[dropcap size=small]S[/dropcap]itting on the edge of the Piazza Santa Maria Novella in Florence is the Hotel L’Orologio – “orologio” is Italian for watch or clock – the first watch-themed hotel in Italy. It’s one of the country’s three horological hotels owned by millionaire Sandro Fratini.
His forebears founded Rifle Jeans, an Italian denim manufacturer that invented the acid wash in the 1980s, when it was one of the best-selling brands in Europe. Its success enabled the family to diversify its interests (it once was a major shareholder in Van Cleef & Arpels). Fratini also became one of the world’s top collectors of vintage timepieces, with a collection of over 2,000 pieces, mostly Rolexes and Patek Philippes.
Fratini owns a chain of boutique hotels in Italy, three of them inspired by his watch collecting. While theme hotels can often end up being kitschy or gaudy, his watch hotels are compelling temples to vintage watch collecting.
Located in Florence, Venice and Rome, each Hotel L’Orologio is obviously the work of a fanatic. Door handles are shaped like watch hands, taps are custom-made to look like crowns, while stacks of watch auction catalogues sit in the drawing rooms.
Each floor is dedicated to a brand, and each room is named after a particular model. So, for example, the 13th room on the second floor of the Florence hotel is 6084 “Drago”, a rare Rolex wristwatch with a dragon motif cloisonne dial.
While Italians are among the world’s most accomplished watch collectors, most high-end watches are made in Switzerland. So, naturally, the alpine nation has its own watch hotel, the quaint Hotel des Horlogers, located in the watchmaking town of Le Brassus, right beside the premises of Audemars Piguet, which owns the hotel.
The so-called “Hotel of Watchmakers”, though ranked the best of the three hotels in the tiny town, is modest in size and furnishings. This can be somewhat disappointing for aficionados who journey to Le Brassus seeking wristwatches that cost as much as an apartment.
So, it will be torn down by autumn 2016, and Audemars Piguet plans to replace it with a modern, eco-friendly five-star hotel of about 65 suites and rooms, housed in a complex of sloping floors with expansive glass facades. It is due to open in 2018.
The reason watch hotels exist in Switzerland and Italy is simple: The people who buy fine watches invariably want to travel and stay in style. But while such horological hotels are novel and fun for the first stay, it’s hard to find a reason to revisit for the hotel itself.
Accomplished watchmakers and collectors don’t necessarily make good hoteliers. The best hotels have an indescribable atmosphere, culture and service – a je ne sais quoi that is hard to replicate.
For that reason, when Bulgari opened its first hotel in 2001, the Italian jeweller left hotel operations to the division of Marriot International that runs the Ritz-Carlton chain. So while the look might be Bulgari, the service is Ritz-Carlton. And that has proved successful, with three Bulgari hotels already open and four in the pipeline.
Watch collectors often deride the watchmaking efforts of luxury brands that historically make pens or bags, regarding then as lacking legitimacy, even when the intrinsic qualities of the product are obvious.
But it is probably easier for a fashion house to produce a respectable wristwatch – and several like Chanel and Louis Vuitton already have – than it is for a luxury goods brand to run a top-flight hotel.
Read more about fashion houses creating luxury watches in The Peak Selections: Timepieces 2016/2017 – out now.
Read more of Su Jia Xian’s incisive commentary at his website, WatchesbySJX.com.