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.
Read more of Su Jia Xian’s incisive commentary at his website, WatchesbySJX.com.