A peek inside the alluring world of secret jewellery and hidden watches

Jewellery with clandestine compartments and watches with hidden dials are rendered all the more precious for the secrets and stories that they can reveal or conceal.

The Primavera bracelet-watch, by Italian jeweller Giampiero Bodino, has a diamond-studded rose that conceals the dial. Courtesy Giampiero Bodino
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Who doesn’t like a good secret? Hidey-holes, buried treasure, locked drawers and mysterious trunks add a level of thrill to even the most ordinary of objects. Jewellery, meanwhile, is one of our most personal and precious possessions. From keepsakes and birthstones to statement pieces passed down over generations and across continents, every jewel can tell a story, and reveal or conceal as much as its owner desires.

The enigma of secret jewellery, a piece that hides something within itself, has been explored by several independent jewellers and high-jewellery brands. The latter include: Chanel’s concealed Camélia watch that can be worn as a necklace or bracelet; Boucheron’s rotating secret rings; and the bracelets in the Dior et d’Opales collection, which have a slide-away opal that conceal a ticking watch-face.

However, jewels with clandestine compartments are by no means a new concept. Originally, such pieces served both sentimental and sinister purposes. Memento jewellery and “funeral” rings were often used to store a living lover’s perfume or a dead one’s ashes, while hollowed-out rings doubled as poison vials. Allegedly used by Hannibal, the general of Carthage, and the aristocratic Borgia family during the Renaissance period, among others, poison rings were used to contaminate the food and drink of rebels and rivals.

These venomous pillboxes cast an eerie shadow on the notion of secret jewellery, and it receded into the murky domain of black magic and backdoor dealings. Most experts believe that Queen Elizabeth I is to be credited for the resurgence and current positive connotations of ornaments with hidden elements. The monarch, who ruled Britain in the mid-16th century, always wore on her person a locket ring. Upon her death, it was cracked open to reveal twin miniature portraits – one of Elizabeth herself and the other of an unnamed woman believed to be her mother, Anne Boleyn, the second of the six wives of Henry VIII, whom he infamously beheaded.

From pendants enclosing locks of hair to brooches imprinted with lover’s eyes, secret jewels also went on to feature heavily in Victorian times and during the American Civil War. At this time, they were looked upon as symbols of love, loyalty and protection.

Then there are the alluring stories one hears about and adds to. Celebrity jewellery designer Wendy Brandes says: “One of my favourite examples of secret jewellery is the ruby and diamond locket ring that Elizabeth I was wearing when she died in 1603. On one level, it’s simply a daughter’s connection to the mother she lost. On a deeper level, Anne Boleyn’s fate influenced her entire life: Elizabeth was declared illegitimate, imprisoned and threatened with execution herself. Even after she rose to be queen, maybe she kept this reminder of a ruler’s political vulnerability literally at hand.”

Hidden watches have their own fascinating reason for existing. Until the 1930s, not only was it considered rude for anyone to check the time in public, but it was also frowned upon for women to possess a watch at all. Secret timepieces with novelty lids became all the rage at this time, and financial constraints imposed by the post-Depression era meant that buyers came to consider the bracelet-watch as serving a dual purpose.

Farther East, no mention of concealed treasures would be complete without reference to the Fabergé egg. The Russian jeweller to the tsars crafted his first Imperial Easter Egg in 1885 when Alexander III wanted to surprise his wife on their 20th anniversary. The two outer halves of the resultant Hen Egg unlocked when twisted to showcase a solid gold yolk, which further opened to reveal a gold hen with ruby eyes. The bird was hinged on its tail feathers, which held two more surprises: a gold and diamond replica of the imperial crown, and a tiny ruby pendant suspended on a chain. Fabergé went on to create more than 50 eggs before the Russian Revolution. From hidden portraits and miniature coronation carriages to spring flowers sitting on a bed of diamond frost, the objets d'art made intrigue an intricate part of Fabergé's bejewelled creations. In more recent times, the brand collaborated with Qatar's Al Fardan family to design the Pearl Egg. The outer "oyster" shell has an inbuilt mechanism that allows it to rotate on its base and opens to present its hidden treasure: a 12.17-carat pearl sourced from the Arabian Gulf. Fabergé has also created smaller-scale, egg-shaped pendants, with a series of surprises to be found within.

These days, secret jewellery can take various forms. Jewellers such as Brandes explore its more playful side, as is evident in her Taxi and Maneater rings, which respectively have a diamond-studded New York cab and an elephant on their surfaces, only to reveal a harrowed traveller trying to hail a cab and a man getting crushed on the underside. The Juana pendant may feature a heart on the outside, but a ruby-eyed skull peers out when the locket swings open. Other jewellers explore similarly innovative concepts, such as Wendy Yue's Scent of the Sacred coral necklace, which is, in fact, a snuff bottle, and Jade Jagger's Insignia silver necklace, which has a bullet pendant that can be unscrewed to serve as a container for personal items.

For the Hong Kong International Jewellery Show last month, designer Anita So created a secret watch placed within a lorgnette, mounted spectacles that were an indispensable piece of jewellery around high-society game tables in 19th-century Europe. "The Bird's Secret Garden is a fusion of the elegance of a lorgnette and a covert timepiece. A delicate flower hides the diamond dial, while the glasses are fashioned from Burmese jadeite, diamonds and 18K gold," says So. "Multifunction jewellery is a big trend in recent years. While some people buy smartwatches or just look at the clock on their phones, others have gone back to mechanical watches or pursue watches with diamonds and other gemstones. There are a growing number of people, however, who chase unique, hybrid creations such as a watch under a high-jewellery bracelet or brooch."

When Italian jeweller and creative director of the Richemont group Giampiero Bodino decided to branch out into watches earlier this year, his first collection was a series of secret timepieces shown at Paris Haute Couture Week in January. The dials are concealed under rows and rows of diamonds, ensuring that the pieces are "first and foremost bracelets, which give no clue that they could also tell the time". In Primavera, a briar rose in white and pink diamonds sits on a strap of diamonds. Pushing on a bud opens the bloom to show the dial. In the Mosaico cuff, a concentric circle of white diamonds and black spinels conceal a button that springs open to reveal the dial.

“The very appeal of any jewellery lies in the happiness of owning it. A gift, too, is appealing because it comes wrapped, hidden behind beautiful, colourful papers and ribbons; the same is for these jewels and watches,” says Bodino. “They are hidden behind a sublime precious cover, and the act of discovery enhances the joy of owning it. What I wanted to do with these secret watches was simply to create a beautiful bracelet with an extra functionality.”

Watches needn't be restricted to the wrist, though, as is evident in Chanel's Les Éternelles fine-jewellery collection. Here, dials are secreted under diamond pendants and medallions affixed to strings of Japanese and Indonesian cultured pearls. The secret necklace-watch can also easily be transformed into a pearl cuff. As a buyer, you can display and dress up such pieces based on your personality and ensemble, or simply switch them around to match your mood.

“Secret-compartment designs are about a personal connection to jewellery that goes beyond surface appearances. Big, gorgeous gems will always be desirable, but, to me, true luxury must encompass details that are best appreciated by the sophisticated customer, rather than the casual onlooker. Secret jewellery and watches are the ultimate version of that,” says Brandes.

“The extra or hidden detail is what makes the piece compelling, because the story of the design is now one for the wearer to share as she chooses.”

Read this and more stories in Luxury magazine, out with The National on Thursday, April 13.