The creative studio of the iconic automotive company created the first watches in titanium, and the first with a compass! Their innovative mastery is being rejuvenated once more as Porsche Design returns as an independent watchmaker.
The iconic car company also excels in the world of luxury watches.
Juergen gessler concedes, perhaps a little reluctantly, that black is a cool colour. “But black wasn’t chosen because it’s a cool colour, or because it hadn’t been used before,” counters the CEO of Porsche Design. “Black was the logical consequence of supporting the functionality of the watch – black is best from a design perspective. It helps though that black is a cool colour...”
That was a moment in watch design history – back in 1972, Ferdinand Porsche, most famed for his 911 supercar, founded Porsche Design as a spin-off from his automotive work and selected black for his Timepiece No.1 (Chronograph 1) for the maximum legibility it gave.
And not just for the dial but for the case too, and in matt – because shiny cases reflect light and so impede the view – and not just painted on but using a special process that bonded the colour with the metal beneath, a technique that started to appear in car design subsequently. And yes, if Porsche might not be the first name in watches to spring to mind, all the same it can claim that innovation.
Indeed, it can also claim to have created the first watch in aluminium too – complete with a compass, in 1978, and, after testing the material in space, the first in titanium too.
Then, in 2004, it produced the Indicator, the first watch with a chronograph function and mechanical jumping digital display – the product of three spring barrels, a governor and some 800 parts – making it one of the most complex watches around at the time.
Certainly given such significant contributions to the progress of watches –
some 50,000 Timepiece No.1s were sold – it is a wonder that Porsche Design is not much bigger in watches. “Of course, having that surname in the first part of our name helps in terms of recognition,” notes Gessler, whose industrial design career started out with Mercedes and BMW. “But unfortunately not every Porsche driver is a Porsche Design owner, or, seeing as the car company makes 186,000 cars a year, we’d be one of the big players”. Rather, four decades of working in partnership with external, third party watch specialists – including Eterna, which Porsche owned for a while – has kept matters low-key. “Working that way invariably leads to different interests, over-pricing for example, and ideas you want to realise that are different to those of your partner,” says Gessler, diplomatically.
But all this is about to change. Porsche Design has put much into buying back licences and, as Gessler puts it, “getting a better grip on the product”, and is now re-launching its watchmaking business as a fully independent one. It is based in Switzerland, under Patrick Kury, the man behind the Indicator, and overseen by the German parent company in Ludwigsburg, with the design process for each watch starting at Porsche Design’s studio in Zell am See under the charge of Christian Schwamkrug. He worked with Ferdinand Porsche on watch design back in the 1970s, so he now has the master to trump.
Its first offering will be a re-imagined, limited edition version of the austere, decoration-free Timepiece No.1 – “a reminiscence” of it, Gessler calls it. It’s a quite deliberate nod to the company’s history in watchmaking, both as a reminder of the innovation it has achieved in decades gone by, and as a statement of intent. It is a calling card, an underscoring of its credibility. The self-winding chronograph has a titanium case, with a Valjoux 7750 movement, including an exclusive ‘energy-optimised’ rotor, black rubber strap and sapphire crystal case back – blackened, of course. The case is still matt black too.
“Yes, every company has a black watch now,” Gessler notes, “but as we grow it’s going to become more of our signature”. June sees the re-launch of the Chronograph Titanium – watch No.2, in limited and unlimited editions – and in Autumn an all-new piece – watch No.3. And so on, with 2017 likely to see Porsche Design’s first women’s watches, although Gessler says the emphasis is likely to remain on pieces for men. “Watches are the men’s product category and most important for Porsche Design to focus on,” he says. “And we have lots of ideas we want to see realised.”
Gessler promises some big new concepts too, for two reasons. First is the fact that over half of Porsche Design’s designers’ time is spent working on projects for other companies in other industries; they don’t operate in a Swiss watchmaking bubble. “That means we have contact with new ideas, materials, technologies, which is an important asset and very inspiring,” Gessler says.
“Yes, every company has a black watch now, but as we grow it’s going to become more of our signature”
Secondly, he believes the time is right, in part due to the advent of the smart watch. “They’re going to influence the market in the way watches look, in the way they’re used,” he says. “But we also believe there’s a lot of potential for innovation in watches – look at them and they’re much the same in terms of treatment of the dial, crown, and so on – they’re quite conventional. You can see a lot of these young, independent watch brands coming through now and succeeding precisely because they’re taking a new approach to watch design. There are more brands with more ideas because that’s what customers are asking for.
So there’S room to develop what the watch can be. “It’s quite a statement but there’s the chance to revolutionise the watch,” Gessler adds. “And especially since more men, not just watch aficionados, as was the case in the past, have more than one watch now. Men used to have one safe style of watch for life. Now they’re ready to be adventurous and wear different watches for different occasions.”
Indeed, it’s Porsche Design’s claim to a ‘form follows function’ ethos that gives its watches the anti-opulent air of tools rather than toys – “and not just form follows function, but form supports function,” Gessler adds. But Gessler stresses that the watch is more than a tool today, as might have been more the case 40 years ago, and all the more so when, he reckons, most people now probably look to their mobile phones for the time. “That means watches can now be more than information tools, but also express something about the wearer,” he says. “Every watch brand has its position and ours is now more about a certain design language that appeals.”
Not to all tastes as it is, this is still why, as Schwamkrug has noted, you can identify a Porsche Design P6752 World Traveler from 50 metres away. A readiness to push boundaries is, arguably, why so many Porsche Design products are distinctive, from the pipe to sunglasses with a unique lens replacement system (swap the lenses according to the ideal light conditions for the activity at hand), a fountain pen with a system that prevents the nib from drying out, and a briefcase designed following research to understand exactly what typical users might want to carry with them and how, rather than providing a design with endless compartments, none of them are the right size for good use.
And yes, one of the first Porsche Design products, under Ferdinand Porsche, was a pipe: one with a ribbed effect, actually an integrated cooling system – akin to that used in motorcycle engines – to ensure the body is always comfortable to hold but the optimum temperature for the tobacco is maintained. Such innovative thinking has won the company over 120 prestigious Red Dot and ADI Milan design awards.
expect, in other words, Panerai and IWC to be looking on very carefully at Porsche Design’s next moves. In fact, maybe IWC will be feeling that it missed a trick. After all, it was a meeting between Ferdinand Porsche and IWC’s then CEO Gunter Blumlein, back in 1978, that really inspired the former to start pushing forward with the unconventional in his watch designs – the likes of the compass watch he’d sketched two years previously, a slightly nutty notion, but also, given the impact of most metals on compass needles, a technical challenge. It was why the two-layer case was, in the end, made of a magnetic aluminium. “Things exist in the imagination before they can be constructed in reality because the technical means are not there yet,” as Porsche himself pointed out.
Perhaps the last word should go to the man whose name graces the dials still today. “Not everyone needs a compass everyday,” he also conceded. “But some people need one from time to time, and then they really need it. For me as a designer, that was a decisive step toward my ideal: design as function and technology.”
Professor ferdinand a. Porsche