Hermès Watches: Why they are Worth Seriously Considering
by Raman Kalra
Raman Kalra is the founder of The Watch Muse blog and has kindly agreed to share some of his articles with us here on Quill & Pad.
Hermès needs no introduction. The name is synonymous with luxury, especially in handbags, leather goods and accessories. However, they are not a name that tends to come up when discussing luxury watches. Despite this, Hermès has a long horological, but only in recent years have they taken a leap forward in what they offer.
Does this mean that Hermès is worth considering? Would you consider buying a watch from Hermès over Rolex or Cartier? We’re still at a point where many watch enthusiasts overlook the brand, but here’s why Hermès might be the next name to have on your radar.
Hermès Watchmaking History
Hermès has been producing watches since 1912 when Emile Hermès made a watch for his daughter Jaqueline by attaching some leather straps to a pocket watch.
Hermès continued with the leather straps and in 1928 opened a store in that started selling timepieces. These watches were branded as Hermès, but the movements came from several Swiss brands. At the same time, the store began to evolve and it eventually became known as a flagship watch retailer, carrying other top brands including Rolex, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Universal Genève.
Hermès did not just sell these watches, but branded them with small Hermès stamps, similar to what we know from Tiffany & Co., as well as collaborating with the Swiss brands to produce limited editions. This arrangement lasted for some time and it was only in 1978 that Hermès decided to create watches for itself. It established a Swiss subsidiary in Biel, Switzerland, called La Montre Hermès.
Hermès began developing its own designs and in the years that followed serval well-known models were released: Arceau, Clipper, Cape Cod and the H-Hour. However, until 2006, Hermès watches relied on design as the movements (both quartz and automatic) they used were nothing out of the ordinary. This is the period where I believe it is fair to consider them more as fashion watches.
This changed in 2003 with the launch of the Dressage watch. This was the first time the brand ventured into higher-quality movements, using one produced by Vaucher. Behind closed doors, they were clearly satisfied with the movements, so much so that in 2006 Hermès bought a 25% stake in Vaucher, which gave them access to all types of calibers, as well as the development of modules to power interesting complications. The other 75% of Vaucher is owned by the Sandoz Family Foundation, which also owns Parmigiani Fleurier.
Hermès didn’t stop there with the investments and acquisitions. In 2012, Hermès bought Natéber SA for dial production and in 2013, Joseph Erard SA for cases. It’s obvious that their intention to become a serious player in high end watches has been building for some time, although it only became obvious with the launch of the Slim d’Hermès in 2015.
The Slim d’Hermès is a simple, time-only watch, however, it was the upgrades to the movement that took Hermès to new heights. The H1950 is an ultra-thin movement with a micro-rotor that took four years to develop. This was the value of the Vaucher investment in full force and a pivotal moment for Hermès.
In the last few years, Hermès has not stopped pushing ahead and we have seen spectacular timepieces such as the Arceau L’Heure De La Lune and most recently, the Hermès H08. While Hermès has had a long horological history, the brand has really taken off in the last few years and it’s time to take Hermès seriously as a watchmaker.
Why Hermès Watches Are Worth Considering
There are several reasons t why Hermès is now a brand worth considering when you are looking for your next purchase. I want to break this down into three categories: movements, design and brand image.
The investment in Vaucher has been key to Hermès recent success. Movements are important to many watch enthusiasts. Whether you fall into this category or not, the movement is the engine of the watch, and is where the majority of technological achievements lie. In a more poetic lens, the movement is the heart of a watch. It is the sole reason why a watch can be considered timeless.
However, the movement also accounts for a significant percentage of the cost behind luxury watches. The development, time, craftsmanship and raw materials that go into a new caliber can lead to higher-priced timepieces. When it comes down to spending your hard-earned money, you naturally want the watch to look great, but you also want to be sure that what you are buying reflects the price you are paying.
