More often than not, the first thing we notice about a watch is its case. This is, after all, the most imposing part, enveloping all others and, on the wrist, recognisable from every angle. The case is usually also the hallmark of a collection; every model in that collection is configured around it. It is this visibility and consistency that make the case the most forceful component from a design perspective. And yet recognising a haute horology watch simply from its outer shell is no easy task. The vast majority of cases fall into a handful of categories derived from iconic twentieth-century designs. It’s the detail that sets them apart, hence why it takes an educated eye to identify them at first glance.
Before considering creativity, we need to remember the constraints facing designers. Put simply, a watch case is a small object that must fit into the few centimetres of diameter, length and width of wrist space. However, this reduced size isn’t the biggest difficulty designers face. The real challenge lies in making a watch case that is easy and comfortable to wear. When we say a watch adapts perfectly to the shape of the wrist, we spontaneously think of the strap and while the strap does indeed play a decisive role, it cannot do so without attachments. These are the case lugs and they play a more important part than we perhaps give them credit for. They prefigure how the strap sits on the wrist; they are the key to the comfort and equilibrium the designer wants and, most of the time, he or she will stick to tried and tested solutions.
Atavism and technical constraints
A watch case is also a container for a movement that it must protect, against humidity and dust in particular. How best to seal the case against these intrusions has long preoccupied watchmakers – ever since the watch migrated from the safety of a waistcoat pocket to full exposure on the wrist – and the innovations developed through years of research to guarantee this water-resistance have become standard features. Not only the shape of the case must comply; so must its construction. Additional difficulties emerge when working with a form watch, i.e. any shape other than round, or when introducing functions that require pushers, buttons or slides to be incorporated alongside the already problematic crown.
As should now be clear, case designers are forced to work within considerable constraints. The question being why, in Haute Horlogerie at least. No doubt because continuity, a deeply-rooted factor in fine watchmaking, is so dominant. Inside and out, a watch is made not for one generation but for generations to come. The only concession to fashion are secondary variations of size, colour or pattern – nothing essential. This limitation, which is justified by the nature of the object, makes the designer’s task particularly arduous. A precious watch is a particular kind of product: one that is not to be “played around with”.
In Haute Horlogerie, that designers should struggle to emerge from the shadows is less to do with a culture of secrecy – a reality now on the wane – and more about the constraints which, here more than in any other sector, oblige them to work as part of a team and without breaking continuity. We associate the majority of brands with collections that originated a long time ago. From-scratch launches are not that frequent. Case designers are more likely to be asked to build on an existing concept than create something completely new.
Originality comes from other quarters
As it stands, the prize for originality goes to creators coming to watchmaking from other areas. Immediately we think of luxury brands, many of which have diversified into watches during the past decades while naturally gravitating towards the design tropes that are an integral part of their image and history. That they should ever progress from fashion watches to the serious business of Haute Horlogerie struck many as absurd, but some have made the transition and surprised more than one observer with existing, already iconic cases. Hermès is one, with the Arceau and its equestrian-inspired asymmetrical lugs, or the Cape Cod whose shape is informed by the famous “anchor chain” motif. Chanel is another. The Première’s case traces the outline of the Chanel N°5 perfume stopper which also happens to be that of Place Vendôme in Paris. Others jumped into the fray with immediately recognisable designs. Louis Vuitton, for example, evokes travel with the case of the Tambour, inspired by taiko drums and with the Louis Vuitton name spelled out opposite the numerals. Graff reminds us it is a diamond house with the facetted bezels that are a recurring feature of its collections. De Grisogono launched with an atypical tonneau-shaped case with an Italian twist, for the Instrumento N° Uno. Among the jewellers, we can look to Bulgari and Van Cleef & Arpels, although their very recognisable collections — Serpenti and Diva’s Dream at Bulgari, Cadenas and Alhambra for Van Cleef & Arpels — pertain more to jewellery than watchmaking, which has its own, separate lines: the Octo that came with Bulgari’s takeover of Gérald Genta, and the Complications Poétiques housed in relatively neutral cases at Van Cleef & Arpels.
Some of the most powerful input has come from outside the industry, in particular entrepreneurs who have built on their personal passions or stories. Classic car fan Richard Mille contains his watches’ “engines” inside ultra-complex, ultra-resistant, usually tonneau-shaped cases. Collector Pascal Raffy, owner of Bovet since 2001, has taken the concept of a convertible watch to the extreme with the patented Amadeo case, which can be worn as a reversible wristwatch, a pocket watch, a pendant watch, or set on a table. As a descendant of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, Jérôme de Witt inscribes “imperial columns” on the side of deWitt cases. Last but not least are the watchmaker-designer duos who have risen to the fore among this century’s independent creators by housing their innovative movements inside equally unconventional cases. Think of Urwerk co-founders, Felix Baumgartner and Martin Frei, and their futuristic shells, or Denis Flageollet and David Zanetta, the two men behind De Bethune. The mobile lugs on their cases provide unequalled comfort on the wrist. Of course, no discussion of outstanding design would be complete without mentioning MB&F and its Horological Machines. These are never collections: each one culminates in a Final Edition, closing that particular chapter and making way for new, equally extraordinary ideas.