Since we started The Watch Collectors’ Club we’ve found that the number one thing most people are interested in is the look and feel of their watch. Next comes the history heritage and status of the brands, and then comes the technology inside the case. While this may not surprise many, it means that our events have been mostly focussing on the looks of a watch and the brand or model history, as well as helping people understand how to buy and sell the watches they want.
An Introduction to Watch Design
One often wonders where watch designers start, and the simplest answer to this is style. Over and over again we see watch brands adopt a distinctive style, either of their own or in the traditions of a type of watch (such as a Dive watch or Pilot’s Watch) and then develop their individual ideas from there. Of course, the designer has to decide on what functions they want the watch to have, and then fit them into the required size. They also need to decide very early on what the time display will be, whether it will use hands or another mechanism, and what type of dial to use and how to make it.
An IWC Big Pilot Blue Angels Pilot Watch showing clear features attributed to Pilot’s watches such as the big luminous numerals, large hands, and chronograph, or stopwatch, function.
We once spoke to a legendary watchmaker, Kari Voutilainen and he said “It all starts with the dial”, so want to reiterate that point, as the first question a designer has to answer is how the functions of the watch will be displayed.
A unique watch with an engraved pink gold dial from Kari Voutilainen.
Designing a watch of a certain style
There are an enormous number of both styles and types of watches. Here is an example, one common type of watch is a chronograph, like the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona. It is a steel sports watch, with a bezel that helps make calculations based on the stopwatch function that makes it a chronograph. It also has a distinct style, it is large and chunky and has a high level of water resistance to 100m. It is a serious-looking watch that looks like many other Rolexes, and comes from a long line of previous models with the same name. Everyone can see what it is, and while there are dial and case material variations, plus some gem-set models, the style is distinctly Rolex.
A modern white gold Rolex Daytona Cosmograph
Another chronograph, one made by British brand Studio Underdog, is completely different, it is colourful and playful by design, and as the first watch from a new company there was no heritage to draw on. It is instead themed on different things, including fruit, but mainly focused on colour combinations. It still has subdials and pushers, or buttons on the side to work the chronograph function, but the designer has used completely different aspects of each. The case is also thinner and there is no bezel.
With these two examples, we can see that designers are working with totally different styles, but both had to start by thinking about how to represent the chronograph function of the watch.
The Studio Underd0g Aubergine, a limited edition made for charity in 2022.
To further illustrate the point, we can use a watch that tells the time without using hands. In this example from Mr. Jones Watches, the hour is displayed in a window within the branches of the tree, and the minutes are indicated by different arrangements of stars as displayed at the 3 o’clock position. This style of watch is unusual and comes from a brand that starts by trying to think of ways to tell the time with an image that hasn’t been done before. This is truly design-led watchmaking
The Ascendant from Mr. Jones. The hour is in the small window in the tree branches and the minutes are calculated at the 3 o’clock position through a mix of small stars, with the crescent moon appearing at the top of the hour.
How does a designer turn a design into a watch?
A designer today has more options than ever before to make a new watch a reality, whether it is something simple, fun and affordable or extremely complicated and expensive. Whatever they make they need to work out how it is going to be made, and where. If a watch is going to be Swiss Made, then 60% of the components must be made in Switzerland and it must be assembled there. If it is going to say it is British made, then it must be assembled in Britain, such as those from Mr. Jones watches. The designer also must work out the price of the assembly and how that relates to the expected selling price.
Fortunately, today, there are many suppliers and factories that can do a whole range of things, and in some cases, simply produce an entire watch with a limited amount of additional help needed other than quality control. This has allowed startup watch brands to flourish, to the benefit of watch lovers everywhere who want to take a chance on something different. For established brands, they already have factories and a supply chain, but need to decide how complicated to make the movement and cases to meet the price point their customers expect.
A Mickey Mouse Swatch made in collaboration with the artist Damien Hirst. This takes the iconic form of the cartoon character, the requirement of a simple swatch watch to have two hands, and the artistic style of Damien Hirst and translates all three into a fantastic design for a simple and unusual watch. The brand Swatch are famous for this approach.
A Fears Brunswick watch. Here the British company Fears has used watch examples from their own arc