A watch of many firsts, the Piaget Polo has proved that it can stand the test of time. Over the past 30 years the original quartz model has grown into a family of timepieces for men and women, showcasing the brand's only use of titanium, an in-house movement and several complications - and collecting a host of dedicated wearers along the way.
It is fairly safe to say that, from a horological perspective, the Seventies began in 1972, with the Royal Oak, and next year that rightly lauded horological milestone will be garnering further laurels. However, the question as to when the Eighties got under way is rather less clear-cut. A strong case can be made for the Eighties to have started as early as 1978, with the launch of the Cartier Santos in steel and gold. It could also be argued that the decade did not really get started until a year later, with the launch of the Piaget Polo which, in a way represents the ultimate evolution of the integrated case and bracelet design vibe that had been started by the Oak. The Seventies saw a number of such watches, among my favourites are the Nautilus, the mid-1970s IWC Jumbo Ingenieur, the Vacheron 222, and the Piaget Polo. I suppose I like these watches because the design is more important than any complication. Although later life may have seen all these models (the 222 mutated into the Overseas) subsequently fitted with complications, the originals were conceived as exercises in harmonious design that told the time, rather than as the housing for a complex mechanical microcosm of many hundreds of components.
In the Piaget pieces of the 1960s and early-1970s the jewellery influence of the brand was reflected in the individual, extravagant gold 'Milanese' bracelets and delicate cuffs.
While the 1970s continues to be remembered as the decade in which Swiss watchmaking had a near death experience at the hands of cheap imported electronic watches, I believe that it should also be considered as one of the most fecund and interesting periods in wristwatch design. It was a time before focus groups and marketing had really made themselves felt, instead watch industry executives such as Georges Golay at Audemars Piguet or Henri Stern at Patek Philippe were able to act on their experience, follow their instinct and exercise their own taste to see if something took off.
In those days Yves Piaget was at the helm of his family company: Richemont, or Vendome as it was known then would not own the firm for another decade. Piaget had had a cracking Sixties and Seventies, all the more impressive seeing as the brand that had been a movement supplier since 1874, only started signing the dials of its watches in 1943. And it just kept making the right decisions: launching ultra slim, hand-wound and automatic calibres that positioned the brand perfectly for the trend for slender watch cases and promising its customers that it would only make watches in precious metals.
In 1964 it made watches with semi-precious stone dials: tiger-eye, opal, turquoise, lapis lazuli, coral and so on. And its glamorous 'Slave' bangle watches of the late 1960s and early 1970s captured the Barbarella aesthetic of the age perfectly. Piaget had, in the meantime, become a jeweller, buying up some of the old Genevois jewellers and bracelet-makers who had long supplied the watch trade. Even its watches for men were becoming glamorous, wafers of gold fastened to the wearer's wrist by supple ribbon-like 'Milanese' or 'Polonais' bracelets in gold.
Piaget was a watch for the cognoscenti, who spent their time doing the jet set rounds: Marbella, Porto Cervo, St Tropez, Gstaad, St Moritz, Palm Beach and so on. Piaget, which had been an anonymous sub-supplier unknown to the wider world a generation earlier, had become a name, a shop and even, as it is now fashionable to say, a 'maison'. But the 1980s was destined to become the era of the brand and, with impeccable timing, the Polo was the watch that was to transform a Geneva artisan watchamaker/jeweller into the sort of serious player that would end the decade by arousing the interest of watch and jewellery mega brand Cartier which, as it admitted in the press communiqué issued at the time of purchase, had been unable to resist the attraction of the "superior quality of Piaget's watchmaking".
Before Polo, Piaget made many watches but, while there was a general Piaget look and feel, there was no signature product. Instead there were, literally, hundreds of timepieces; the catalogue for 1974 displayed somewhere in excess of 1,200 different models and, given that watch production in those days was probably still comfortably within four figures (even today Piaget says it makes only 20,000 watches a year), such a variety of skus made series production of anything more or less impossible.
The fact that Piaget was a brand as hot as Franck Muller would become in the 1990s and Hublot in the Noughties, was due, in no small part, to the charismatic Yves Piaget. Wherever there was a head of state to be met, a soubrette or vedette to be photographed with, a prize to be presented, or a resort to be seen in; there you could see the perennially and perpetually elegant Yves Piaget: chiselled features, swept back hair and porcelain white smile. Then, in his thirties, he was the prototypical watch boss as celebrity, three decades before Thierry Nataf, and with the key difference that he was working for himself. I am old enough to remember early editions of the SIHH when the presence of Yves Piaget caused a susurrus of excitement to ripple around the hall.
In 1976 Piaget had decided to stage a Polo Championship in Palm Beach, with prize money at $100,000, and it was in the late-1970s that the brand deepened its association with the sport, sponsoring the Pilara Piaget Gold Cup, an annually awarded Argentine trophy. The sport is no stranger to watchmaking history; and as a name it has a talismanic quality, it certainly has not done Ralph Lauren any harm and those two syllables were to be equally propitious for Yves when he gave them to a new watch he launched in 1979.
