It amazes me how much I don’t know about watches, despite being surrounded by high-end timepieces. I’ve written about this industry, almost exclusively, for several years and yet I know zip, zilch, nada in comparison to brand specialists who have seemingly endless, encyclopaedic knowledge. Did you know that Casio tests the shock resistance of G-shock watches by throwing them out a window? Or that the most expensive wristwatch ever sold went for US$31 million? Or that Patek Philippe's calibres contain 1,728 parts? The pros know an obscene amount of trivia, constantly reminding me I have a long way to go before I can truly call myself a “watch expert”.
This is why, when a friend of mine who has worked for Swiss watchmakers for decades told me he’d discovered something surprising, my interest was piqued. “Check this out,” he told me over drinks, as he pulled up an auction house’s website on his phone. It showed a “Serpenti” model in yellow gold—it looked like a vintage Bulgari wristwatch. Launched in 1948, Bulgari’s Serpenti watch collection is defined by a coiled snake-inspired bracelet that is designed using long bands of gold or steel wrapped around a flexible tube. The specific goldsmithing technique is called Tubogas. This easily recognisable style has become synonymous with the Italian house and has been worn by countless trendsetters, including Elizabeth Taylor and Naomi Campbell.
The timepiece being auctioned, however, had a different name etched onto its moss-green dial: Baume & Mercier, circa 1960. I had no idea Baume & Mercier designed Tubogas-style watches, let alone at the same time Bulgari’s Serpenti collection would have really taken off. My friend showed me another model that looked striking similar by Jaeger-LeCoultre, circa 1980.
And not long afterwards, I came across a yellow gold Piaget timepiece, circa 1970, with a lapis-set dial at Hong Kong’s Extraordinary Women, Extraordinary Timepieces exhibition. I couldn’t help but notice its likeness to the previous two, although this watch was held together by yellow gold strands that coiled around an oval-shaped dial, rather than a single bracelet. The snake motif wouldn’t be so obvious if it weren’t for the barely-there tip of the tail, which loops around the wrist.
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