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Van Cleef & Arpels brings back the magic of the ‘secret watch’

The secret’s out.
By Josh Bozin


“TO be lucky, you have to believe in luck,” were once the words of Jacques Arpels, nephew to one of the Van Cleef & Arpels founders. While this sentiment may ring true for the French Maison during its early years — it was established in Paris almost 120 years ago — for those that have come to understand the detailed intricacies behind this whimsical brand, you’ll know that Van Cleef & Arpels doesn’t rely on luck. Using over a century of technical know-of and precision in jewellery and watchmaking, this storied brand is one of the clearest examples of what Haute Horologie stands for today.

At this year’s Watches & Wonders, Van Cleef & Arpels once again offered a poetic expression of watchmaking to the world. Showcasing its watchmaking creations for 2023, which included chatelaines, wristwatches and pocket watches, there was a special emphasis on Van Cleef & Arpels’ return to the ethereal “secret watch”.

First created in the 1920s, secret watches were the charming solution of both watchmakers and jewellers who were, at the time, tasked with creating a watch that would avoid the faux pas of one checking the time while enjoying the company of others. Under the guise of complex and luxurious jewellery designs, the secret watch was born.

“I think this year’s collection was very much about the jeweller’s view on watches,”  says Van Cleef & Arpels CEO, Nicolas Bos. “So, it’s not so much about movements, about traditional watchmaking or even what we do in the field of Poetic Complications, but rather how we integrate a watch functionality into a piece of jewellery, which is the very first tradition of Van Cleef & Arpels when it comes to watches.”

It’s not about TIME KEEPING or ACCURACY or even MEASURING PERFORMANCE, but about the succession of the season; the TIME it takes to TELL a STORY

Naturally, when one thinks of a secret watch, Van Cleef and Arpels’ Ludo bracelet comes to mind. Revisiting this iconic design was high on the agenda for the Maison in 2023, as revealed at this year’s Watches & Wonders.

“We wanted to revisit the Ludo because the idea of a secret watch integrated into a fine jewellery bracelet was extremely appealing. Beyond being timeless and elegant, it’s truly a piece that you cannot tell if it was designed yesterday or in the ’20s or in the ’50s.”

Representing the amalgamation of fine jewellery creations and enchanting timepieces, this year’s collection was devoted to the Maison’s vision of the Poetry of Time. What does this mean? In the words of Nicholas Bos, the theme not only defines the way in which Van Cleef & Arpels designs watches, but it encapsulates what time means to the Maison.

“It’s not about time keeping or accuracy or even measuring performance, but it was really about the succession of the season; the time it takes to tell a story,” says Bos.

“It’s also about how you use the possibilities offered by traditional watchmaking and mechanical movements to tell a story.”

The Ludo Secret Collection

There was nothing ordinary about the release of the Ludo Secret Watches at this year’s Watches & Wonders. For enthusiasts of Van Cleef & Arpels, the Ludo Secret Watch continues the tradition and design of the mysterious, whimsical and “discreet” nature of the Ludo bracelet, first unveiled in 1934. The Ludo pieces have since enjoyed widespread popularity and present as a signature piece for the Maison thanks to its sheer beauty (and amusing functionality). As for its signature aesthetic, the Ludo’s flexible, brick-pattern meshwork takes clear inspiration from the traditional belt – the fashion accessory of daring women of the 1930s.

“It was really about starting with the original design, but not actually redesigning the piece because there’s always a temptation to change something, but more trying to see how we can re-engineer the piece but in a very traditional way,” explains Bos.

“We wanted that mechanism to be absolutely fluid but also reliable by the standards of contemporary Swiss watchmaking. There was a lot of technical adaptation involved, and really working on the tiny, tiny details.”

As you can imagine, the Ludo Secret watch sheds light on the signature savoir-faire of the Maison. And the new collection, now presented with a new size of watch and two new combinations of materials, is just as impressive as the original. While rose gold marries with either diamonds or pink sapphires, the finely woven fabric of the bracelet also features mesh links that are carefully assembled by hand, one by one, to deliver optimal articulation and flexibility. The level of dexterity needed for the setting of the gemstone ensembles requires the highest level of skill by the Maison’s gemologists.

The Perlée Collection

In keeping with the theme of secret watches, the new Perlée Collection introduces six new jewellery secret watches. The first thing you’ll notice with the new Perlée Collection is the curved and colourful pendant adorned effortlessly on a long beaded necklace. Of course, this pendant, once rotated, reveals a mesmerising watch dial made of white mother-of-pearl.

Three “rare” watches are available in either yellow gold and sodalite, white gold and chalcedony, or rose gold and rose quartz. The other three “precious” watches are adorned by Yellow gold and emeralds, Rose gold and rubies, and Yellow gold and sapphires. These gems are distinguished by their intense colours, demonstrating Van Cleef & Arpels’ penchant for utilising precious stones in its creations.

“Craftsmanship is very much at the heart of everything we do. It has become an identity for the Maison, and it’s an area where, rather than looking for technological alternatives, we choose to preserve it, otherwise we would lose the soul of everything we do,” says Bos.

“So with our watches, we wanted to develop not only the traditional jewellery techniques, but also dedicated craftsmanship that has been particularly adapted for watches.”

Alhambra Collection

Renowned for its symbol of luck, the Alhambra collection has been a staple piece of the Maison since 1968. This year, Van Cleef & Arpels presented a new Sweet Alhambra jewellery watch that alternates gold and ornamental stone motifs around a dial featuring the collection’s emblematic four-lobe shape.

This iconic design reflects the expertise of the Maison, from lapidaries to jewellers, from stone-setting to polishing, with each piece requiring the collaboration of a wide variety of skills – from selection to shaping to quality control, no fewer than fifteen steps are necessary to produce such an iconic piece.

The Alhambra collection is a true reflection of the high jewellery expertise of the Maison.