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Where the rainbow leads next?

Chris Hall
April 15, 2024
5 min

In the world of luxury watches, rainbow-set watches have become just another offshoot of the technicolour explosion that it can feel like the entire industry is awash in. It’s easy – and perhaps not entirely incorrect – to lump them in with the by-now-clichéd discovery that watches don’t have to be black, white or even blue. Their increased visibility has also chimed with a general reappraisal of gem-set watches for men; over the last two decades, the focus has shifted from after-market customisation to in-house gem-setting by the watch brands themselves. (Consider the heavily iced watches, once reserved for hip-hop stars, on everyone from Timothée Chalamet and Harry Styles, to Brooklyn Beckham.)

Left to right: CARTIER Libre Watch, HUBLOT Big Bang Integrated Time Only King Gold Rainbow, AUDEMARS PIGUET Royal Oak Selfwinding Tanzanite “50th Anniversary” (This piece is part of a set of ten pieces, each decorated with a different gemstone), PATEK PHILIPPE Aquanaut Luce “Rainbow”

But it wasn’t always like that. Not so long ago, a rainbow-bezel Rolex was an almost mythical creature. You may have sighted them online, without being entirely sure what you were seeing; Rolex itself was tight-lipped on the matter, with no official details published. These were off-menu items, made available to the right customers with a degree of discretion that belies their jazzy appearance. (Rolex today has confirmed that it began in the 1980s, with some non-Oyster jewellery pieces, and references 18058 and 18159 in the Day-Date range.) The secretive nature of rainbow-setting might in part have been because it wasn’t on-brand for Rolex. I’d go as far as to say that rainbow gem work isn’t especially ‘on-brand’ for any luxury watchmaker: almost by definition it exists as a means of subverting the design to which it’s been applied. You can see that in something like a rainbow-set Speedmaster; perhaps surprisingly, Omega was among the first to bring such a flippant touch to a venerated tool watch. A post-modern paradox; a touch of tongue-in-cheek trickery. "Look what we can do", it seemed to say. "Aren’t we funny?"

Today, that kind of attitude is pretty much a manifesto for some brands; what started as a bit of fun has become one of the main creative pillars. We’ve seen rainbows shine at Patek Philippe, on its most recent Aquanaut; at Hublot, which released its Big Bang Unico Sapphire Rainbow as long ago as 2017, and most decadently at Audemars Piguet, which this year released a set of ten 37mm Royal Oak models each completely set with baguette-cut stones of a perfect match, from lurid green to royal blue and imperial red.

The 'Seven Magic Mountains' art installation by Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone in Las Vegas, Nevada.The seven towers of colorfully stacked boulders, stand more than 30 feet high. Photograph © Getty

Yet it’s not the mega-jewellers who started us down this rainbow road; you get the distinct impression that to the likes of Cartier, Piaget or Harry Winston the concept of a rainbow bezel represents a rather humdrum means of free expression. When you’ve painted masterpiece frescoes, why would you go back to using a set of crayons? Rainbow setting is arguably exactly the kind of circumscribed rebellion that can still fit within Swiss watch stereotypes: ordered, clean, simple and pure. But when done correctly, it does have a certain impact: consider AP’s line of sparkling block colours, for one. Many were bought as a full set, so it’s a pity you can really only wear a maximum of two at once.

Rolex Day-Date ‘Rainbow’ Ref. 128348RBR

These technicolour creations also tell us something about where we are headed. From Mario Kart tourbillons to emoji-cluttered Richard Milles, watch releases in 2022 have increasingly sung from a hymn sheet of greater flexibility and fearlessness. Working with gemstones presents its own inherent challenges: sourcing the stones for AP’s rainbow set took a full year for Geneva’s specialist firm Salanitro, and that’s before you factor in the process of cutting each one, the inevitable loss of a small percentage, and the limited number of talented jewellers up to the challenge of actually setting them into the watch.

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Selfwinding Carolina Bucci Limited Edition

As Gemologist for Audemars Piguet, Nathalie Barzilay, has said, “there is definitely a growing enthusiasm for gem-set watches” For her team “Colours are vectors to express emotions and personality”, adding that “several beautiful stones are still not used by the watchmaking industry. Tanzanites, spessartites and tsavorites are rarely seen on wrists.” All three appear on AP’s set of single-colour watches, chosen for their more vibrant colour when compared to sapphire – but there’s no doubt that finding 800 identically-coloured stones is no mean feat. However, there could be another way. The advent of synthetic gems, slowly being accepted by the mainstream watchmakers if not, yet, the great jewellery houses, might mean that such supply problems are lessened. It might even open up frontiers of creativity simply not possible within the natural world: imagine enormous multi-hued sapphires, in shapes unknown to today’s cutters. Right now, that remains a fantasy – but one wouldn’t bet against such a vivid one.