Star watch de­sign­ers to­day work un­der guise of brands.

The Peak (Singapore) - - Contents -

Star watch de­sign­ers to­day work un­der the guise of brands.


Al­most all watch de­signs con­sid­ered iconic are decades old. Cartier’s form watches like the San­tos and Tank were cre­ated in the early 20th cen­tury – the Tank was named af­ter the ar­moured ve­hi­cles of World War I – while the Rev­erso was an Art Deco cre­ation. The mod­ern dive watch as we know it, a tem­plate pi­o­neered by the Rolex Sub­mariner, was born in the early 1950s. Even the Royal Oak, which counts as rel­a­tively re­cent, made its de­but in 1972, a par­tic­u­larly fruit­ful era for new case shapes. Per­haps the only iconic de­sign since the 1990s is the asym­met­ric Lange 1, which is still in production and of­ten copied.

One ex­pla­na­tion for that is watches are rel­a­tively sim­ple ob­jects, so there is only so much that can be done to vary the look of a func­tional item strapped around the wrist.

Along­side the paucity of land­mark de­signs is the de­cline of the star watch de­signer, the most fa­mous of all be­ing the late Ger­ald Genta. Start­ing in the 1950s till the 1970s, Genta had a stel­lar run de­sign­ing watches for some of the big­gest names in watch­mak­ing, hav­ing con­ceived the Royal Oak and Nau­tilus, as well as the IWC In­ge­nieur and Omega Con­stel­la­tion, among oth­ers.

Af­ter Genta came Jorg Hy­sek, re­spon­si­ble for many of the most mem­o­rable watches of the 1990s, in­clud­ing the Tag Heuer Kir­ium and Seiko Ki­netic Arc­tura. But his de­signs lacked stay­ing power. Most of them are no longer pro­duced, and have not had a last­ing in­flu­ence.

Both Genta and Hy­sek cre­ated watches for the big­gest names in watch­mak­ing, but even the gi­ants of the in­dus­try then were far smaller than they are to­day. Lead­ing watch­mak­ers are now ma­jor cor­po­ra­tions or even con­glom­er­ates, un­like in the era be­fore the Quartz Cri­sis when most were cosy op­er­a­tions, of­ten fam­ily- owned.

Most big watch­mak­ers take a con­ser­va­tive ap­proach to build­ing brand eq­uity, ded­i­cated to pre­serv­ing the sanc­tity of the brand name, of­ten by claim­ing every­thing is done “in-house”.

Boost­ing the rep­u­ta­tion of an in­di­vid­ual de­signer doesn’t fit in that strat­egy, so watch de­sign­ers rarely have the op­por­tu­nity to be­come stars. It’s un­com­mon that de­sign­ers, or even watch­mak­ers, work­ing for es­tab­lished names be­come well-known per­son­al­i­ties in their own right.

While there are in­de­pen­dent watch de­sign­ers to­day, most ply their trade in anonymity. Some are re­spon­si­ble for some of to­day’s most fa­mous watches, but none will ever be known, thanks to non- dis­clo­sure agree­ments. Con­se­quently, the most vis­i­ble is Eric Giroud, who is best known for his work with in­de­pen­dent watch brands, rather than any of the es­tab­lished watch brands.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, most watch de­signs to­day are safe bets, the horo­log­i­cal equiv­a­lent of a BMW 3- Se­ries or Mercedes-Benz S- Class. It also makes com­mer­cial sense, since a de­sign that ap­peals to the low­est com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor will sell to the largest num­ber of peo­ple.

Where the bound­aries of de­sign are be­ing pushed is at the other end of the spec­trum, with niche in­de­pen­dent watch­mak­ers who need only please a hand­ful of cus­tomers. Such brands have been lib­er­ated from the conventions of watch de­sign pre­cisely be­cause watches are no longer nec­es­sary to tell the time, rel­e­gat­ing func­tion­al­ity to a sec­ondary con­cern.

But this is a small mar­ket: MB& F and Ur­w­erk pro­duce watches that barely re­sem­ble con­ven­tional time­pieces, pro­duc­ing barely 400 watches a year be­tween them. And even the big­gest in­de­pen­dent watch­maker of them all, Richard Mille, which still makes only about 3,500 an­nu­ally, spe­cialises in ag­gres­sively styled, bar­rel- shaped watches that have a com­plex, technical ap­pear­ance, with barely any re­sem­blance to clas­si­cal time­pieces.

Be­cause in­de­pen­dent watch­mak­ers are small, they lack the vol­ume or name recog­ni­tion to be­come known in the wider world. That might change over time, but it will take a lot of luck, skill and time for to­day’s in­de­pen­dent watch­mak­ers to de­velop into es­tab­lished names.

Such brands will need to grow be­yond their founders, while still be­ing able to cre­ate mem­o­rable watches. Most won’t be able to make that leap, so the odds are slim that any of them will boast the equiv­a­lent of a Royal Oak or Nau­tilus decades from now.

SU JIA XIAN In­de­pen­dent watch jour­nal­ist, in­dus­try ob­server and col­lec­tor www.watch­es­bysjx.com

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