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Feature: The Art of the Piaget Gold Bracelet

I’m going to be quite frank here—ladies’ watches can be a bit, well, boring. You know the recipe: gem set gold in a slender form-factor that’s as forgettable as the name on the dial. As long as it catches every stray particle of light and scatters it around the room, it seems that will surely do. To a burly, Deepsea-wearing, hairy-chested bloke, a ladies’ watch from Piaget may seem little different on the surface, but beneath the bright light glancing off the gold, these watches have a little secret: their bracelets are some of the most complicated in all of watchmaking. Stick around, you won’t regret it.

Chain Bracelet

“Oh right,” you’re probably thinking, “what can you possibly tell me about a little jewellery watch that’s going to interest me?” Well, first off, back it up with that attitude, and secondly, I’m about to tell you. Piaget has been known since the mid-20th century for its jewellery pieces, crafting elegant, slender watches for women using the finest materials our planet has to offer.

But in amongst all the glitz, glamour and, let’s face it, fluff, there are practical problems that arise from trying to make watches like these. Since the 1957 launch of the calibre 9P, a 2mm thick movement of Piaget’s own design, the slenderness of the bit of the watch you look at to tell the time has never been an issue—but what about the rest of it, the other bit that holds the time-telling bit on the wrist and stops it falling off?

The easiest solution to strapping a slender watch onto a slender wrist in a way that’s both elegant and comfortable is a, erm, strap, typically made from cow or perhaps some other more exotic and less farmyard-y animal. But these Piaget watches were supposed to reach the extremities of elegance and luxury, and a bit of dead animal skin just wasn’t going to cut the mustard. If the watch was gold, the strap had to be gold as well.

Piaget was founded in 1874, La Côte-aux-Fées, Switzerland

Piaget was founded in 1874, La Côte-aux-Fées, Switzerland

So how do you turn heavy, inflexible gold into something so light and dainty it barely feels like it’s there at all? For that we turn our attention to the medieval battlefield of all places, to the armour worn by soldiers to try and prevent—or at least delay—their demise: chainmail. Chainmail was developed as an alternative to heavy, solid, inflexible metal armour to be lighter—well, less heavy—and less restrictive, to give its wearer an advantage.

Whilst the bracelet of a Piaget watch didn’t need to stop a broadsword, it did need to be flexible and comfortable, and so the chainmail approach seemed ideal. But there was a problem: I don’t know if you’ve seen the entirety of the behind the scenes from the extended edition boxset of The Lord of the Rings trilogy directed by Peter Jackson and starring Elijah Wood, but there’s a section in it about chainmail. Bear with me. A very depressed-sounding Weta technician explains how it takes three days to make one suit of chainmail as he assembles it ring by ring with his hands, almost blindly piecing it together, he’s made so much of it. We cut to eighteen months on and he’s still at it, 15 million rings later.

Now imagine replicating that at an almost microscopic level. There are approaching 1,000 rings in this chain bracelet, each one individually curved into shape, linked together one by one and soldered shut, by hand, at a scale that’s barely visible. The production of The Lord of the Rings went on for several years—Piaget has been making these bracelets since the 1960s.

Mesh Bracelet

A fine chain linked bracelet was all very well and good, but the guys over at Piaget thought they could do better. As delicate as this arrangement of tiny links is, let’s be honest—no one’s going to think it’s as smooth and unified as a leather strap. This is bracelet inception, and we need to go deeper.

Inspiration came once again from another wearable item, but one less suited to the battlefield this time: plain old, ordinary clothes. A t-shirt or a pair of jeans feels like it’s a nice, smooth, single layer of material, despite the fact that—spoiler alert—it’s actually woven together from threads of—in my case at least—the finest nylon.

Except, instead of nylon, this material would be woven in gold thread, tightly stitched around gold pins to give the look and feel of fabric. Imagine a suit made out of this stuff. It would be … heavy. But here on a watch bracelet, it offers the sparkly benefits of gold but without the inconvenience of a brash, bulky traditional bracelet.

Piaget make exceptional watches, including the worlds thinnest watch: the Piaget Altiplano Ultimate Concept

Piaget make exceptional watches, including the worlds thinnest watch: the Piaget Altiplano Ultimate Concept

Now, at this point you might be thinking, “Who in their right mind would want to spend hours and hours of their time making tiny chain link or wire weave bracelets,” and the answer is, as you would imagine, not many people. In fact, the last school that taught this stuff closed down a decade and a half ago, and it’s easy to see why. This is painstaking, tedious work that requires almost ungodly levels of concentration and patience on a very difficult, but very repetitive process. Not many people would be capable or willing to become what’s known as a chainsmith.

