October 2021 13 Min Read

Chasing Elegance: A History of Piaget Watches

By Randy Lai

For much of the previous century, watch brands have tended towards specialisation. It would be fair to say that the main areas that they have to focus on are aesthetics and mechanics. While some will divert most of their attention on one more than the other, even going as far to enlist external aid in order shore up any deficiencies. There are those who arguably execute one of these specialities better than others, many will agree that when it comes to original design and sophisticated mechanical watchmaking, there are only a handful who execute both to equally high standards. In this elite club one could place the ‘Holy Trinity’ and staunchly independent artisans like F.P. Journe; but there is one name whose praises remain surprisingly unsung – even by the standards of self-professed enthusiasts – Piaget.

A uniquely shaped watch with an onyx dial that once belonged to Andy Warhol

This multi-generational watch & jewellery Maison was founded in 1874 in La Côte-aux-Fées. Occasionally mischaracterised as a jeweller that makes watches (the now-endemic collection of ‘Possession’ rings only debuted in 1990), history shows us, in altogether uncontentious fashion, that Piaget can tangle with the best of brands who have as much prowess in engineering as they do design. To go further: it is precisely because the Maison embraced the challenge of ultra-thin watchmaking with such a feverish intensity that its designs have developed along such an elegant trajectory.

The slim, ultra-thin profile of some of Piaget’s earlier pieces.

Often flamboyant, sometimes stoic, but always – in the words of retired designer Jean-Claude Gueit – with “a touch of folly”, Piaget watches were, for a time in the 1960s, synonymous with a kind of aesthetic liberation. In this article, we attempt to outline the effect that the development of ultra-thin movements had on the creativity of watch design at Piaget (roughly between 1960-1990). Along the way, we enlist the brand’s own heritage department in order to better understand the unique history between a handful of its most significant creations and their equally idiosyncratic collectors, the so-called ‘Piaget Society’.

Ultra-Thin Movements: Piaget's Stronghold of Fine Watchmaking

In the tradition of many storied Neuchȃtel watch brands, Piaget’s origins in the industry are as a supplier of complete mechanical movements to a range of third parties that, at various junctures, included Cartier, Rolex, Vulcain and Ulysse Nardin. The company’s first substantial foray into what we’d commonly recognise as ‘in-house watchmaking’ began in 1945, when second-generation patriarch Timothée Piaget established a factory within La Côte-aux-Fées, centralising 150 employees and much of the brand’s previous manufacturing capability. That expansion enabled Timothée’s sons Gérald and Valentin to nurture the brand’s in-house expertise over the next two decades, with the latter proving instrumental in the creation of calibres 9P and 12P – the original “mother” and “father” of Piaget’s mechanical lineage.

The 9P and 12P movements from which a number of Piaget movements are derived from today.

Valentin developed the 9P and 12P simultaneously, with the first (a manual movement) serving as a foundation for the second more advanced, self-winding calibre. When it was unveiled in 1957, the 9P measured an extremely svelte 2mm: only marginally thicker than most 10-cent coins. The ‘9’ prefix was also an oblique reference to the diameter of dials that this movement could accommodate: ergo, anything up to 2cm or 9 lignes. That might seem trivial by the standards of modern watch brands, but this flattening and widening of the proverbial playing field embodied a significant technical hurdle. Previously, ladies’ watches – the 9P had originally been engineered to serve this segment – were too diminutive to be functional, with the vast majority of each piece’s visible surfaces occupied by the casing. The 9P’s arrival heralded an era of superior legibility (simply put: case-to-dial ratios became much more functional) and in doing so, introduced a new element for watch designers to emphasise. Florence Müller, a fashion historian, explains the shift in her book Watchmakers and Jewellers Since 1874:

“Piaget reversed the traditional approach to watch design, instead of commencing around the dial...designers now started with the dial itself, creating a radiant visual effect that has since become a defining feature of [the brand’s] style.”

Florence Müller

An ingot-shaped timepiece and a watch with a ‘brick link’ bracelet belonging to Maurice Chevalier that both make use of the 9P movement.

