Art Deco watches: ‘timeless’ designs of the Jazz Age

A Cartier Art Deco emerald and diamond platinum wristwatch achieved $50,000 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2018. Image courtesy of Fortuna Auction and LiveAuctioneers.

A Cartier Art Deco emerald and diamond platinum wristwatch achieved $50,000 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2018. Image courtesy of Fortuna Auction and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK — The Art Deco era was short, lasting from about 1925 to when World War II broke out in 1939, but its popularity has never waned. Beloved for its streamlined designs, Art Deco style had a particularly big impact on fashion, jewelry, and specifically, watches.

Wristwatches and pocket watches of stainless steel and silver for men are evocative of the Art Deco era, as are glittering gold and platinum bracelet watches for women. Both are sought by fashionistas who appreciate their timeless and modern look.

Design houses in France, the country that hosted the 1925 international exposition where Art Deco style was born, released a number of fine watches during this period, and Cartier was one of the most prominent and renowned. Women of the 1920s adored bold fashions and wristwatches were made to suit, festooned with baubles and gemstones. Unlike chunky men’s watches, ladies’ watches were often delicate-looking and embraced the streamlined design of the era. A standout is a Cartier Art Deco emerald and diamond platinum wristwatch that achieved $50,000 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2018 at Fortuna Auction. The platinum bracelet is set with more than 11 carats of carved emeralds and three carats of diamonds. While the gems command attention, the watch face is so small that it could be overlooked. The font of the numerals on the watch face, typical of this era, is striking and unmistakably Art Deco.

An Omega watch made in 1934, during the peak of the Art Deco era, sold for $50,361 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2020. Image courtesy of DESA Unicum SA and LiveAuctioneers.

An Omega watch made in 1934, during the peak of the Art Deco era, sold for zł210,000 (about $50,361) plus the buyer’s premium in September 2020. Image courtesy of DESA Unicum SA and LiveAuctioneers.

While Art Deco watches were noted for geometric styling and ornamental motifs, watch design was as much about the overall look as the individual materials used. Because the time period was part of the Machine Age, stainless steel and silver were often incorporated into men’s watches to give them a sleek and industrial appearance. A men’s Omega watch sold for zł210,000 (about $50,361) plus the buyer’s premium in September 2020 at DESA Unicum SA, an auction house in Warsaw, Poland. The reference number of 8170957 indicates that this watch was made in 1934 and the geometric and guilloche patterning on the envelope circle further attests to its Art Deco styling.

This Van Cleef & Arpels onyx and diamond fob watch pendant necklace made $24,307 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2022. Image courtesy of Elmwood’s and LiveAuctioneers.


This Van Cleef & Arpels onyx and diamond fob watch pendant necklace made £20,000 (about $24,307) plus the buyer’s premium in December 2022. Image courtesy of Elmwood’s and LiveAuctioneers.

A clever, chic piece for the ladies is a Van Cleef & Arpels onyx and diamond fob watch pendant necklace that made £20,000 (about $24,307) in December 2022 at Elmwood’s. It can be worn two ways: The front side of the piece looks like a statement necklace, with rows of diamonds set in platinum, but when it is flipped around, the watch takes center stage.

This 1920s Patek Philippe cushion mechanical man’s watch, Ref #6088, in 18K gold realized $20,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2022. Image courtesy of APR57 Gallery and LiveAuctioneers.

This 1920s Patek Philippe cushion mechanical man’s watch, Ref #6088, in 18K gold realized $20,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2022. Image courtesy of APR57 Gallery and LiveAuctioneers.

Established in 1839, Patek Philippe is renowned for its watches, and among its highly collectible examples from the Art Deco era is a 1920s cushion mechanical man’s watch in 18K gold, Ref #6088, which realized $20,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2022 at APR57 Gallery. The watch has a square case covering a silver Oyster dial and unusual scroll lugs, and its reference model is seldom found at auction.

Likely a prototype, this Vacheron Constantin aluminum open face pocket watch earned $4,400 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2018. Image courtesy of Champagne Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Likely a prototype, this Vacheron Constantin aluminum open face pocket watch earned $4,400 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2018. Image courtesy of Champagne Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Another notable Art Deco timepiece is a Vacheron Constantin aluminum open face pocket watch, believed to have been made in 1932, which sold for $4,400 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2018 at Champagne Auctions. It is suspected to be an early prototype, and could be one of the first aluminum watches ever made. “It is important to understand that this example predates any known examples ever brought to market by five years,” according to the auction catalog description for this watch. The serial numbers are lower than others previously recorded and the movement is identical to images in the company’s archives that detail the first aluminum pocket watch it made. It appears to have been a special commission for a Canadian aluminum company. After much experimentation to find a durable alloy, Vacheron Constantin used aluminum in the case, dial hands, bridges and plate while the balance, springs and wheels were fashioned from materials more typically found in watches.

Whether crafted in platinum, gold, stainless steel or aluminum, Art Deco-era watches are cherished today. Their glamorous style and high degree of craftsmanship endears them to collectors whose grandparents weren’t yet born when these watches were new.