The Polo was the perfect expression of Piaget as jeweller and watchmaker marching to the tune of the times. It was a slim, elegant watch that was as much a triumph of the bracelet-maker's art as anything; distinguished by the perfect integration of not just case and bracelet but dial and bezel, with the polished godroons of the dial extending to the bezel (or was it the godroons on the bezel extending into the dial?). Elegant faceted sword hands ensured that the time was clearly legible; but the purity of the design was maintained by the absence of anything as intrusive as numerals - hours were subtly signified with dots.
The alternation of polished and brushed surfaces, which required plenty of handwork meant that is was never going to be a mass produced watch (after all it was a Piaget), but at last it was a Piaget that could be made in series. Moreover, it was a complete break from the preceding aesthetic of textured gold that had been so Piaget in the 1970s. It was available in men's and women's sizes and in square or round versions - the square being a bracelet of uniform width from clasp to dial.
It was a sports watch, but more of a timepiece to wear while watching sport, perfectly capable of withstanding a few sets of tennis, but equally at home with a blazer and pair of snaffled Gucci shoes in the bar of the country club; in other words a sport-chic watch.
Last year, Piaget launched a limited edition Polo FortyFive as a tribute to brand ambassador and polo superstar Marcos Heguy.
Subtle adaptations Most of the early versions of this iconic timepiece were fitted with the Calibre 7P, Piaget's 1976 quartz calibre that enabled it to offer some of the thinnest watches on the market. But then the Polo was a design watch and, although simple looking, the interplay of different surfaces - the polished ribs intersticing the brushed panels - allowed plenty of room for interpretation. Very soon the Polo had been pimped, sometimes the panels between the ribs on the dial were filled by a semi precious stone - onyx looked great against white gold - and of course you could play with diamonds, with, say, a line of baguettes along each rib and brilliants in between (and that, by the way, was a man's watch from the 1984 collection, which came with matching cufflinks).
Indeed, it was only in the mid-1980s that the full scale of the enduring impact of the Polo began to become apparent. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and it testifies to the influence of the Polo that Piaget felt sufficiently emboldened to launch the Dancer. The Dancer, on both strap and bracelet, has subsequently become another Piaget classic, but it clearly owes a debt to its elder sibling - a debt that is perhaps most striking when the square Dancer model is viewed alongside the Square Polo.
There are various proofs and tests that a watch design has to undergo before it can become a bona fide classic and, the test of time apart, the most stringent of these is the capacity for adaptation. This is a test that the Polo first passed over 25 years ago in the most spectacular fashion when it made the transformation from sport to dress watch. The dress Polo was achieved by the simple expedient of turning the godroons from a transverse to vertical position, running from 6 to 12 o'clock.
Since then it has continued to adapt with almost chameleon-like perfection to suit the prevailing tastes of different times. Bear in mind where the watch came from: in 1979 the majority of the production was quartz, case diameters for men ran from 32-35mm, there were two hands and the watch was available in any metal as long as it was gold. Fast forward 32 years and the biggest case diameter is 45mm, movements include some of the most exigent complications and it is the only Piaget available in a metal other than gold.
The new generation
This change has of course taken place incrementally; the 'new' Polo made its debut in 2001, with a dial design that began to feature numbers and an increase in size to 38mm for men that brought it in line with the larger case diameters of the new century. However, it remained at heart the same bracelet watch with the signature alternation of brushed and polished surfaces on the bracelet.
The Polo FortyFive and 2010 Polo FortyFive Chronograph.
And while the 2001 incarnation is regarded as the first of the new generation Polo, I think that 2006 was the more significant date in the model's development: the jump to case size of 43mm and the availability on leather strap was significant, but more important from a statement point of view was the arrival of the Piaget Polo Tourbillon Relatif; the movement that reminds one a little of the Ulysse Nardin Freak. Although only ever sold in small quantities, this watch was significant in two ways. It was the first trial of the 45mm case: with case sizes creeping ever bigger for sport watches, to remain relevant the Polo had to be able to offer something substantial. But more importantly the Tourbillon Relatif showed that the Piaget Polo was not just a great piece of design it was also a horologically satisfying piece of work. It is a mark of Piaget's seriousness in demonstrating the haute horlogerie cred of the model that the Tourbillon Relatif is only available in the Polo case.
This stunning technical tour de force, was augmented a couple of years later by Polos powered by the brand's first manufacture chronograph movement. The 880P is a flyback with vertical clutch and twin barrels, which allows a power reserve of 50 hours, even if the chronograph is left running the whole time… try doing that with a Valjoux 7750. The 880P remains a Polo exclusive.
And now of course we have the ultimate sporting iteration of the model in rugged steel and titanium - the Polo FortyFive. What has emerged from that 1979 launch is more than just a watch, more even than a model range. Indeed in some ways it is possible to argue that the Polo line is a more complete horological offer than the rest of the collections put together - men's and women's models, exclusive movements, complications, strap and bracelet, from titanium and steel to gold and diamonds.
I may be playing Devil's Advocate, but isn't it about time that the Polo emerged as a standalone brand in its own right?
Further information: www.piaget.com