With the 9P up to the task of powering Piaget’s many bejewelled creations and impish ‘secret watches’ – we’ll come back to those later – Valentin intensified his efforts around the 12P. Apropos of the previously mentioned mother/father analogy, this next calibre (launched at Basel in 1960) was intended to solidify Piaget’s appeal in the category of ultra-thin men’s dress watches. Despite the absence of any visible complication, the 12P embraced a very elegant, typically Piaget solution to the technical problem of incorporating a self-winding mechanism. In 1958, Valentin himself filed a patent with Switzerland’s Federal Institute of Intellectual Property for a watch “fitted with an automatic winding device”, making specific provision for a “particular arrangement of the oscillating weight”.

This patent documents a crucial stage in the micro-rotor’s development (i.e. in which the oscillating weight that winds the mainspring was first assimilated into the same plane as the gear train and regulating organ). Aside from its desirable physical attributes – the 2.3mm thickness and self-winding functionality – the 12P provided yet another lesson in sound commercial strategy: in this era, around 60 percent of the movements manufactured by Piaget were still being sold to third parties. To offset this reliance on other brands – many of whom one could nominally describe as competitors – Valentin and his brother decided to keep the ultra-thin 9P and 12P exclusively for their own watches.

A photograph of the Piaget brothers, courtesy of Revolution, alongside the patent filed for the 9P, courtesy of Piaget.

In light of the historic period in which most of this article takes place, we’d be remiss not to acknowledge the influence of the Quartz Crisis. Here again, Piaget has its own tale to tell: along with 19 other companies (known collectively as the Centre Electronique Horloger) the brand financed the research and development of the Beta 21 – widely seen as the Swiss watch industry’s most powerful countermeasure against the encroaching Seiko Astron. There was only one problem: it wasn’t terribly elegant. Inevitably, Piaget did rise to the challenge of finding fitting artistic habillage for the blocky, TV-esque shape of the Beta 21; though these experiments (such as the Ref. 15102) were something of a commercial necessity, until the arrival of a true in-house alternative in the calibre 7P.

A skeletonised Piaget Polo that was once owned by Miles Davis.

Quartz watchmaking was still very much in its infancy, yet Piaget’s foray into this brave new frontier measured just 3.1mm in thickness – once again minting the calibre 7P with the stamp of ultra-thin certification. Being a blend of both radical new technologies and traditional watchmaking, the 7P was a natural complement to the Polo. Launched in 1979, just three years after the 7P was introduced, it again demonstrated Piaget’s unique, unfettered approach to an emerging segment – the luxury sports watch. Instead of a conventionally made activity-specific movement, Piaget offered a simple (yet super-accurate) timekeeper to go along with its latest design, putting the limelight on the Polo’s looks: similarly minimal in appearance, but very clearly bursting with the energy of the 1980s.

Objects of Elegance: The Piaget 'House Style'

Like most industries dealing in luxury, Swiss watchmaking does not exist in a vacuum. The prevailing art & culture in each subsequent decade of the 20th century doubtless had an influence on the kind of watches being made. Still, at Piaget (by the brand’s own admission) relentlessly pursuing ultra-thin movements had the effect of steering aesthetic creativity down a particular, somewhat idiosyncratic path – paved with gold, semi-precious stones, and the hard-to-master tack of object design.

The wide variety of aesthetics and shapes that Piaget’s watches possess.

While we certainly wouldn’t venture to call Piaget a jeweller with a side-hustle in mechanical watches, it’s uncontroversial to observe that the manufacture has deep roots in the area of jewellery. Between 1961-1972, the third generation of the family (led by brothers Valentin and Gérald) acquired three different Genevan workshops, enabling the brand to consolidate its expertise in gem-setting and metalwork. In particular, the absorption of Ponti Gennari (a goldsmith and bracelet manufacturer, active during the same era as Gay Frères) gave Piaget access to the immense talents of Michel Grantcola – a master chainmaker who would go on to create dozens of elaborate cuff watches, inspired by the chameleonic formlessness of the avant-garde movement.

Aurel Bacs, a veteran auctioneer – better known as the man who sold the ‘world’s most expensive ‘Paul Newman’ Daytona’ – is a notable advocate for the brand. Alongside its obsession for ultra-thin, Piaget’s burgeoning artistry in form and jewellery watches (often in combination) struck at the heart of Swiss watchmaking’s habitual asceticism. As Bacs puts it:

“Here was a watchmaker who dared to disregard all symmetry, to be playful without being ridiculous, to arouse feelings of joy. Beyond the visual impact, what also struck me was the level of craftsmanship...Piaget’s skill, particularly in gold-working and gem-setting, is to my mind without equal.”

