Icons in the making

Icons in the making

Watch design is going through a period of enormous upheaval. Josh Sims checks out the innovation and style going into what are essentially works of art.

With its bold yellow dial alone it would be a strikingly different watch design. The fact that it is shaped like an asterisk, and that the time is told by a series of overlapping tape measure style read-outs, makes it positively unique.

The concept piece, called the Ora, is the brainchild of award-winning product designer Alexandros Stasinopoulos, who follows in the footsteps of design maestros Philippe Starck and Marc Newson in creating watches that look anything but classical.

“No matter how much you spend on a watch, you may have an innovative mechanism but invariably it will look much like any other watch,” says Stasinopoulos.

“In fact, the more connoisseur the market, the more conservative it seems to become. There is a hesitancy to experiment, that is a product of the industry using more watchmakers than watch designers.” That has been all the more true in recent years, with the recession prompting a retrenchment in not only historic brands but classical styles of watch – all white dials and Roman numerals.

“The game has changed and the watch industry has broken in two,” notes Mikael Bourgeois, founder of MB Watches, which has recently launched the industry’s first semi-bespoke range.

“On the one side are the major brands that will come out of the crisis thanks to their reputation and on the other are small but much more innovative brands attracting the attention of collectors.“ The collection offers seven unique models, each styled after the seven deadly sins; each made to order with some customisation.

While that more specialist market may be niche, increasingly Stasinopoulos and Bourgeois are not alone in seeking to push the limits of our expectations as to what a watch can look like or how it might work.

As watch expert and founder of dealers/makers Watchismo.com Mitch Greenblatt observes, the famed Swiss watch industry is revealing a new seam of avant garde haute horlogerie which is marking a period of innovation not seen since the 1960s – when the bold styles produced by boutique brands reflected the future-thinking of the space race.

“There are many cool watch designs now that may not make it beyond concept stage but are paving the way for new, independent watchmakers with new styles down the line,” says Gleenblatt.

“They may not be to mainstream tastes but they at least challenge them.” He cites the likes of the experimental Quantum Gravity C-1 from Concord – which, radically, fitted the tourbillon cage outside of the movement and case, making it winner of the Best Design award from the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Geneve – or the watches from Swiss-trained Finnish designer-maker Stepan Sarpaneva.

Indeed, arguably there should be an increasing demand for difference – in times of the ubiquitous cellphone, watches are no longer required as functional devices but rather as expressions of status, craft or creativity.

They may be wonders of mechanics in miniature, but they may even be artworks too – one design from Romain Jerome, for example, is made out of untreated steel and will eventually irreparably rust and seize up – a more philosophical comment on the nature of time perhaps.

It is, as the company’s visionary founder Yvan Arpa put it, “a crazy idea”.

One whose time has come perhaps.

Maximillian Busser founded MB & F, a project launched three years ago to create “horological machines” with some of the industry’s leading watchmakers, with three models so far pushing boundaries of movement design but also introducing a Jules Verne aesthetic.

One of its best known models is the HM4 Thunderbolt, in which the mechanism, three years in development, is positioned to allow the read out through what looks to be two tint jet engines.

“When they launched not everyone understood such watches and sales were pitiful (compared with mainstream brands),” says Busser. “But that’s changing. Just as painting returned after the impact of photography, but did so with the abstract and impressionist, so now the mechanical watch industry, which was almost destroyed by the advent of quartz, is getting abstract too.” Even esteemed jeweller Harry Winston, of which Busser was CEO, is getting in on the new style with its acclaimed Opus series.

Urwerk, one of the pioneers of this new market, recently launched its equally arresting CC1. Its linear design is a reminder of how historically humankind has perceived time, not as endlessly circular, as most watches present it, but as following a single line of direction.

“It’s important to me that a watch should still tell the time, or show an aspect of time, but not necessarily in the traditional way,” says Martin Frei, Urwerk’s chief engineer, who tellingly trained not as a watchmaker but an artist and counts Duchamp, Mies van der Rohe and Star Wars among his influences.

“Who wants a watch inspired by those first made a couple of centuries ago? Create something new and demand follows.” Jean-Francois Ruchonnet, however, is not so sure.

He believes such avant garde designs will remain a particular taste, due less to a limited demand as an institutional lack of adventurousness in the Swiss watch industry.

He says: “No question designing watches like these are a risk – you’re often not just making a watch that looks different but starting with a blank piece of paper and spending four years developing a new movement, to make something people will either love or hate.” And he should know; Ruchonnet is the designer of Tag Heuer’s V4 – of which only 100 were made, selling out but only recouping the company its research and development costs – and founder-designer of the boutique brand Cabestan.

That is the brand behind the icon-in-the-making Winch Tourbillon Vertical – a watch powered not by typical cogs or springs, but by a tiny chain and a miniscule winch of the kind used to wind up ropes on yachts.

“Unfortunately, most watch companies are run by financial people now and don’t see any value in risk,” he says. “It’s a big mistake, because increasingly the internet allows people to discover the true value of what they’re making. People increasingly see value in difference. That leaves those few companies making original designs as outsiders. We’re the Robin Hoods of the watch industry.”