The Shape of Things to Come: Watch Design
By Maria Doulton
Keeping the elements of consistency and familiarity, many brands have chosen to either stay with existing case shapes for their 2012 collections or to resurrect ones from days gone by. However, various subtle adaptations, twists and turns on the signature themes allow just enough variety to guarantee they get at least a second glance.
Kurt Andersen, the American novelist and editor takes on the state of contemporary design in the January issue of Vanity Fair: "… these days, even as technological and scientific leaps have continued to revolutionise life, popular style has been stuck on repeat, consuming the past instead of creating the new… Now that we have instant universal access to every old image and recorded sound, the future has arrived and it's all about dreaming of the past," Andersen argues.
Can we apply this to the
watch world? A look at the offerings for 2012 suggests that change
is not in the air. As the world races ahead, we like our
timekeepers to be just that: keepers. A warp into times past rather
than heralds of a better, brighter future. And so shape-shifting is
the vogue as subtle twists and turns of well-known case shapes
populate the watch offerings for the year ahead. It's all about
little details and finessing rather than spanking new designs that
leave you reeling at their audacity as they offer a glimpse into a
brave new world.
One of the most enduring and well-loved examples of the constantly morphing case, is Cartier's latest incarnation of the Tank. Born in 1917, this watch was inspired by the top view of an Allied military tank during the First World War. And since this moment of unlikely and genius inspiration, Louis Cartier's creation has rolled on through the decades and on its way taken on new guises. The Tank Normale, Cintrée, Chinoise, a Guichets, baguette, Etanche, Basculante, Asymetrique, Rectangle, Mini Allongée, Must, Americaine, Française, Divan are but some of the forms of this adaptable design.
The new Tank Anglaise is more curved and voluptuous than the original pared down lines of the Normale and the winding crown is set into an aperture in the side of the case. But for all the tweaking, it is a still a Tank. It's square, the Roman numerals are there as are the railway track chapter ring, those glossy blued-steel hands and the sleek metal bracelet. For sure the original Tank was a crowd stopper. I can imagine the reaction of a passerby spotting a Tank on the wrist of an early adopter strolling in the Tuileries. "Sacré bleu! What is that newfangled instrument on your wrist?" Striking though it is, I doubt that the new Tank Anglaise would elicit such a violent response.
What is billed as 'new' today usually has a safe grounding in a timeworn classic. Van Cleef & Arpels' new Alhambra watch uses a motif that has been in circulation for generations, IWC's new Pilot Top Gun Miramar may have an American drawl and a khaki makeover but it is still a Pilot and Piaget's Gouvernor is genetically the successor of the Emperador. Vacheron Constantin's new Malte is, well, a Malte with a facelift and a taut physique and JeanRichard's Highlands harks back to the days of Technicolor freedom and discovering new lands.
Hermès' revamped Dressage is a tightly executed design exercise in perfection improving on the original from way back in the mists of time circa 2003. Bulgari's 2012 Serpenti is still working its slinky magic slithering up the best-dressed arms as it has done since the 1940s. Audemars Piguet's Royal Oak is 40 years old and the spirit of Gérald Genta's design for one of the first steel luxury watches still sings out.
Don't get me wrong, all the watches I have mentioned are handsome, refined extensions of their former selves, however, new they are not. But do we want change for change's sake? Necessity appears to be the most foolproof impetus for radical design shifts. Cartier's Santos Dumont watch was created for the playboy Brazilian pilot who wanted a watch not in his pocket but on his wrist while airborne. The design reflects the circumstances of its birth. The case was screwed together from the outside as this was all technology could manage at the time. Jaeger-LeCoultre's flipping-dial Reverso was a reaction to the frailty of early glass that was being shattered by polo balls. Pilot's watches became a necessity during the Second World War and they were big and had luminous markers so that they could be read easily at night and adjusted while wearing gloves. Panerai's diving watches were fitted with the bulky, cup-handle shaped crown locking system as it was the only way the 'Laboratorio' could figure out how to keep the water out.
So how does a contemporary designer approach a totally new creation today? Christoph Behling, who has designed several TAG Heuer watches, explains the challenge he faces: "Watches have not been functional objects since quartz was introduced in the 1970s, so the appeal of watches has moved beyond rational, measurable performance."
"Previously I designed very futuristic furniture but looking back at things I worked on 10 years ago they look so dated. In fact anything that was sold to us as the future such as concept cars from the 1970s or 1980s has aged dreadfully. So I try to reference the past more than I did five years ago as it increases the chances of durability of an object - but we still need to mark them with the stamp of our technology and times."
His most recent design is the highly technical TAG Heuer Mikrogirder that times mechanically to 5/10,000ths of a second. Behling makes reference to the history of Heuer as a stopwatch manufacturer. Like a stopwatch, the crown is at 12 o'clock and the look is of a pocketwatch adapted to fit the wrist more than a streamlined wristwatch, an analogy for this watch straddles past and present. To reflect the highly technical nature of the watch, the stark, dark dial has no decoration.
But why are products including our watches becoming more classical? Behling mulls: "Ten years ago is was all about modern design, but in our difficult economic times we are longing for slightly sentimental items like the AGA, the classic rug or the chesterfield sofa with a quirky fabric."
And what am I wearing on my wrist? Why a Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso that wouldn't have looked out of place on my grandfather's wrist - well except for the pink crocodile strap.