A few weeks ago, my grandpa told me “if you’re spending more than $20 on a watch, you’re buying jewelry”. This got me thinking. What factors contribute to a watch’s value? The answers might seem obvious: build quality, movement, brand equity, etc. Up to a certain point, each dollartrulygets you a better watch. Miles beyond that point (and the consideration of value in general) we have gem-set watches. Let me be clear – this isn’t a bad thing. I just want to clarify their market position. Gem-set watches are the highest of the high-end. Today, we’ll look at two over-the-top examples. But first, we need some background.
Gem-set watches are nothing new. In fact, the first ever wristwatch (pictured above), created for the Queen of Naples in 1810, was covered in diamonds. Wristwatches were status symbols – not tools. 100 years later, they became a staple in military operations. Over the decades, wristwatches gained resistance to water, shock, and magnetism. These rugged tool watches quickly became the status quo, being adopted by everyday civilians. No diamonds, no gems, just function. Naturally, the demand for these tool watches brought about “luxury sports watches'': tool watches with haute finishing. Today, luxury sports watches dominate the industry: AP Royal Oak, Patek Philippe Nautilus, Rolex Daytona, etc. We’ve officially come full circle – you can buy a sports watch kitted with 100+ precious gemstones. . . straight from the factory. Historical semantics aside, modern gem-set watches are pretty, shiny, and expensive. Let’s take a look at two of my favorites.
Rainbow Rolex Daytona
There are multiple Rainbow Daytona references. They’re all essentially the same, aside from the precious metal used for the case and bracelet. These are outstanding watches. The bezel consists of 36 baguette-cut sapphires, all of which are different colors. Rolex carefully selects these gems to create a perfect rainbow gradient around the bezel. Attaining this level of color accuracy is near-impossible andincrediblyexpensive. Once they have the right stone, setting it in place is no easy task. Any variance above .02 mm is considered unacceptable by Rolex. The quality control is unthinkable considering each gem is hand-set.
On the dial, we see 8 brilliant-cut diamond indices. They appear at every hour excluding 12, 3, 6, and 9. Similar diamonds cover the lugs and crown guard. If the sun hits this watch the wrong way, you might go blind. The Rainbow Daytona is many people’s dream watch: considered to be somewhat of a unicorn in collector circles. Although you might be nervous to remove the bracelet of a million dollar watch, I think it would look great on a black rubber strap. The black would match the dial, allowing the gems to really pop – particularly on the lugs.
Patek Philippe Nautilus 5719/10G
As I said in the intro, these examples are a bit over-the-top. The Patek Philippe Nautilus 5719/10G is, simply put, ridiculous. It has a total of 1,343 diamonds. They cover about 98% of the watch’s visible surface area. Set on white gold, this Nautilus essentially looks like one big diamond. Even Bill Gates would be scared to wear it out of the house. But as we know, he religiously wears a $44 Casio Duro.
The bracelet is perhaps the most visually striking aspect of this watch. The large outer links are set with brilliant-cut diamonds: 803 in total. However, the smaller inner links are set with 6 baguette-cut diamonds each. The contrast between small, brilliant-cut diamonds and large, horizontal baguette-cut diamonds is breathtaking. It gives this seemingly one-note watch some visual variety. We see a similar contrast on the dial, where the 12, 6, and 9 hour indices are baguette-cut diamonds. These cut through the sea of round, brilliant-cut diamonds on the rest of the dial. This watch is a masterclass in factory gem-setting. Using only 1 ingredient, the Nautilus 5719/10G achieves an incredibly unique look.
Gem-set watches exist in their own category. While few of us will ever own one, all of us can appreciate their beauty. Precious stones are deeply ingrained in the history of watchmaking. We should celebrate these modern examples as a continuation of horological metiers d’art. There’s so much to discuss with these watches – I haven’t even touched on the controversial topic of aftermarket gem-setting. Perhaps that will be its own article down the line. Let me know what you think of these gem-set marvels!