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Are We Celebrating the Watchmaker to the Point of Ignoring the Designer?

by Jonathan Ho on February 8, 2017

Watchmakers are veritable rockstars. They make the cool movements, visualise the finishing and make assessments as to what quickens the heart of a watch idiot savant and appeals to our horological lusts. Yet, reverse the watch once more and what caught our eyes initially was the face and shape- much like how a woman catches our attention because of her exquisite beauty and indisputable curves; it’s the attraction which encourages us to discover the depths of her mind (or in this case, the movement beneath the surface). Therein lies the quandary, when did we start ignoring the designer and celebrating only the watchmaker?

Watches and Watchmaking: When did We start Ignoring the Designer

For as long as history has documented, watches in general have always tended to be round save for a few early women’s models which were designed into jewellery and brooches. Then, there came a revolution, the world’s first square watch – not that it mattered because documenting such a horological milestone wasn’t really on the foremost on the minds of the manufacturers. Sans social media, there was no necessity to distinguish or crow about the achievement of a unique case shape, round or square the watch was a watch. Fast forward today, save for a few iconic models, how many of us can actually name the designer of our watch? If you owned a Audemars Piguet Royal Oak or a Patek Philippe Nautilus, it is highly probable we could name Gerald Genta but who else? What about horology’s other icons? The Jaeger LeCoultre Reverso or the Cartier Santos? When did we start ignoring the designer?

Gerald Genta with his greatest hits; Is there a designer from our generation ready to assume his mantle?

Doesn’t it seem somewhat strange that Michaelangelos of our time work in the shadows, sculpting the bodies of watch cases and faces while the men responsible for the beating hearts within (however important) gain all the glory? While there are indeed rockstars like Genta, how many can name more than a handful?

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Yet, the designer has an almost insurmountable task, designing year after year, Baselworld after Baselworld, something distinctive in a rarified realm where almost nothing is ever truly unique. Yet each year, an unnamed and uncelebrated artist scores a home run, the “it” watch in a flood of new watches. It isn’t the movement which catches our eyes as the SIHH shuttle bus trundles towards Palexpo, it’s the new face and new case shape aloft on a banner in the crisp Swiss air that quickens our pulse. Are we ignoring the designer to our own peril?

Pretty sure that back in 1914, the people thought a square case shape with rounded corners was “pretty cool” – would the designer been encouraged to be the Genta of his period had he not been ignored?

A Brief History of Ignoring the Designer

Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Bauhaus, these are some of the artistic movements that encompass some of the aesthetic muses which have inspired all watchmaking names at one point in history or another. What a revolution it would have been in 1904, when an aviator’s watch debuted in a square case with rounded corners? Over a hundred years on, the Cartier Santos lives on. What of Vacheron Constantin’s Malte in 1912? It was neither square, nor rectangular nor circle but tonneau, what do we know of their designers? Time and again, it seems to be a horological disservice that all we know about the designer of the “It” watch of the 1930s is that the Jaeger LeCoultre Reverso was designed by a Frenchman. How sad it is to be reduced to a footnote in the annals of watch history to something as general as your nationality. But 1970, is the year it all turned.

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Early in my watch writing career, desperate to be a contrarian, I once opined that Gerald Genta was a little bit of a one note artist – blend circle and square into an octagonal case shape, slap on a distinctive bezel and call it a day. Sure, at its most superficial level, Genta’s Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and Patek Philippe Nautilus might fit the description but when you start to consider the other watch designs in his repertoire – the Cartier Pasha and the IWC Ingenieur or his namesake Octo (now under the auspices of Bulgari), the figurative lines aren’t that clear. But the literal lines are – Genta was an artist possessed with deft insight and touches of geometry. His ideas and philosophy on watch aesthetics still shape many of today’s “It” watches.

The Reverso has endured to its modern incarnation. Kano’s period might have ended in 1933 thanks to Nazis but their legacy lives on in brands like Nomos and Stowa. Finally, if only they made a mechanical version of the AB Art KDL Moon Watch…

Oddly, despite the industry’s need for brilliant design geniuses, it was largely ignoring the designer till 2010 when one was created in La Chaux-De-Fonds; another, owned by Richemont sits in Milan while in 2015, Haute Ecole d’Art et de Design (HEAD) school opened in Geneva.

Will the next great watch designer be American (or German) rather than Swiss?

In 1947, an American designer named Nathan George Horwitt applied Bauhaus principles to a sketch for what would become Movado’s Museum Watch. Though it wasn’t the first Bauhaus watch per se (that distinction would go to Kano in the 1930s), but it was the first ultra-minimalist watch to use Bauhaus principles. Since that seminal watch in 1959, other champions from the Danish Skaagen to the German Stowa and Nomos would go on to champion Bauhaus aesthetics which would itself inspire a host of other mimics like Uniform Wares and the lustworthy (albeit Quartz) AB Art KDL Moon Watch.

For now, brands are plumbing the depths of the historical archives in search of classic designs which can be restored but then again, there’s is a limit to how much nostalgia can be mined before it becomes tiresome in and of itself. Celebrate the watchmaker by all means but ignoring the designer might just discourage the potential Gerald Gentas of our time.

 

 

 


Also published on Medium.

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