There’s a man at Piaget, however, who is willing and capable to do this work, and has done for over twenty years, but he—and this isn’t a joke—has just one year left ‘til retirement. Assuming a career at Piaget is nothing like working homicide for the LAPD, he should continue to live a long and healthy life, but as far the work he’s leaving behind goes, there are no graduates to replace him, no CVs dropping on the doormat at Piaget HQ. He’s the last of a legacy. Done. Finito.

Except that Piaget saw this coming, and they asked him to train two jewellers to learn his skillset. If he hadn’t that knowledge would be gone forever. It’s not on Wikipedia or on a YouTube tutorial—“Whatsup guys! Today we’re going to learn how to make a chain link bracelet, but first I need to talk about something completely irrelevant to make sure I get ads on the video”—it’s all up there in his head, and in the muscle memory of his fingers. Let’s just hope he didn’t train the new apprentices wrong on purpose, you know, just for the LOLs …

Palace Décor Bracelet

We’ve made some good progress, but—and I don’t want to offend a man who’s dedicated twenty years of his life to his art so soon before his retirement—I think we can do better, and so did Piaget, because there’s a third element to this story that takes the concept even further than before. The chain mail was good, the wire weave was better, but we still don’t quite have that uniform appearance offered by a simple leather strap.

If this was me, I would at this point throw my hat on the floor and walk out, complaining outwardly of impossible expectations, but then I’m no master craftsperson, nor will I ever be. Piaget so happened to have a few of those back in the day and so an idea was proposed that would finally bring the suppleness and uniformity of a leather strap together with the beauty of a solid gold bracelet once and for all.

It was a crazy idea, the craziest yet, and one that demanded over forty hours of finely handcrafted labour to complete from start to finish. Imagine that, coming into work on a Monday morning to start a bracelet and just about getting it done Friday afternoon before you go home. One bracelet. Not the whole watch, not even the movement—one bracelet.

A Piaget watch may seem expensive, but the quality and skill in each one justifies the expense

A Piaget watch may seem expensive, but the quality and skill in each one justifies the expense

The idea was this: build a brick wall of tiny links spaced just a few millimetres apart, held in place by a ladder of around fifty pins to create what is essentially a very fine bracelet. That sounds fairly normal so far, if on a much smaller scale. But for the next step to work, the precision on that bracelet would have to be absolute, with a perfect fit between each incredibly tiny link so that no gap, however small, could be seen. With the bracelet laid flat, it would look, quite simply, like a solid piece of metal.

To achieve this requires each link to be hand finished and fitted such that the fitment is beyond perfect. Every piece is soldered in one by one and fine-tuned to sit completely flush to give the appearance of an unbroken surface. That’s step one; next comes step two—the hard bit.

Here’s where our master engravers step in. Fortunately, there’s a few more of those left than there are chainsmiths, but that’s only relatively speaking; at one point around thirty years ago, the master engraver at Piaget had to train his son to make sure the company wouldn’t go without. Now Piaget has two master engravers, with twenty years’ and eight years’ experience working with jewellery respectively, adding the finishing touches to this, what’s known as a Palace Décor, bracelet.

It’s the master engraver’s job to make what’s left of the joins between each link disappear completely by hand carving a motif into the surface. This is incredibly painstaking work, taking up to fifteen hours per bracelet, and incredibly risky, too—one mistake and the entire bracelet is scrap, sent back to the furnace. It’s also an opportunity to express artistry and creativity, with an abundance of designs gracing these fine bracelets over the years—at last count over a hundred had been produced. From bark to fur to frost and everything in between, each line is delicately scribed by hand with tools that are almost as old as the company itself, turning the bracelet into the finest expression of elegance ever achieved.

Behind every watch there’s a story, a craft, and for these seemingly straightforward ladies’ pieces from Piaget, there’s more to tell than you might otherwise think. From chain to Palace Décor, these bracelets hide decades of skill, utmost precision and, unfortunately, a dying art. Let’s hope that when Piaget’s artisans finally do retire, the ability to produce these hidden masterpieces doesn’t retire with them.

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