Gay Frères was founded in 1835 in Geneva by Jean-Pierre Gay and Gaspard Tissot. They specialised in making chains both for pocket watches and jewellery and over the years gained a reputation for both the quality of their work and reliability of their service.
With the invention of the pocket watch and its increasing popularity during the 20th century the company had to adapt and learn to make watch bracelets as well. They did this exceptionally well becoming one of the most renowned metalworkers of the period, particularly for stainless steel which was much more difficult to work than precious metals. Rolex were an early client for whom Gay Frères produced stainless steel, gold and platinum bracelets in a wide range of styles and sizes. They were known for their inventive, original designs and by the 1940’s were supplying Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin who were followed by many other watchmakers such as Audemars Piguet and Jaeger LeCoultre.
By the 1970s Gay Frères, which was still family owned, was running the largest factory in Geneva employing over 500 specialist craftsmen. Alongside the watch elements of the business they were also designing and making jewellery. Chain necklaces and bracelets in a wide variety of designs were a natural extension but they also made torques, cuffs and rings with favoured motifs including leopard, tiger and stallion heads. As well as precious metals, which were used both with and without diamonds and gemstones, the jewels might also feature organic materials such as tortoiseshell, ebony and ivory. Techniques such as enamelling were used as well as a variety of gold finishes and textures. Often several craftsmen would work on one piece, each with their own particular area of expertise and the pieces reveal a wonderful attention to detail. Vintage adverts and catalogues highlight some particularly inventive and original designs produced during the 1960s and 70s.
The company exhibited at trade fairs both in Switzerland and abroad including the famous Basel show and has built its reputation and client base to the point that today it operates four factories including ones in Lyon and Hanoi. Between them they are able to supply a diverse customer base from prestigious Parisian Maisons such as Van Cleef & Arpels and Hermès through to mass market jewellery stores all with the products best suited to their requirements. In 1998 the company was bought by Rolex and in 2010 they became the first certified member of France’s Responsible Jewellery Council (The RJC). They continue to be regarded as world specialists in handmade chains and watch bracelets as well as producing a new jewellery collection each year. However it is the jewellery of the 1960s and 70s that is particularly collectible as it appears on the market relatively rarely.