There are lots of watches out there that use relatively simple movements but are priced relatively high as the brands rely more heavily on their brand name. Hermès may have been subject to this previously, but it is no longer the case today. The Vaucher stake has led to movements that they can call in-house and are produced with quality in mind.
Taking a closer look towards the top of what Hermès offers, the Hermès Arceau L’Heure De La Lune has a moon phase complication, but not in the traditional sense. Two subdials (time and date) circle around the watch face that has two moons, representing the North and South hemispheres, positioned at 12 and 6 o’clock. The movement driving this is the H1837. It is an automatic movement made using 193 parts, 28 jewels and beats at 28,800 vph, yet manages to be only 4.3mm thick.
Another example is the H1950 found in the Slim d’Hermès. This movement is based on the Vaucher 5401, which is also used by other brands. Not just any brands though, the Vaucher 5401 is the base for the Richard Mille RM033, which has a retail price far higher than the Slim d’Hermès. Yes, some decoration on the movement is missing compared to those even more high-end watches using this movement, but that does not result in the H1950 lacking in quality. It measures 30mm across, only 2.6mm thick and looks impressive through the exhibition case back.
With the Vaucher integration into the Hermès lineup, one of the main complaints towards their watches has been addressed.
Design is a vital aspect of a watch and Hermès is aware of this and a world leader in design. No corners have been cut and if anything, they have gone above and beyond as a watch brand. Many consider watches to be art and this is particularly the case with some brands – Hermès is one of those brands.
In a world where watches are either conforming to a certain design language (thinking about the Rolex Submariner/Tudor Black Bay) or looking towards vintage pieces for inspiration, Hermès stands out by offering something totally unique and forward-looking. This is seen in case shapes, dial font and textures as well as color palette.
The Hermès design language spans across styles from sporty to dress watches, while managing to maintain their individuality. It is pretty impressive. Not many other brands achieve this – Rolex and Cartier do for example, but Tudor has very different designs from one range to another and doesn’t have the same coherence.
It is best to demonstrate the extent of commitment Hermès puts into designs through some examples. The Slim d’Hermès is a relatively simple watch. Yes, there are some complicated variations, but looking at the time-only model, it is a traditional dress watch in the sense of being understated. Yet, Hermès understands the importance of typography in a product. This is something that a few other great brands also appreciate, Apple being the most notable.
Typography is an essential component of the user’s visual interaction with a product, and in the case of the Slim d’Hermès, how the wearer reads the time. It may not seem important at first, but when it is done correctly, it is notable. To create the font for the Slim d’Hermès, the brand collaborated with Philippe Apeloig, a graphic designer whose work is in the MoMA collection. This alone shows you the extent of importance Hermès puts on design.
Beyond font though, there are other aspects of the Slim d’Hermès that stand out, in particular, you can see that the lugs are unusual as they lead straight into the spring bar. Hermès took a relatively simple recipe for a dress watch but added their own flair to ensure that it did not just fade into the background.
Another example is the Hermès Cape Cod. The Cape Cod is an unusual watch and interestingly, when it was designed in 1991, the brief from Hermès was for a square case. Henri d’Origny, a legendary designer for Hermès and behind many of their products from ties to scarves, rebelled against a purely square case and created the Cape Cod.
If you look closer, you can see that it is a square watch enclosed by a curved rectangle. Once again, the typography is quintessentially Hermès and there is a range of dial options on offer.
One watch worth highlighting is the Cape Cod Crépuscule. Hermès, working with with the Swiss Center for Electronics and Microtechnology (CSEM), created a dial using a single silicon wafer.
The plate is only 0.5mm thick and is coated in an extremely precise manner to achieve various shades of blue. The production requires photolithography to reproduce the motif design, followed by a gold-coating stage to finalize the details. Not forgetting that the dusk motif is designed by artist Thanh-Phong Lê. With this model, Hermès gives a true case for its watches being considered art.
