If you’re interested in vintage watches, keep up with auctions, or generally just love horology, you’ve probably heard the name Gay Frères. The famed manufacturer made bracelets for the likes of Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe, Jaeger-LeCoultre, and Rolex. In fact, Rolex acquired Gay Frères in 1998: they still make bracelets for The Crown to this day. Even before wristwatches existed at large, Gay Frères was renowned as a chainiste: a maker of pocket watch chains. They were masters of their metalworking domain, creating elaborate pieces of jewelry out of precious metals and steel alike. This background gave them a massive head start on the bracelet-making industry, particularly when steel became the status quo. As a result, Gay Frères was the go-to manufacturer for some of the most iconic watch bracelets in history. Today, we’ll be looking at the big 3, with a few honorable mentions.
The Rolex Oyster Bracelet
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Before the Oyster bracelet, there was the Bonklip bracelet (above, left). This expandable interlocking design was seen across the watch industry in the early-20th century, and Rolex was no exception. The brand utilized one manufacturer only: Gay Frères. This relationship continued into the 1940s when Rolex developed and patented their Oyster bracelet, released in 1948. From rivets to folded links to the solid links of today, Gay Frères stood alongside Rolex in their evolution of perhaps the most iconic watch bracelet of all time. This partnership is approaching its 100 year anniversary.
The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Bracelet
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By the 1970s, Gay Frères operated the largest factory in Geneva. They were a powerhouse not only in the domain of watch bracelet manufacturing, but jewelry at large. Their ability to create both elegant and utilitarian products was (and still is) remarkable. We can’t talk about elegance and utility without mentioning the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak designed by Gerald Gente: a watch referred to by Jean-Claude Biver as “the first true disruption” in the watch industry. As an integrated bracelet watch, much of the Royal Oak’s allure lay in its bracelet. As you may have guessed by now, Audemars Piguet turned to Gay Frères when producing the stainless steel Royal Oak bracelet. Materializing Gente’s integrated designs was no easy task: Gay Frères was the perfect candidate, and boy did they deliver.
At launch, the Royal Oak was limited to just 1,000 pieces. This “A-series” sold out in just over one year: a success at the time that would now be considered a huge flop. Once it was relaunched as a permanent catalog item and iterated upon with smaller sizes, precious metals, and eventually complications, the Royal Oak saw monumental success.
The Patek Philippe Nautilus Bracelet
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A few years after Audemars Piguet released the Royal Oak, Patek Philippe released the Nautilus (much to the dismay of Audemars Piguet). As you can imagine, their choice of bracelet manufacturer was an obvious one. Gay Frères had already seen through production of a Gente-designed integrated bracelet. However, despite their similarities, these watches and their bracelets are by no means the same. Unlike the primarily-industrial design of the Royal Oak, the Nautilus leans into elegance with its polished center links and rounded edges. As Jean-Claude Biver tells it, Gente imagined the Nautilus as an evolution in time of the Royal Oak: if you leave a Royal Oak on the beach for 10,000 years, it will become a Nautilus. Regardless of what Gente thought or said about his designs, they were categorically difficult to manufacture in steel. Nevertheless, Gay Frères knocked the Nautilus bracelet out of the park, as they did the Royal Oak, further solidifying their prowess in both utility and elegance.
Final Thoughts and Honorable Mentions
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While the aforementioned bracelets are the most iconic, not just in Gay Frères’ portfolio but the watch industry at large (with some exceptions, obviously *cough* Jubilee *cough*), they are not the extent of Gay Frères creations. The manufacturer also made the beads-of-rice bracelet — yes, the first beads-of-rice bracelet. They also made the instantly-recognizable Zenith “ladder” bracelet: one that I have not tried on myself but am infinitely curious about. Had you heard of Gay Frères before this article? Let us know in the comments below.
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