Aurel Bacs

A lack of explicit complication in movements like the 12P caused Piaget to refine its watchmaking in other ways, with all the elements Bacs alludes to – gem-setting, skilful manipulation of precious metal, the irrepressible joie de vivre – coalescing into the ‘21st Century Collection’. Nominally comprising the brand’s early jewellery watches (1969), it also doubled as an important testbed for the Piaget Design Studio, who populated the collection with discreet ‘secret’ watches, frequently hidden inside flamboyant, intricately assembled articles of jewellery. This is yet another intrinsic part of the Piaget house style: watches as objet d’art.

The appetite for coins, cufflinks, chains, and even ingots capable of telling time emerged (in part) from an admiration of luxurious metals. In 1957, the Piagets resolved to work exclusively with gold and platinum. One is left to imagine the anxiety of the average Swiss watchmaker and brand executive, for whom the move would have appeared risky and masochistic. Still, in the middle of the 20th century, the mania for steel sportswatches with integrated bracelets had yet to sweep the globe; and Piaget’s watchmakers were emboldened to take precious metals to the extremes of artistic expression. Beginning in the 1960s, the Design Studio’s cuffs and mesmerising ‘brick link’ bracelets (almost entirely forged in white or yellow gold) would reflect a vast array of original influences: many of these cribbing from subject matter that seemed better-suited to painters (wood grains, frost, the surface of water). Other creations emulated the highly specific, pliant look of wool and silk textiles.

A “secret” watch design that was made using Dali coins, created in partnership with the artist.

All credit where it’s due, Piaget was not the only watchmaker to exhibit experimental tendencies during this period. In the 1970s and 1980s, both Cartier and Patek Philippe were deeply committed to the inception of unusual shaped watches (e.g. the ‘Crash’ and ‘Ellipse’, to name a few) whereas Rolex capitalised on the optimism of society-at-large with a spectrum of colourful stone dials. In our estimation, what makes Piaget so intriguing is the trajectory the company took in order to define its distinctive house style. The aforementioned stone dials are another handy case study.

According to Philippe Léopold-Metzger, former CEO of Piaget from 1999-2017, there’s a fairly simple explanation for the brand’s love affair with colourful precious/semi-precious stones over the years:

“Thinner movements invited bigger diameters, and with them a potential for ornamentation that [we] eagerly embraced.”

Philippe Léopold-Metzger

The only caveat of course was that the resulting stone-dialed watches be ‘elegant’ – a seemingly simple requirement that was challenging to define. “That elegance may take many forms but the execution is always highly refined,” says Léopold-Metzger. “[An] unpretentious mix of sobriety and flamboyance, of masculine and feminine aesthetics.”

The broad variety of dials available from the Piaget catalogue, courtesy of Piaget.

True to form, that dichotomy is well-represented in Piaget’s output of stone dial watches: between 1963-1973, over 30 types including malachite, jade, and lapis-lazuli were used to augment ultra-thin watches fitted with the calibre 9P. The following decade, these materials were levied in service of more extravagant designs including those with a sector-style disc that rotated to display the hour; or even dual-time watches that utilised contrasting stones (e.g. onyx and coral) to achieve a stunning visual effect.

A Society of Exceptional Individuals

Piaget’s aversion to design-by-committee and focus on how svelte mechanical watches should be endeared the brand to similarly uncompromising personalities. But unlike our current era, the process of raising the brand’s stature could not be orchestrated from a smartphone. In order to cultivate a ‘society’ of like-minded patrons – the original influencer marketing – the brand’s ambassadors had to travel far and wide, often at great personal expense with little guarantee of success. Of these heralds spreading the gospel of elegant, high-spirited horology, Yves Piaget is undoubtedly the most prolific. A fourth generation Piaget (and son of Gérald), Yves trained as a micromechanical engineer in his native Switzerland before studying gemmology in Los Angeles. As a man caught quite literally between the Old and New World, Yves became intensely aware of the importance of situating his family’s product in its best possible light – an endeavour that would be achieved by fostering ties to modern art, music, and filmmaking.

