The Rise of the Rainbow Watch

Rainbow setting—that is, adorning a timepiece with a bevy of colorful gems—has emerged as one of the most collectible tropes in high watchmaking. Rolex has a rainbow-tinted history that traces back to the ’80s when it embellished the elegant Cellini models, though it was the bezel of the 2012 Cosmograph Daytona—comprising 36 trapezium-cut sapphires of different colors—that really ignited the multicolored passion of collectors. Since then, rainbow hues have decorated a range of Rolexes, right up to this year’s Yacht-Master, set with cool blue and violet stones, and the new rainbow-set Daytona, a trophy of 2020s watch collecting.

“For any serious modern Daytona collector, a rainbow is a must-have,” says Christie’s watch specialist Remy Julia. “The ideal is to have the trilogy of the yellow, white, and rose. Six years back when I was constantly doing private sales on these, the price was $240,000, and that was already the moon. Now it’s doubled and still growing.”

What was once a novel way for the most affluent watch enthusiasts to flex their opulent taste (and budgets) has become a mainstay in the industry. Makers including Hublot and Audemars Piguet have harnessed the visual power of the rainbow to reference the creativity of art and cultural movements beyond the watch world.

Hublot was early on the trend, with the launch of the Big Bang Unico Sapphire Rainbow in 2017. The watch turned heads at the Met Gala last year on the wrist of noted stylist Law Roach, whose clients include Zendaya and Lewis Hamilton. “Part of the inspiration [for the Big Bang Unico] comes from Hublot’s tribute to Pop art and the use of flashy, bold colors to reinterpret haute horlogerie,” explains Hublot CEO Ricardo Guadalupe. “It was a great success, so we decided to extend rainbow setting to the rest of our collections.”

When I first saw Audemars Piguet’s new Royal Oak Offshore Selfwinding Music Edition, the pioneering artwork of Wassily Kandinsky immediately sprang to mind. One of the most influential artists of the 20th century, Kandinsky may have experienced synesthesia—a neurological condition that reroutes the five senses; in his case, it allowed him to see sound in color.

Kandinsky never had the chance to see the tunes of pop hitmaker Mark Ronson. But Ronson was a loyal wearer of a Royal Oak long before he signed up to be an ambassador for Audemars Piguet earlier this year. The DJ-producer joined the A.P. squad in time for the launch of these new Offshores, which take inspiration from the hardware and fixtures found inside a recording studio. The signature Tapisserie structure of the dial has been printed to resemble the polychromatic pixelation of a V.U. meter—the audio-engineering equivalent of a volume knob. Knurled-textured studs evoke jack plugs, and the crown guards riff on the fader of a mixing console. In order to experience the reverse Kandinsky (hearing music by looking at a colorful watch), you will need to upgrade to the gem-set version, which features equalizer–appropriate colored stones on the dial and a color-graded bezel arrayed with rubies, tsavorites, and sapphires of yellow, orange, green, and blue.

Last summer, Chanel showed synesthetic symptoms with its J12 Electro collection—which featured matte black steel and white gold ceramic watches busted down with rainbow sapphire bezels—apparently inspired by the brand’s watchmaking creative director Arnaud Chastaingt’s love for a certain ’90s music scene in Paris.

Whether it’s Chanel finding inspiration in the flashing lights of electro culture, or A.P. citing the 10 colors of the equalizer, these exuberant creations are rainbow-set watchmaking at its most inspired.

Moreover, rainbow setting is a style that favors jeweler–watchmakers who can merge the power of their craftsmanship with their expertise in stone sourcing. I gained insight into what that looks like when I saw a rainbow–set tourbillon at Chopard. It was not so much rainbow set as smothered, a bravura display of color and technique with every surface of the watch—case, dial, winding crown, lugs, and clasp—adorned by gems shimmering in a symphony of colors. If only Kandinsky could have seen it.

A version of this story originally appeared in the September 2022 issue of GQ with the title “The Rainbow Set”.

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