They are to the designer what the loupe is to the watchmaker. The digital revolution that transformed the way movement constructors work, and fired engineers’ imagination in the process, has had an equally marked impact on watch design. Over the past fifteen years, software such as Alias, Rhinoceros, Zbrush and Illustrator has found its way into designers’ toolboxes, transforming their approach while speeding up the creative, decision-making and manufacturing processes. These are the same programs used in the automotive industry, and they are surprisingly powerful, reproducing light hitting a surface just as easily as they generate images that are beyond photorealistic.
The days when a watch designer would spend endless hours touching up a drawing are over. Now a click is all it takes to recreate the glint of metal. “Thanks to 3D modelling software, we can now produce forms directly in three dimensions. This eliminates the problems that arise when transposing an object that started out as two dimensions,” explains one digital design professional at a Genevan watch manufacturer. “Adjustments are made in real time so that modifications can be done very quickly. It’s a means of avoiding breaks or folds in the material, for example. It also maintains a coherent whole, even when working with intricate shapes. These programs also facilitate communication with the production engineers, because we can incorporate their remarks directly and take production conditions more closely into account.”
These programs are also a means of printing prototypes for less cost using 3D printers, in some companies on a daily basis. The result is precise to within a tenth of a millimetre, and a valuable aid to the decision-making process. In a similar vein, two-dimensional renderings become increasingly realistic. Specialists in computer graphics even extract elements from photos of existing models and incorporate them into a still virtual project to obtain a more lifelike result: the tourbillon carriage of one watch can become part of another that has yet to leave the screen. “These new tools have significantly speeded up the decision-making process,” notes Pascal Hurni, CEO of Hurni Engineering, a specialist in watch design software. “Often, decision-makers have very little time. It’s easier to get the necessary green lights if the object can be materialised on demand at various points in the design process. Dial-makers, for example, use these solutions to pre-select with their customers the samples they will then produce. The same applies to other elements, as finishes, textures and materials can all be modelled.”
And for me this still means pen and paper. [...] It's this initial phase that gives an idea its full force.
The good and the bad
Despite this huge potential, the human element remains central. “It has to start with a good idea,” insists Claude Emmenegger, the recently appointed creative director for Audemars Piguet. “And for me this still means pen and paper. There’s no knowing when a good idea might come along. Those daydreaming moments, when the hand moves almost unbidden across the paper, and lines appear seemingly out of nowhere, can turn up some surprises. It’s the perfect state of mind for tapping into feelings and emotions, allowing the drawing to take shape naturally. It’s this initial phase that gives an idea its full force.”
As one might expect, 3D software has its drawbacks too. After what can be an uphill learning curve, once mastered these programs become surprisingly easy to use, paving the way for bad habits to form. “There are two pitfalls,” comments Claude Emmenegger. “Firstly, adding layer upon layer of effects to embellish what is, in itself, a weak idea. I’ve seen examples of “over-rendering” that remind me of certain Hollywood films that are swimming in special effects but whose screenplay lacks substance. Some students who “get on well” with digital tools quickly fall into this trap. They need to go back to the drawing-board, literally, which is what I and my colleagues encourage them to do. Secondly, with these tools it becomes easy to repeatedly retouch a work in progress, which ultimately detracts from the purity of the original idea. Hence why I never hesitate to go into the workshops, and even to our suppliers, to keep watch on a product as it is brought into being.”