With the rise of independent watchmakers, the watch community has a good grasp of the general persona of watchmakers. “The watchmaker” conjures a set of specific images, whether it’s working diligently at the bench or using lathes and jig-boring machines to create components. Though our image of the watchmaker still lacks depth, it is significantly more concrete than our understanding of watch designers.
“The watch designer” is a much more elusive figure – partially by design, as big brands in the watch industry continue to struggle with elevating creatives. Yet designers are a key part of the watch creation process, especially for more established brands.
Very broadly, one of my recent questions of interest was simply, what are the character traits of watch designers? How do they approach watchmaking and design? What concerns them? Even Google’s omniscience struggles to provide answers to these questions.
Fortunately, I’ve had the pleasure to speak with a few designers in the watch industry over the last month. Our discussions were wide-ranging, often bordering on the edge of chaos. Exactly how I like conversation. It’s in that serendipity that the characteristics of watch designers subtly disclose themselves. So what are they?
Inspiration comes from the outside
For watch designers, the inspiration is always pulled from the “outside.” That is to say, creative design inspiration is not often found from within the watchmaking tradition. It seems obvious, as most of the iconic watches find their design inspiration in spaceships, vintage cars, or various broad art movement (Art Deco, for example).
When compared to watchmakers though, one notices that many of today’s most iconic mechanisms come from within the horological tradition. As an example, Urwerk’s wandering satellite display previously existed at a much larger scale in historic clocks or the linear display of time has its footing in Patek’s Cobra 3414. In this sense, watchmakers often think very literally in watchmaking terms, whereas watch designers will hop across broad product categories and artistic styles. In no way does one method outweigh the other, as in the Urwerk example, the combination of the revitalization of the linear display of time coupled with space-age design is what precisely produces an iconic watch.
Good design is about more than individual products
Another striking thing in talking with watch designers is that they think about timepieces both individually and across the whole catalog. That means, evaluating a timepiece from a design perspective requires more than assessing the singular watch. One must also zoom out to see how that watch fits within the broader catalog of a given brand.
It’s on this topic that one of the greatest challenges for every brand’s arises: the tension between staying true to the existing design language and innovating with design to help the brand evolve.
Real fear: duplication
This might be a point where watchmakers and designers overlap, as an indictment of duplication triggers fear and anxiety in any creative person. Evading similarity is easier said than done though.
As was pointed out, freshness is never the only constraint in designing a new watch. Unlike traditional art, they have to be both new and beautiful, which is significantly more difficult than producing something new and ugly. The workaround for designers, if one can be said to exist, is a focus on shape – it’s the fastest way out of the status quo round cases.
If designers focus on shape for creative differentiation, watchmakers can be said to focus on mechanisms. The architecture of Petermann Bedat’s 1967’s bridge and dead beat second mechanism offer a degree of differentiation for the category of time-only watches.
It’s important to take these generalizations with a grain of salt. There are some watchmakers that embody these traits, while some designers practice watchmaking. However, these generalizations make good heuristics to begin thinking through the lines that divide the labor of watchmakers and designers, to go a bit deeper to appreciate the complementary skills of both.
What we see is that stereotypical mentality of the watch designer is fundamentally different from that of the stereotypical watchmaker. It’s almost like two different religious systems. The aim for both a watchmaker and watch designer is to create the best possible watch, like every religion aims to lead its adherents to live the best possible life, yet the worldview, priorities, and practices of the watchmaker and designer differ greatly, as they do across religions.
In an upcoming article, I will focus more on the specifics of how watch designers design. Hopefully, this newfound knowledge helps us build a better appreciation for the subtleties of their craft.
Another day with the beast,