Everybody seems to craze for 1970s bracelet watches - but do you know who actually made these bracelets? How can it be that we neglect (third party) bracelet makers like for example Gilbert Goschen? The Genevan manufacture is one of these ateliers with little to no standing even among vintage watch experts. Precious metal bracelets are beautiful works of expert jewelers and artists... There needs to be more appreciation, particularly as a good quality bracelet makes so much of a difference in wrist-presence, haptics and ultimately in the full watch experience! Can we thus please agree to report bracelet makers and hallmarks in the future?
November 08, 2023
An Ode to Bracelet Makers - Gilbert Gaschen & Audemars Piguet
Marcus Siems @siemswatches
Collector, Author, Data Analyst
Everybody seems to craze for 1970s bracelet watches - but do you know who actually made these bracelets?
Design oriented bracelet watches from the 1960s, 70s & 80s are having quite a moment right now... but how much do you actually know about these pieces? Because, unlike today, the watchmaking landscape 50 years ago heavily relied on third party suppliers. It's not only about the brand that signs the dial. There's so much more history to discover. In other words, we can find specialized manufacturers for each and every aspect of watchmaking - so of course also for these intricate jewelry-esque extensions to the watch case.
Vintage Audemars Piguet and the return of the bracelet watch. A video by Felix Goldammer.
1) Audemars Piguet & Integrated Bracelets
So we start with Audemars Piguet, not the first but one of the pivotal players in this watch collecting niche*. Watches with opulent and integrated bracelets have been a trend predominantly in women's timepieces starting in the early 1960s. It was the antithesis to the strong masculine steel bracelets that became popular with the evolving sports models of the 1950s and 60s.
Back then, Audemars Piguet employed renowned independent bracelet makers from Italy (Masella, Antonioli, Ponti, etc.), Paris (Christofol & Georges Lenfant) and Geneva (Jean-Pierre Ecoffey) to ensure the best possible quality for their Haute Joaillerie timepieces. These specialized jewelers thus provided the precious base that was ultimately married in AP's workshops with equally sophisticated third party watch cases.
Probably one of the most iconic Audemars Piguet advertorials/brochures - "A woman is smoking a cigar. She wears on her wrist the so-called "Arabella" Haute Joaillerie watch, Model 8545." Photo Courtesy of Audemars Piguet Archives.
Luckily this trend spread to men's watches in the following years and brought us some of the most interesting and holistic designs of their time. Importantly, Audemars Piguet employed three main manufacturers for their men's bracelet watches. The first being Gay Freres** for the steel bracelets of for example the Royal Oak (1972)[2-4]. The second being one of the most prestigious figures (and name-sake ateliers) in bracelet making of the last Century, Jean-Pierre Ecoffey (stamp JPE). However, the focus today will be on another smaller and lesser known manufacturer - namely Roland-Gilbert Gaschen+ (stamp GRG) - who was the source for many precious metal bracelets at the time.
As you can see in this late 1960s catalogue, men's bracelet watches made their debut quite early at Audemars Piguet. These pieces particularly featured thin automatic movements. Photo Courtesy of HIFI Archiv.
2) Gilbert Goschen - the Mysterious
If you feel Gay Freres or Jean-Pierre Ecoffey isn't talked about enough try to google Gilbert Goschen. It is basically a blank space and all the more reason to give this Genevan manufacture some well deserved credit.
From time to time you can find the GRG hallmark on clasps of the high-end models from smaller watchmaking brands like Cyma and Corum or even some off-the-shelf and unusual Rolex bracelets. However, some of their most important work (from our modern perspective) has been done in collaboration with Audemars Piguet.
Three examples of watches with bracelet made by Gilbert Goschen (GRG, Geneva). A Rolex brick bracelet (left), a Corum coin watch (middle) and a tricolored square Cyma dress watch (right). Photos Courtesy of Antiquorum, Hindman Auctions, & Silverthorne.
3) Audemars Piguet ref. 5403 - The "Cobra"
To put GRG's opus into perspective let's analyze one specific model that can't exist without their bracelet - the reference 5403. So this is not a typo on the first Royal Oak (ref. 5402) but another very influential design by Audemars Piguet and Gerald Genta. The case hereby integrates flawlessly into a polished mesh bracelet with criss-crossing beads-of-rice pattern. This scale-like appearance gave this reference a fitting nickname - the "Cobra".
Coming in at about 34-35mm case diameter this case-bracelet combination posed as an excellent and ultra-thin design framework for time-only as well as complicated calendar wristwatches between approximately 1971 and the early 1980s.
Due to the scale-like pattern on these Audemars Piguet ref. 5403 bracelets the model is fittingly nicknamed the "Cobra". As you can see handling the edges and smaller surface areas (like the bezel) to conserve the crispness of each element during the welding process is far from trivial and shows real prowess of the craft! Seen here, a stunning example in yellow gold from the early 1980s. Photo Courtesy of The Keystone.
