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Ten years of watch design at the Grand Prix de Genève
History & Masterpieces

Ten years of watch design at the Grand Prix de Genève

Thursday, 07 December 2017
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Anaïs Georges du Clos
Freelance journalist

“Nothing great has been accomplished in this world without passion.”

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7 min read

Between 2002 and 2011, the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève (GPHG) singled out the year’s best design. The winning timepieces are an eloquent reminder of the trends unfolding in a not-so-distant era.

Introduced in 2001 and organised by the eponymous Foundation, the annual Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève is open to any watch available for purchase between March and November of the current year. Any brand from any country in the world can submit an entry specifying which category it would like to run for, bearing in mind that the same watch can only be entered in one category. The judging panel is a deliberately diverse mix of experts, watchmakers, restorers, collectors, historians, journalists and retailers. After going on show in various cities across several continents, the shortlisted watches return to Geneva where the winners are announced at a red-carpet ceremony in November. The trophy, in the shape of a hand, is the work of the Genevan graphic artist Roger Pfund, who took inspiration from Michelangelo’s fresco on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

2002-2004: retro cubism and digital classicism

Rectangular watches dominated the newly introduced Design prize between 2002 and 2004. In 2002, two vintage-inspired watches tied for the prize. Though very different in spirit, both share the same balanced proportions and sleek lines.

The Piaget 1967 was a reissue of a 1967 watch with a vertical rectangular case. The Clou de Paris pattern along the sides serves to accentuate the simple beauty of the midnight blue dial, while retro-inspired Arabic numerals underscore the watch’s vintage origins. In a completely different vein, the Formula 1 Micrograph was launched by TAG Heuer for the Imola Grand Prix. It looks to a 1916 model, the Mikrograph, which became the first stopwatch to attain the unprecedented precision of 1/100th second. The 2002 version uses a digital display to ensure instant read-off – an important feature in TAG Heuer’s specialist area of sports timing. Functions are time, date, alarm, dual time and continuous race timing with lap counter. The integrated bracelet joins seamlessly with the horizontal rectangular case to sit comfortably on the wrist and give this sport watch a clean aesthetic.

Formula 1 Micrograph © TAG Heuer
Formula 1 Micrograph © TAG Heuer

In 2003, the Crazy Hours Homme by Franck Muller confirmed the decade’s rising trend to downplay highly complex mechanisms in designs which, while classic, weren’t entirely without fantasy. Contained inside a simple, rectangular case, non-sequential Arabic numerals mirror the exuberance of the automatic movement’s jumping hour hand which transforms conventional time-telling.

Crazy Hours © Franck Muller
Crazy Hours © Franck Muller

Mechanism and design found common ground in 2004 thanks to the TAG Heuer Monaco Sixty Nine concept watch. The first mechanical chronograph accurate to 1/1,000th second, it is in fact two watches sharing the same vintage-inspired case. On one side, the square dial of the legendary Monaco whose analogue display is driven by the manual-wind Peseux 7001 ultra-thin movement; on the other, the Microtimer’s digital display powered by a Swiss HR03 quartz movement.

Monaco Sixty Nine © TAG Heuer
Monaco Sixty Nine © TAG Heuer
2005-2007: new materials, new dimensions

Between 2005 and 2007, the winning watches in the category were characteristic of the changes taking place in watch design, starting with the White Ceramic Big Bang by Hublot. Launched in summer 2005 by Jean-Claude Biver, now Chairman of the brand, the Big Bang would go on to become the flagship range that would set Hublot back on the road to success. It encapsulates the brand’s “art of fusion” with its head-turning combination of ceramic for the bezel, steel for the case, carbon for the dial, and kevlar and rubber for the strap.

Big Bang White Ceramic © Hublot
Big Bang White Ceramic © Hublot

In 2006 the Cartier Santos Mystérieuse set a new marker for watch design. The Parisian watchmaker-jeweller returns to its beloved Art Deco, then throws expectations off-balance by choosing an unusually large, diamond-encrusted palladium case for what is nonetheless a sophisticated, though impossible to categorise, timepiece. Much of the originality of the design lies in the disproportionately large Roman numerals which converge towards a transparent bubble at 9 o’clock. The judging panel rewarded the boldness of this anachronistic timepiece which originates in the mystery clocks that Cartier debuted in 1912.

It was, however, Audemars Piguet that showed true temerity with the launch of its Millenary with deadbeat seconds, which became the 2007 winner. The Le Brassus firm imagined this surprising oval watch to show off its revolutionary new escapement. The fully openworked dial with off-centre display, skeleton hands and a decor of Côtes de Genève, delicate circular ribbing and fluting introduced a three-dimensional aesthetic that would root itself in Fine Watch design.

Millenary with deadbeat seconds © Audemars Piguet
Millenary with deadbeat seconds © Audemars Piguet
2008-2011: unidentified horological objects

The last prizes in the category went to watches that marked the culmination of the stylistic revolution begun in the early 2000s. Watch designers were given carte blanche to imagine impressively complex timepieces that were less inspired by a glorious past and instead took their cue from the world of flight or military references.

Concord’s C1 Tourbillon Gravity set the ball rolling in 2008. Heir to the avant-garde spirit that the brand introduced with the Delirium in the 1970s, its futuristic design came in sharp contrast to previous winners. Developed with tourbillon specialists BNB Concept, the form of the C1 Tourbillon Gravity revolves entirely around the mechanics inside by adapting its unconventional design to the extraordinary complexity of the movement. The vertical tourbillon escapement is housed outside the case in an extension at 4 o’clock and connected to the movement’s geartrain by an orthogonal perpendicular pinion. The flyback chrono is operated by a pusher in the side of the case, between 7 and 8 o’clock, while the crown is moved to 2 o’clock.

Millenary with deadbeat seconds © Audemars Piguet
Millenary with deadbeat seconds © Audemars Piguet

The following year’s jury singled out the Opus 9 from Harry Winston. The sculptural case highlights the movement which makes a clean break with the traditional hours and minutes display by way of two parallel chains driven by a rack-and-pinion mechanism. A central bridge bears a large 9, the aesthetic and mechanical backbone of the watch.

Opus 9 © Harry Winston
Opus 9 © Harry Winston

The award continued to champion out-of-the-box thinking in 2010 when the honours went to MB&F’s Horological Machine N°4 Thunderbolt, which is based on the design of the A-10 Thunderbolt plane. The brand’s founder Max Büsser, whose childhood passions included model aircraft, made no secret of the fact that this machine (not watch) was never intended simply to show the time – a function it nonetheless fulfils by way of twin pods which, worn perpendicular to the wrist, prove astonishingly legible. The left-hand dial indicates power reserve by a skeleton hand. The right-hand dial displays hours and minutes by broad, arrow-tipped hands coated with Superluminova.

Horological Machine N°4 Thunderbolt © MB&F
Horological Machine N°4 Thunderbolt © MB&F

When the Design Prize was retired in 2011, it went out with a bang. The UR-110 from Urwerk goes by the codename Torpedo in reference to the three arrow-shaped “torpedoes” that fly in formation on the dial. The complex movement that channels the time into three orbiting hour satellites is wide-open to view through a panoramic sapphire crystal. Rotation, counter-rotation… the effect is deliberately subtle, fluid, and not instantly discernible. The asymmetrical Torpedo is not what it seems.

UR-110 © Urwerk
UR-110 © Urwerk

During the Design Watch Prize’s ten-year existence, the judges at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève, perhaps without realising, witnessed a stylistic evolution which ultimately opened the floodgates of creativity in watch design.

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