Dragon Layers: The fantastic beasts of the Chinese zodiac breathe new life into watch design

By Neil Dolby
Feb 22, 2024

February 2024 heralds the Year of the Dragon, the magical animal with a massive presence in Chinese mythology and culture that projects power and commands reverence. Many fine watchmakers have released timepieces paying homage to the Dragon, a popular symbol of nobility, prosperity and wisdom, as well as good luck.

Arnold & Son, a manufacture with roots dating back to 1764, marks this auspicious new phase of the traditional Chinese calendar with the limited-edition Luna Magna Red Gold ‘Year of the Dragon’, which comes in two versions. A quite spectacular feature is the intricately hand-engraved dragon in 18-carat red gold which adorns either a large pietersite (blue with veining) or onyx (smooth and black) dial. All the elements of the dragon as it wraps around the dial – scales, claws, whiskers and horns – point to the three- dimensional globe showing the phases of the moon that distinguishes the Luna Magna collection. The white opal hour dial is enhanced with additional Super- LumiNova, while an indicator of the moon’s age is displayed on the case back.

Another high-end watchmaker celebrating the Year of the Dragon is Corum, which releases two versions of the Bubble 47mm model. One depicts a dragon hovering above the dial between clouds, while the other looks deep into the dragon’s eye – with the 8mm-thick sapphire dial acting as a magnifying glass for both versions to surreal effect. The eerie appeal of the fantastical dragon eye on the Bubble 47 Dragon Eye is amplified by meticulous hand-crafting of the exquisite details. Both models are limited to 88 editions, have stainless-steel cases with black PVD treatments, and are equipped with the CO 082 automatic movement that possesses a power reserve of 42 hours.

Harry Winston presents a glittering take on the divine symbol of power that is the dragon. The slim 18-carat-gold case of the Chinese New Year Automatic 36mm sees 118 brilliant-cut diamonds set in two rings framing a dial embossed with an imposing figure of an imperial red dragon – considered a colour of luck, joy and passion. The stones then slope via two rose-gold bands towards a gold crown positioned unconventionally at noon and distinguished by a white pearl. The dial itself is blessed with 39 brilliant-cut diamonds, where they form an inner circle beside the red lacquer dragon, which swirls within clouds of white mother-of-pearl. A pearl in the mouth of the dragon symbolises wisdom or, perhaps in this case, the perpetual cycle of life. A further 17 diamonds dress the rose gold buckle that fastens the red alligator leather strap.

A different shade of red is used to enhance the Portugieser Chronograph Year of the Dragon by IWC Schaffhausen, issued in a limited production of 1,000 pieces. Burgundy decorates a dial set with gold-plated hands and appliques, and colours one of two strap alternatives – burgundy rubber or black calfskin – that offer different looks for the wearer. The mythical beast in question appears at the back of this stainless- steel watch. The IWC-manufactured calibre 69355 movement can be observed through the sapphire caseback and its gold-plated rotor amazingly takes the visual form of an intricate dragon.

Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Reverso Tribute Enamel ‘Dragon’ uses the back of the signature swivelling case of the Reverso range – first launched in 1931 – for the depiction of a dragon in the midst of clouds tinged with a golden hue. Some 80 hours of painstaking work by a master engraver with 10 types of chisels went into creating the beautiful creature. Set against a background of glossy black grand feu enamel, the pink gold dragon appears to take on a 3-D effect, seemingly ready to leap off the caseback. Opaque black grand feu enamel graces the dial on the front of this elegant reversible timepiece, meaning the two surfaces appear in harmony.

Vacheron Constantin has been paying homage to the Chinese annual animals since 2012, and as the 12-year cycle comes full circle with the Year of the Dragon, the maison has brought out two 25-piece Métiers d’Art The Legend of the Chinese ZodiacYear of the Dragon limited editions. Powered by the calibre 2460 G4 offering about 40 hours of power reserve, the watch is crafted from either platinum or 18-carat pink gold and has a transparent sapphire crystal caseback. With enamelling and engraving skills to the fore, the dial features a hand-engraved pink-gold dragon that demonstrates the meticulous precision of the artisan, such as the fine detail of its scales and a hand-engraved pearl. Each measures 40mm in diameter and comes with a deep blue (platinum version) or brown (pink gold) grand feu enamel dial and alligator leather strap.

The Excalibur Dragon Monotourbillon by Roger Dubuis ushers in the Lunar New Year with what appears to be a 3-D dragon. The visual interpretation is certainly in the eyes of the wearer, given the abstract design and freedom of expression bestowed by a creature crafted from 27 separate pieces of brass. The dragon boldly stands out via pink-gold polished surfaces surrounded by black lacquer. Enriching the surrealism and powerful symbolism of this watch is the image of another dragon that appears to flow within the sapphire crystal of the caseback. Here, the lower flying tourbillon of the Monotourbillon Calibre RD512SQ skeletonised movement uses materials far lighter than stainless steel, and its mechanical excellence only enhances its aesthetic appeal.

Chopard marks the arrival of the auspicious animal with the release of the L.U.C XP Urushi Year of the Dragon, featuring a dial hand-crafted in Japan by an artisan skilled in the urushi lacquer technique. Each dial took at least 20 hours to refine using this painstaking ancestral process. Encased in a combination of 18-carat rose gold and glare-proof sapphire crystal, a spectacular red- and yellow-coloured dragon appears to float high in the clouds, elevating the timepiece to majestic heights.

The mythical hand-sculptured 5N rose gold dragon coils its way around Ulysse Nardin‘s skeletonised X structure of their Blast Tourbillon Dragon.