These are two examples, but there are many instances where Hermès’ attention to design is seen. Look at the Arceau L’Heure De La Lune (discussed above) and how Hermès took a completely novel approach to the moon phase complication.
The Hermès H08 collection released in 2021 is the brand’s sports collection, featuring a distinctive case design and an intelligent interpretation of a small-seconds subdial (have a look at the seconds – is it a small seconds hand or a large small-seconds complication?). It is refreshing to see such design innovation from a brand.
The final reason why Hermès watches are worth considering is the brand’s image and reputation. While this is more subjective I believe that image and reputation are beneficial to contemplate. We are in a world where watches are no longer primarily tools. There was a time when a wristwatch was vital whether it be for diving, flying, military, or even just knowing the time when going about your day. This is no longer the case with technology and smartphones.
Today a luxury wristwatch is more about the emotion it evokes, and this could either come from its aesthetics or the story behind a timepiece, or both. Hermès manages to achieve a unique style with their designs. They are playful and whimsical in a relatively uptight industry. What other brands would make the seconds hand neither short nor long on a sports model? Who else creates a GMT using a separate subdial with indices in no particular structure?
It is great to see something so different, and with movements to match the design quality, Hermès is carving out its own niche. I believe that the Hermès customer, by buying into the brand and the thought process, is also going against the grain of the traditional Swiss watch brands. It is showing that you are not conforming to the seriousness that some brands take themselves – without naming names, who cares if a watch has a line of red text or not when you have a two-tone H08 on your wrist?
Herein lies the appeal of Hermès. Not buying into any brand snobbery, but buying a watch purely because it looks good.
Why the Relative Lack of Popularity and What Comes Next?
It’s no surprise that Hermès has become a more popular option in recent years. However, this is all relative and the interest in Hermès watches still lags behind all the traditional large Swiss manufacturers (using Google search trends). You may question why their popularity is not higher and what could be done to change that. The reality is that when purchasing any luxury product, there is a certain element of status involved. This might not be in all cases, but it certainly is more frequent than not.
Hermès benefits from brand recognition in many areas given what it represents in terms of luxury, but that just does not translate into watches. They have such strong brand recognition in other products that it might actually detract from the timepieces they produce. The appreciation for the underlying watches has not become widespread (yet) as many are still too quick to dismiss Hermès as a fashion watch brand.
This is a tricky situation to be in. Grand Seiko was, and still is to some degree, in a similar position as there was some stigma around the use of Seiko on the dial when spending four figures and more. It feels as though Grand Seiko, through strong marketing, are slightly ahead of Hermès in changing the broad consumer impression of the brand. Hermès needs to follow suit and continuously remind the watch community of their existence and quality..
Looking forward, I am convinced that Hermès will eventually change the impression of consumers given the quality of their products. However, this won’t be without some effort, and in my eyes, this will all come down to the story and narrative Hermès attaches to its timepieces. Hermès is not Rolex; the product will not sell regardless. They need to create a narrative that generates emotion in consumers. Buying a luxury watch comes down to emotion, the design and the story behind a piece. Hermès has the design angle and now it needs to focus on the why. By doing this, the prospect of owning one of their watches becomes more attractive.
Hermès is not a name immediately associated with high-end luxury watches, but in recent years they have been making big strides in the right direction. Whatever their initial intention was, they have created an interesting proposition in the watch world. By investing in Vaucher and taking their movement quality to new levels, combined with real attention to detail on the design, the watches they produce are up there and competing with those from the biggest brands.
Fighting those who discount their watches based on the brand’s past reputation in watches will take some time and effort from Hermès, similar to what Grand Seiko has faced. However, Grand Seiko has shown marketing works and if I were Hermès, I would be focusing now on the narrative they create around their models in appealing to consumers. Hermès has a strong watch collection already.
I am excited for Hermès popularity to grow and, as a brand, they deserve the more recognition. I just hope that whatever comes next, Hermès keeps offering watches at a range of price points so as many people as possible can enjoy them!