Three years ago fashion giant Ralph Lauren launched its first haute horlogerie collection. Despite using all of its design muscle, plus movements from its A-list Richmont stable-mates, the watches were not an instant universal hit. But this year the collection gained the distinct personality it had previously lacked, delivering some of 2012’s shining stars – the shiniest and starriest of all perhaps being the new-look Sporting Safari. Ken Kessler
he term 'fashion brand' is enough to make a watch collector’s lips curl. However, the past few years have witnessed a complete renunciation of the ethos that defined timepieces previously issued by the great fashion houses – that of style over substance. Now, one is more likely to find movements with pedigree, complications and anything else required to separate them from the quartz atrocities of yesteryear. In January 2009, when the Ralph Lauren watch family was launched, confusion and bewilderment gripped the assembled members of the press. Even those with
little or no affinity for watches, but with full appreciation of what the name ‘Ralph Lauren’ means in the rag trade, were at a bit of a loss to understand what they were actually witnessing. At that point, other familiar luxury brands with their roots in non-horological fields – be they pen makers, purveyors of purses or perfumers – were starting to deliver watches of worth. Ralph Lauren arrived with not only a fully-formed catalogue, every piece imbued with the achingly perfect good taste that even characterises the company’s underwear, but with watches that boasted movements from the likes of Piaget, IWC and Jaeger-LeCoultre. As one might have asked in the New York parlance that would have been familiar to a young Ralph Lipschitz: “What’s not to like?” What confounded those present was the anonymity, despite the undeniable quality
This year’s rugged RL67 Safari, with galvanised steel, gunmetal case and olive green canvas strap, is proof – if it were needed – that Ralph Lauren is getting serious about its watches. Below: With a passion for both style and watchmaking, Ralph Lauren uses innovative techniques to transform the traditional steel case of the Sporting Safari RL67.
and pedigree. One watch resembled a Cartier, another a Vacheron Constantin. What the line needed was an identifiable look, yet one that meshed perfectly with the sheer understatement and elegance that would render it an ideal companion to one of the house’s sublime blazers, or superbly cut shirts. Sporting chance While most of the Ralph Lauren watches fall under the heading of ‘dressy’, it was the Sporting Collection that would deliver a distinctive case so well defined that it may even possess future icon potential. In 2011, it would serve as the form for the Automotive Watch, one of the most novel designs of the past 10 years, thanks to the wooden surround in a dial inspired by the dashboard of a 1938 Bugatti Type 57SC. It managed to be fresh, idiosyncratic and memorable, without being bizarre – the route too many houses take to grab the public’s attention. Wooden fitment aside, its form was classically round, with a flat bezel secured by six visible screws. Again, one needs to use the word ‘taste’ – this watch oozed elegance and presence, while possessing exactly the sophisticated wit that eluded the ill-fated Dunhills of alleged automotive influence. As the catalogue included chronographs from its debut, it was inevitable that such a movement would find its way into the same 45mm case with six-screw bezel. Now familiar are the all-black models, re-launched this year with contrasting coloured centre links to add a touch of panache to what would otherwise be pure stealth. Where Ralph Lauren’s impeccable eye for style goes even further is a new variant, the Safari RL67 Chronograph. In 1984, Ralph Lauren premiered his first Safari collection, a fashion style addressing adventure, the outdoors and the mystery
of the African continent. Harking back to that collection, the Safari RL67 combines an aesthetic that would not be out of place in a novel by H. Rider Haggard. It differs from its black-coated siblings thanks to the gunmetal finish and canvas strap. Each watch is, effectively, a unique piece because of the handcrafted finish. The company uses a special chemical and thermal treatment to transform the steel’s natural sheen to a rugged, weathered surface that evokes a well-used Purdey rifle or – in these more PC times – a well-worn Leica camera. Rugged good looks Emphasising that the finish is “more than just an aesthetic enhancement”, the company points out that the treatment applied to the stainless steel “actually increases its durability, making it harder than the conventional steel used in ordinary watchcases”. A multi-stage process, the gunmetal finishing should not be confused with the more familiar PVD and DLC used to produce black casework. One of Ralph Lauren’s specialists explained that PVD and DLC “are ‘surface treatments’, as the treatment does not change the structure of the metal. They are coatings. Ralph Lauren’s gunmetal is an in-depth treatment, as the chemical and thermal treatment modifies the metal structure to several microns. “Regarding the aged appearance, you can realise this kind of treatment on PVD and DLC, but the process we developed is more artisanal and so is more delicate and challenging to achieve. The ageing effect is also more original, more in line with the aesthetic we wanted and giving a more natural finish to the timepiece.” Ralph Lauren has adapted a treatment used in traditional gun making, but working to a level that “exceeds
The chemical and thermal treatments applied to the Safari case are more commonly used in gun making – hence the term ‘gunmetal effect’. The process calls for extreme precision and substantially increases the hardness and durability of the steel. The Safari’s 39 and 45mm cases, bezel, crown, pushers, screw and buckle are in turn sandblasted, shot peened, brushed, polished and chamfered, creating contrasting satinbrushed and matte surfaces that create a gunmetal finish ranging in colour from deep grey to intense black. The hand-finishing of each of the components and assembly of the finished watch are completed by hand by highly trained artisans and craftsmen.
today’s watchmaking requirements and constraints.” The process also involves multistep procedures in which every gunmetal-finish component of the watch, including the case, bezel, crown, buckle, pushers and screws, is sand-blasted, micro-blasted by hand using an air pistol, brushed, polished and chamfered. Available in either 39mm or 45mm, the Safari RL67 is powered by the 216-component, self-winding RL750 movement with a 48-hour power reserve made by Jaeger-LeCoultre. The movement is visible through the caseback, revealing Côtes de Genève and perlage finishing. Hours, minutes, seconds in a subdial at 6 o’clock, 30-minute counter at 3 o’clock and 12-hour counter at 9 o’clock are indicated by sword-shaped, white hands; a central orange baton hand measures elapsed seconds. For maximum legibility, the dial is finished with white luminescent Roman numerals, minute track and tachymeter scale. A date window completes the dial at 6 o’clock. Protecting the matte-black dial is a convex sapphire crystal, treated with anti-reflective coatings. Water resistance is assured to 50m. In keeping with outdoorsy accoutrements, the RL67 is fitted with an olive green, weathered canvas strap with black leather lining, its buckle also finished in gunmetal. Undeniably, the RL67’s charm is provided through the gunmetal’s ability to create both satin and matte effects, with shading from anthracite to black. The finishers alternate between polishing and brushing to achieve a subtle, aged look. And it is this weathered appearance that develops the character, like an actor on a stage, of a watch worthy of the name ‘Safari’. Further information: www.ralphlaurenwatches.com