For a very long time, most pocket and wrist watches displayed numerals on the dials to indicate the hours. First Roman numerals, then Arabic numerals, both of which are now reserved for purpose-driven timepieces such as field or aviation watches. In the past, not so much. For example, Breguet created a particular typeface for its watches now known as “Breguet Numerals”. More on that later. Furthermore, some decades-old icons paired with certain typefaces have become emblematic of not only of the models themselves, but the brands. This extends beyond watches; many brands are instantly recognizable thanks to the typefaces used on their products and/or marketing materials. What made these typefaces iconic is twofold: their originality and their harmony with the product.
In this article, we’re going to briefly discuss the importance of typefaces, looking at a few examples from brands old and new.
The Importance of Typefaces on Watches
It is rare to come across a watch that doesn’t have anything written on the dial: brand name, location of where it was made, etc. Not that all watches should have something written on the dials, but the importance of being able to identify what we are looking at cannot be overlooked. Even if a dial wouldn’t show any text, the Arabic numerals would be distinctive enough to identify the watch at a quick glance. And whether we look at hour markers or text that indicates the brand name or model reference, the typeface used is critical in making the watch 1) identifiable and 2) legible. I don’t think about this much, only when I come across a brand that does it right.
Having a preference for tool watches, I became sensitive to typefaces used on the dials of field watches. The numbers must be easy to read and not overtake the overall design of the dial. This is very personal but I prefer modern looking numerals and typefaces on my watches: especially ones that have thin weights and that are sans serif. Choosing the right typeface is crucial as it helps transmit information in a way that is legible and pleasant, however it seems that sometimes brands don’t get it right. And the consequence could be a certain fatigue or annoyance looking at the wrong typeface to read the time or the text printed on the dial.
Although there is a lot of information typically printed on a dial, more often than not, we see the same typefaces used on watch dials. This is due mainly to the cost associated with creating a bespoke font—something not impossible for smaller brands—or the lack of a design sense from the part of the person running the brand. In any case, we may not realize it but the choice of a typeface for the hour markers or the brand and model names is crucial and can make or break a watch for us…horological nerds.
The Breguet Numerals
The famous Arabic numerals which I mentioned in the introduction, perhaps the most famous ones and certainly the oldest ones in the industry. They were created by A.-L. Breguet himself before the French Revolution which took place between 1789 to 1799. The Breguet numerals have a distinct look, certainly classic, though they also remain highly legible whether printed small or large. What makes them so unique is the fact that each numeral has a distinct appearance, where a 3 cannot be mistaken for a 9, where the tails follow the placement of the numerals on the dial periphery and adapt themselves to the design of the dial.
Omega and the Speedmaster
Whenever I look at the dial of a Speedmaster, I become fascinated by the script typeface used for the word “Speedmaster.” Actually, the font typeface is used on the Seamaster and Railmaster, all of which first came out in the 1950s. The first Seamster from 1948 already displayed this typeface which hasn’t changed since. From what I could read online, the font was custom made for Omega, not saying that Omega designed it itself. However it came to be, it hasn’t aged one bit since the 1940s and it always looks nice set against more modern typefaces indicating “Omega” or “Professional” on the dial of a Speedmaster.
The last example I would like to present is Nomos, the German brand created three decades ago. For one reason or another, the typeface used to indicate the hour markers on Nomos watches is the archetypal Bauhaus typeface, however I couldn’t find a direct link between Nomos, the type of watches they create, and the famous German school of design. However, what I do know about Bauhaus is that it focused on creating objects that were functional, ergonomic, and timeless. In other words, whatever the function of the object was, form had to follow it. In additional words, a typeface, for example, had to make something easy to read, not that it had to be pretty on its own. This explains the uniqueness of the typeface used on Nomos watches: it’s condensed, tall, yet easy to read. Source: www.nomoswatchclub.com
If you are like me, you are sensitive to which typeface brands choose for the numerals and text on the dial. I can find myself being turned off by a watch if it has a font which doesn’t resonate with me. Or if the font used doesn’t match the type of watch or the style and design. Arabic numerals can be too large or too small, have uneven weights or look out of place, while the text indicated the brand name can be too large or too small, look too old or too modern. It seems difficult to choose the right typeface for a watch, so much so that most brands nowadays don’t seem to bother going through this exercise. But when they do, it makes a world of difference even though it’s hard to tell sometimes.Featured image: www.italianwatchspotter.com