It's a cool design right? But the real intricacy of the manufacturing process is in the smaller surface areas like the bezel and the transition between bracelet and case. The smallest mistake in the welding or polishing process will make the surface look dull and/or two-dimensional. How delicate this must have been can also be seen from the original retail prices: About 50 years back such a "Cobra" would cost you more than twice as much as a new Royal Oak ref. 5402 (CHF 10,000 to CHF 4,000)! And remember: it's a Genta design, too.
We got a trend - this example of an extremely stylish Audemars Piguet ref. 5403 in white gold just sold for over CHF 130,000 at Christie's. An impeccable piece laying out the outstanding craftsmanship and historical importance of these holistic bracelet-case combinations. Photo Courtesy of Christie's Geneva.
Taken together, this puts the Cobra ref. 5403 at the peak of bracelet watches from that era! Add how well these pieces are doing at auction at the moment you got a collectible in high demand at your hand. And the bracelet - and thus in extension the jeweler - is the integral part of this success. Roland-Gilbert Gaschen, a name to remember!
4) Gilbert Goschen's Signature for Audemars Piguet
So we got one of the most important (imho) bracelet watches of the 1970s but the ref. 5403 "Cobra" was actually just one out of many examples that the atelier Gaschen provided for AP.
Five examples of Gilbert Goschen (GRG) made Audemars Piguet bracelet watches. Photos Courtesy of Goldammer Archives, Antiquorum, Christie's, Monaco Legend Group, & BidSquare.
As you can see there's some variety of references featuring GRG bracelets. Looking closer we can clearly see that Cobra-esque and generally bracelets with "woven" textures were quite prominent. In stark contrast to mesh or milanese, Gilbert Goschen bracelets displayed very three-dimensional presence in a tender frame. That appears to be the GRG area of expertise and the signature move.
When I've been looking for examples of timepieces featuring a certain bracelet-makers hallmark or stamp I almost pulled all my hair in despair. So rarely you find information... And on product photos? Most dealers cut out the clasp and identificaiton is impossible.
How can that be when everybody crazes for bracelet watches? Straps are wearing parts, I get that. But precious metal bracelets are beautiful works of expert jewelers and artists... There needs to be more appreciation, particularly as a good quality bracelet makes so much of a difference in wrist-presence, haptics and ultimately in the full watch experience! And we can't understand these things if we don't name hallmarks. Can we thus please agree to report bracelet makers (or at least stamps) in the future?
Let's all come together and report bracelet-maker stamps the same way we present case-maker hallmarks on the caseback inside. It's an important piece of information that's relevant to the watch. Photo Goldammer Archives.
There's so much interesting backstory and so many things we can understand and put into perspective when we know about third party suppliers. Today we're used to CNC drilled bracelets but there used to be a real craft behind all of this! So let's raise our glasses to Roland-Gilbert Gaschen and all the (so far) unnamed bracelet makers of the 1970s! They brought us some of the (visually) most interesting and diverse timepieces.
+ Edit: I initially referred to the bracelet maker as "Gilbert Goschen" but likely the atelier is actually called "Roland-Gilbert Gaschen" (according to new evidence, see Mikrolisk).
* It is probably fair to say that Piaget has been a trailblazer in design oriented bracelet watches during the 1960s - and made basically all bracelets on their own. You should check out PlusUltra for some backstory on Piaget.
** Gay Frères[2-4] is the manufacturer you may have heard before (ram's head mark with GF). Founded in 1835 the company supplied Rolex, Vacheron Constantin, Patek Philippe and Jaeger-LeCoultre (among many others) with bracelets throughout the last Century. By the 1970s the company was employing around 500 craftsmen and ran the biggest factory in all of Geneva[2-4]! That means a production site larger than the watch companies themselves. No wonder Rolex integrated them into their company in the 1990s.
*** Jean-Pierre Ecoffey (JPE stamp) was The bracelet manufacturer of the last Century... I know I already said the same about Gay Freres but the one is about quantity and the other quality. JPE was the manufacturer behind some of the most striking and best executed designs of the second half of the last Century[1,5]. To drop another name - Jean-Pierre Hagmann - potentially the best case maker for Patek Philippe in ever was head of the atelier from 1971 to 1981.
 Royal Oak Bracelets; Audemars Piguet Chronicles;
 Opinion - Stop the "In-House" Frenzy; Marcus Siems, Goldammer Vintage Watches;
 Gay Frères; Hancocks London;
 A Brief History of Gay Frères: Bracelet King; Paul Altieri, Bob's Watches;
 JPE - Jean-Pierre Ecoffey;
 Personal Correspondence with Manuel Knospe from PlusUltra;
 Sparkling AP Cobra; Plus Ultra;
All rights on text and graphics reserved to the Author.