When you start to take a bit of interest in it, or simply when you want to pair your vintage or modern watch with something other than leather, textile or rubber, you soon realise that options are limited. And for good reason. Designing a steel watch bracelet is, in our opinion, one of the most complex endeavours out there. Finding that perfect balance between function and finish can be extremely tricky.
Let us take a look today at the undisputed heavyweight champion of steel bracelets. The one who has created the most beautiful steel watch bracelets of the 20th century: Gay Frères.
The Manufacturer of the Illustrious…
Their name still might make a number of you smile. They are indeed masters of a wrongly underestimated art: the design and manufacture of steel watch bracelets. The “Bonklip” bracelets that accompanied the Rolex Bubble Back? GF. The oyster bracelet and its multiple evolutions – first riveted and extensible, then folded links to finally end up with solid links? GF yet again.
Note: Clearly Rolex isn’t the only point of reference in this topic. However, the fact remains that for the past 70 years, fans of the crown brand or not, it is indeed the oyster bracelet that has served as the standard of quality up against colleagues would measure.
It is also Gay Frères who is behind the perfect designs of the incredible integrated bracelets imagined by Gerald Genta for Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak as well as Patek Philippe’s Nautilus. I know, it’s both admirable and unnerving…
This Geneva brand has manufactured for all the biggest names for decades during a period which represents for me the Golden Age of Swiss watchmaking: Vacheron Constantin, Patek Philippe, Rolex, Audemars Piguet, but also Zenith, Universal Geneva and so on. Gay Frères created for their illustrious clients but also sold similar bracelets to jewellers and retailers, always with the same signature G, F, and the bust of a ram.
This was a time when the best craftsmen and factories in each area of expertise worked for all the biggest names of the business. Everyone had their trade, their specialty. A dial maker is not a chain maker, nor is he a manufacturer of hands, just as a manufacturer of watch cases would never dare to “cross the line” and make movements. They are not the same trades. At that period, Gay Frères was the best orchestra conductor in this domaine.
Humble Origins, Great Profession: The one of chains
To understand such expert know-how and such mastery of technique, we must return for a moment to the origins of the company and has its craft, that of a chain maker. Gay Frères was founded in 1835 by Jean-Pierre Gay and Gaspard Tissot both from the chain manufacturer of Geneva. The work of goldsmiths that enjoyed their moment of glory, going hand-in-hand with pocket watches.
It is with the “watches-bracelet” breakthrough at the beginning of last century that Gay Frères began manufacturing steel bracelets for the watch industry. A visionary response that may seem obvious today with the distance we’ve gained, but was not at all the case at the time.
When God is in the Detail
Ask a woodcarver accustomed to the most precise, meticulous and artistic cuts to make a simple board and there is a good chance that it will be perfect. There is also a good chance that his creativity will exceed that of the carpenter.
Gay Frères’ story is comparable. Accustomed to the unusual complexity in the design and work of the chains, they naturally put all these skills at the service of their new production and never made a false move. Their trade has never been that of a blacksmith or a simple metallurgist but more of a goldsmith, or even of a jeweller, who has already mastered their industrial tool. Satisfying the needs of their Geneva neighbours and meeting their standards of quality and creativity therefore was not an issue.
Production and design quality have become far too expensive today. It is to the point that we begin to wonder if we’ve lost the necessary know-how.
A price that continues to increase for models that have braved through the years. Now that you know, examine the inside of your clasp the next time you have an old watch bracelet in your hands. If you detect the letter G and F or the number 32 engraved inside a key, you are in the presence of something special…don’t let it slip away.