Two of the company’s important early exposures to the public eye came in 1966, courtesy of Maurice Chevalier and Alain Delon. The story goes that Yves Piaget went to call on Chevalier at his residence in Marne-la-Coquette. “To my amazement,” recalls Yves, “the door was opened by Maurice in person!” Piaget reportedly became fast friends with the popular French entertainer – even convincing him to perform for 250 of the brand’s clients in Gstaad the following year. The watch most closely associated with Chevalier thereafter was the Ref. 9401: an ultra-thin design cased in white gold, dated to 1970. Now part of the brand’s own private collection, it very elegantly conveys the prevailing style codes of this era: alongside a matching bracelet fashioned using a ‘brick-link’ construction, the bezel and dial display a recurring guilloché motif, executed in a single miniature proportion.

Up close with the Chevalier brick-bracelet watch and Alain Delon's Ref. 12103, with a crisp guilloche dial.

1966 also marked the release of the epic war film Is Paris Burning? – a French-American co-production penned by Francis Ford Coppola and Gore Vidal. For the film’s premiere, lead actor Alain Delon – widely considered to be at the height of his career – sported the Ref. 12103, a 34mm dress watch with a Clous de Paris dial, embodying the Piaget family’s commitment to a refined, automatic expression of men’s horology. In stark contrast to much of the paraphernalia worn on red carpets today, this 12103 was Delon’s own property. That provenance helped to cement the popularity of this reference; and eventually, its design language came to form the basis for the Altiplano.

Any discussion of the Piaget society is incomplete without a mention of ‘secret’ watches: specifically, those owned by Salvadore Dalí and Andy Warhol. In 1967, Piaget successfully acquired the rights to reproduce the Dali D’OR: numismatic designs minted in four different values, bearing the famed Spanish surrealist’s likeness, along with that of his wife Gala. These authorised reproductions (conceived as a small run of watches, jewellery, and accessories) were something of a no-brainer, as by this stage, Piaget had been producing ‘secret’ watches fitted with ultra-thin calibres for at least two decades. The collection’s aesthetic leanings drew heavily on Dalí’s career-long fascination with ideas of mysticism and divine geometry. By Dalí’s own admission, “the transmutation of matter into gold is [my] eternal preoccupation,” encouraging the Design Studio to work exclusively with 18K and 22K yellow gold in order to render his likeness on the surface of bracelets, signet rings, and even cufflinks.

A vintage advertisement for the Dali D’Or.

That mercurial association with Dalí is matched (and perhaps even eclipsed) by American artist Andy Warhol. The Interview founder was a seminal figure in the Piaget Society of the 1980s; and in fact had begun patronising the brand almost a decade earlier. According to archival records, Warhol acquired at least 10 known watches from Piaget during his lifetime: the eclectic nature of which speaks to his anarchic yet somehow highly ordered style of collecting. As someone working to legitimise the artistic merit of mass culture, it’s unsurprising that Warhol took an interest in quartz watches. Among those examples he’s confirmed to have owned – on loan to us from Piaget’s private collection – there are those powered by the consortium-made Beta 21; in addition to the in-house calibre 7P.

Andy Warhol’s collection of Piaget watches.

A known wearer of Rolex and Patek Philippe watches, Warhol often turned to Piaget for more quixotic designs which these conventional brands weren’t necessarily equipped to produce. The quintessential illustration of this is the Ref. 9088 – better known as the ‘gold ingot’. A watch that lives up to its nickname, the 9088 must certainly have appealed to Warhol’s taste for curious objects, of a make and size that lent itself to his now-infamous Time Capsules.

Of course, the 9088 had been a longstanding part of Piaget’s oeuvre, with Warhol’s being a fairly typical example: combining the slim, manually-wound 9P movement with a bipartite case construction. The watch itself is cased in 18K gold and concealed with a spring-loaded hinge. In turn, the outer carriage that houses this time-keeping element is fashioned from 24K gold, including a sliding cover for added protection whilst not in use. Of all the watches Warhol collected, we identify the 9088 the most strongly with the house’s whimsical, elegantly made style. Travel clock, secret watch, design object: call it what you will – in any case, like most of Piaget’s more memorable creations, no one can accuse it of a lack of daring.

We’d like to extend our gratitude to Alain Borgeaud and Marc Menant of Piaget, whose expertise and logistical support helped to make this article possible.