuitton, not unfamiliar with the concept of adornment, also demonstrates is mastery of the metiers with the Tambour Bijou Secret. The covers are ceramic, some set with diamonds, and swivel out to reveal black lacquer or mother-of-pearl dials. The covers are styled in the motif of the brand’s signature monogram flower.
The movements are usually quartz, but secret watches are complicated in their own way, some with elaborate hinging mechanisms and rare, custom-cut gemstones. They are certainly as worthy of conversation and admiration as a flying tourbillon or a high-frequency chronograph. Plus, if you really need to, you can use them to tell time.