In 1968 Patek Philippe launched the Ellipse, a rectangular watch whose perfect proportions are based on the ancient principle of the Golden Ratio. While it wasn’t the first watch to break the convention of a round dial, it did so more mathematically than ever before. This was a time when Art was undergoing a (r)evolution on a scale comparable to that of Bauhaus. Frank Stella and Sol LeWitt, whose geometric compositions redefined painting, Donald Judd and Richard Serra, who reinvented sculpture as hollow forms, were the seminal figures of a carefully plotted aesthetic that swept across all aspects of creation.
Since then, the Mathematics + Minimalism = Modern equation has spread, mostly in black, grey or white. Chanel reprised Place Vendôme’s octagonal shape for its Première watch. Hermès took us back to school by inscribing a circle in a square for the Carré H. Even Richard Mille – not the first name that springs to mind in a conversation about minimalism – designed the extra-flat RM-016 with sharp, rigorously geometric lines. As for Blanccarré, it takes inspiration from “the cubic sculptures of the minimalist movement” for its more than perfect squares.
Minimalism originated in architecture and so it makes sense that architects should have a part to play in minimalistic watch design in a roll call of great names, from Frank Gehry to Richard Meier and Zaha Hadid, at all price points. In 2020 Bulgari teamed up with Japanese architect and contemporary legend Tadao Ando to reinvent the Octo Finissimo. On the dial: a spiral motif in grey that is about as austere – and hypnotic – as it gets. Over at Rado, the latest True Thinline collection is a lesson in minimalism. Firstly because all nine styles are entirely monochromatic. Nothing, neither hands, nor case nor bracelet, interrupts this single expanse of colour. Secondly because the collection is named for Le Corbusier and applies his colour theory (Architectural Polychromy) and belief in an evident use of uninterrupted lines, with the intent to simplify and beautify life.
If the ultimate objective of a minimalist watch is to remove all that can be removed… then this must include thickness. Piaget remains the undisputed champion of watchmaking’s remarkable pursuit of ultimate thinness since the introduction in 1957 of the Altiplano, pairing an extra-thin profile with a dial stripped of numerals. Challengers for the title are Vacheron Constantin, which in 2004 took two of its designs from the 1950s and imagined the Patrimony, and Jaeger-LeCoultre which marked its 180th anniversary in 2013 with the Master Ultra Thin Jubilee. Surprisingly, Audemars Piguet chose ultra-thin and, for added measure, minimalist black for its 2011 tribute to the Bolshoi. A technical tour de force as a metaphor for the precision and rigour of Russian ballet?
In a decade when genre-splicing and, more so, collaborations were virtually unknown, the artisans of 1990s minimalist fashion didn’t leave their mark on watch design. But times change and in 2020 Yohji Yamamoto played catch-up when he put his signature on the Hublot Big Bang. Two of the master’s leitmotifs – black and camouflage – make up this blend of stark design and streetwear cool. A superstar designer of the Nineties, Tom Ford has launched his own watch collection. Its retro-minimalist aesthetic is heavily influenced by East German brands (Ford’s 002 is a dead ringer for the Nomos Tangente) while the Ocean Plastic timepiece, made entirely from salvaged ocean plastic, shows environmental awareness.
Ultrablack / Ultrawhite
Unveiled in 2018, H. Moser & Cie.’s Venturer Vantablack became an overnight legend. Vantablack is the darkest known substance, absorbing 99.965% of visible light. Hands in a subtly different nuance make it possible to tell the time. Unlike the Swiss Alp Watch Concept Black, also by Moser. Rectangular and with no hands, time is heard and not seen. Is black the new black? An infinite number of timepieces have adopted sombre tones, from RJ’s Moon Invader to Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak. In 2020 Hublot gave the Big Bang the all-black treatment. The alternative, white, ranks even higher in the minimalist stakes and is also more of a surprise. Like the Zenith Defy Classic in white ceramic. Seen from a distance, it looks to have been coated in limewash or plaster. Up close, the eye loses itself in the meanders of its visible skeleton, numerals and hands, all in the same metallic shade. Faux minimalism, trompe l’œil, the result is a triumph.