Do watches sometimes look familiar? And I mean, very, very familiar? They do and they can. As someone who has been reviewing watches for three years I’ve noticed that I see the same design elements come back continuously. (Imagine the experience of someone who has been writing about watches for longer than that!) Some have been around for several decades and are often re-used because they are so darn effective. It could be a handset, a bezel insert, or case profile. Watches tend to look familiar for that reason and I would argue it’s difficult to create something brand new that is also practical.
In other words, this article won’t include funky designs that are used in alien-looking watches that no one can actually wear, either because they are plain odd or too expensive. Instead, this article will focus on classic designs that have been around and re-used for decades, in other words, accepted by the vast majority of watch enthusiasts and collectors as being effective designs. For example, a chair generally comes with a flat surface to sit on, four legs, and a backrest. Designers have come up with different designs, however, the majority of chairs look the same.
See my point?
A watch hands are at the core of the timekeeping experience which is why they have been well developed over the centuries. I wrote an article about hand designs that can be found in most modern watches which will provide some context here. There are a few types of handsets that are classic and that have been re-used many times. Perhaps the best example is the Mercedes hour hand from Rolex. Regardless of its meaning (enthusiasts and journalists have come up with many versions for its origin,) the Mercedes hour hand is effective at indicating the hour thanks to having a large circular end finished by a pointy tip. The hour hand is easy to differentiate from the minute hands when both are aligned. There cannot be any confusion here.
The Mercedes hand has been used by many other brands, both established Swiss brands and a plethora of smaller, independent ones. Although one could argue that they should be patented and that any brand that is not Rolex should not use these hands, well the situation is such that brands do use it. And this doesn’t have to be seen as plagiarism because, well, if we do then everything else should be patented. Preventing other brands from using it would be like saying a watch cannot have a hour and minute hand on its dial. I know, the problem is more complex than that and I could write an entire article about it. My point is that the Mercedes hand is iconic and appears in different variations of several models (Glycine is known for using a variation of it) because it’s effective.
Similarly, the arrow handset made famous by Omega on the first Speedmaster can be found on many other watches. Again, the arrow hand looks nice and does a great job pointing at an hour marker. While brands don’t typically do 1:1 copies of certain designs as they might change the proportions and finish of the hand, this type of handset is common and I believe will be around for as long as we make and wear watches. So putting a certain type of handset on a dial is similar to having a good pair of leather dress shoes in any wardrobe. It’s a classic and it works for that reason.
The same goes with case designs. Most watches come with circular cases which have been inherited from the shape of pocket watches. Typing this article makes me wonder who first came up with the idea of making circular watches? It might be to fit the movement although it seems movements were designed to fit watch cases. Regardless, most brands use circular cases because they look good and fit our wrists. So imagine a brand claiming that they only can use circular cases and that other brands will have to do with rectangular or octagonal cases. (Which themselves could be patented by one of dozens of brands.)
Although there are brands that have come up with odd case shapes, for example Hamilton and the Ventura’s case that is half circular and half triangular, most brands stick to proven designs. Besides circular cases, brands can opt for cushion cases, tonneau cases, and rectangular cases. The Cartier Tank is a good example of a case shape that has been preserved through the ages. The Tank is actually more than 100 years old as the first Tank was released in 1917! Some might feel that the Tank—and any rectangular cases for that matter—look old-fashioned. But I would argue they aren’t as they are still being copied (should I say that?) nowadays by any brand wanting to make classic looking dressy watches.
So we can look at certain case shapes as being iconic and timeless. Rectangular-shaped cases are only used for dress watches because they look small on the wrist—and that the shape espouses the contour of our wrist almost naturally. Sports watches tend to have circular or square cases, the latter giving them a robust appearance. But does one brand own the patent on rectangular cases? No, so it’s ironic that people look down on brands using Mercedes hands on their watches while all brands use the same case shapes. And again, should someone be sued for making cars with four wheels instead of five or three?
Bezels & Bezel Inserts
When the first true dive watch came out in the 1950s (I won’t argue which one was first,) it made rotating bezels popular. I have read multiple articles in which people argue about who made the first proper diver, hence who codified the design language of divers. But it doesn’t matter. Just like it doesn’t matter who made the first automatic mechanical movement. Or does it? Maybe someone should have patented the technology and made it impossible for other brands to have automatic movements with a spinning rotor. You see, these kinds of arguments are kinda silly. Aren’t they?
Rotating bezels have become popular because they are highly functional. The can be unidirectional or bidirectional, display a 60-minute timing scale or a 12-hour GMT scale, or a 24-hour GMT scale or a multipurpose scale making it possible to track a second time zone and time an event. Rotating bezels are so useful that chronographs can also have a dive-time bezel to time a primary or secondary event. So, if we don’t argue about the validity of using rotating bezels—which nobody does—why can’t we argue about who was first in using a ceramic bezel?
Last but not least, let’s discuss hour markers (indices.) Although there are many designs for hour markers (and I will write about this later,) most dials come with one of a few options: rectangular, circular, Roman numerals, Arabic numerals, arrows and batons. Each type was designed with a particular purpose in mind and each revealed itself as being quite effective at indicating hour and five-minute intervals. And each type can be painted, applied, or stamped on the dial.
How can brands be so creative as to create infinite designs of hour markers? These markers serve a very particular purpose—to know what hour and minute it is—and, by definition, must be legible. So although brands can go wild in creating outlandish designs for hour markers, most brands must stick to some sort of convention to make their watches easy to read. If you haven’t noticed yet, the trend here is that iconic watch design elements are so because they are efficient in doing what they are supposed to do. So, why reinvent the wheel, literally?
By writing this article I wanted to discuss the idea that certain watch design elements are timeless and widespread amongst the horological world. They have become classics because they are effective and they are aesthetically pleasing for the vast majority of people. Just like TVs screens tend to be rectangular (at least they are now,) most watches come with circular cases, an hour hand that looks different than the minute hand, and hour markers that are either rectangular or Arabic numerals. These are timeless watch design elements that can be found in 99.99% of watches.
These elements are part of a design language that has been codified and accepted over centuries. We do see models that have odd case shapes, for example the TV-screen chronographs of the 1970s, but I believe again that they only existed for a short period of time because they were a little too odd although different. Yes, TV-screen chronographs are back in style and made popular by independent brands, but they are not massively appreciated.
Although we see brands creating watches that don’t look like anything we’ve seen before, they remain rare and mostly not worn. That is because they are not practical to tell time. The examples mentioned in this article have all survived because they are particularly good at what they do.Featured image: www.bobswatches.com