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The times they are a-changin’. The dubious rise of the design watch

As Apple prepares to weigh into watches, James Haldane examines their design from the minimalist monsters on the Dezeen Watch Store to Swatch and the infamous Quartz Crisis

The 2000s were supposed to herald the end of the wristwatch. A historicising and redundant relic, it deserved no place in the brave new world of the mobile phone so the digital anoraks told us. They were missing the point of course – that was the decade of MTV Cribs, Avril Lavigne and louvred sunglasses, and few were particularly concerned with utility as a proxy for value. Tasteful restraint may have been in short supply, but conspicuousness was all the rage, and for men especially, watches represented an irresistibly rare socially sanctioned opportunity to wear jewellery.

One global recession later, and the landscape has changed. Ostentation has aged as poorly as Lavigne’s music videos, yet watches continue to resist extinction. Instead their market has birfurcated into two halves. On one hand, the taste for jewel encrusted numbers has sublimated into a roaring trade in ‘ultra-complicated’ timepieces from the big Swiss houses, like the Patek Philippe which went under the hammer in November for a smidgen over £15 million.

On the other, we’ve witnessed the rise of the ‘design watch’ in its various incarnations. Reasonably affordable in comparison to its blingy siblings and breeding like rabbits on the (often misguided) wrists of the design community, the design watch is supposed to offer a slice of contemporary distinction for the aficionado on a budget. Though inconsistent in merit, their significance is not to be underestimated. However, with the rise of wearables technology now thrown into the mix, this polarised market seems set to shift again. Are the nerds’ cries of ‘paradigm shift’ finally coming true?

Yes and no.

Remember, this isn’t the first time the Swiss hegemony has been technologically challenged by a set of upstarts. The last episode was the dramatically named ‘Quartz Crisis’ of the 1970s and ’80s, when expensive mechanical movements were suddenly undercut by the influx of quartz timepieces from Asian manufacturers. Despite the new technology’s low cost and much improved accuracy, the Swiss were hesitant to embrace it, and between 1970 and 1983 the country lost almost two thirds of its watchmakers. A crisis consortium was eventually formed to plot a retaliation and, in 1983, their secret weapon was launched – the Swatch watch.

The IKEA of timepieces, the Swatch watch was affordable, held mass appeal in its simplicity, and, like the archetypical ‘Billy’ bookshelf, pretty much impossible to fix if it went wrong. Nonetheless Swatch signifies both the origin of, and arguably the high water mark for, design watches. Though some might rather forget Swatch’s heady days of camp pop-art experimentation in the ’90s, no one can fault their simple formula. If only the same could be said for today’s jostling design watch market – a crop of objects broadly set on combining a feigned sense of pared-back design with an inexcusable layer of illegible faux-minimalist styling. Design Blog Dezeen have helpfully included many of the worst offenders on their money-spinning online watch store forming a smörgåsbord of indecipherable watch-shaped ornaments that are to proper watches what fixies are to mountain bikes. Perhaps it stems from my upbringing on K’NEX (the Meccano of the ’90s), but if a watch requires an instruction manual to read, it’s not for me.  

One of the lowest moments on the Dezeen store is the Crossover designed by Denis Guidone, a man who seems to have fashioned a horological career from designing timepieces of ever-waning legibility. The Crossover’s opaque logic would surely put Alan Turing’s patience to the test. I’m not calling it ugly, simply illegible, however I would have to invert that assessment for Ross McBride’s Digital Destruction — an alternative offering from manufacturer Projects Watches which features a classic digital display apparently smashing through the analogue face above like Jack Torrance in The Shining.

Crossover, Denis Guidone for Projects Watches. Bafflingly illegible

Crossover, Denis Guidone for Projects Watches. Bafflingly illegible

Digital Destruction, Ross McBride for Projects Watches. I could perhaps extend a stoic nod to the sheer confidence of its boldfaced grotesquerie.

Digital Destruction, Ross McBride for Projects Watches. I could perhaps extend a stoic nod to the sheer confidence of its boldfaced grotesquerie.

All this shouldn’t be mistaken for a eulogy to the dead craft of watch design. Far from it. As is so often the case when skeuomorphism butts heads with ill-reasoned novelty, the nerds are right, what we have here is a design family in transition. More importantly, good things are appearing alongside the bad.

The Bradley, for example, is a genuinely innovative and effective contribution to both horology and accessible design. Crowdfunded on Kickstarter, it was originally developed for blind people and uses tactile ball bearings to indicate the time and represents what is possible when design thinking goes deeper than mere aesthetics.

The Bradley, Eone

The Bradley, Eone

But Geneva’s dwindling watchmakers are still not safe. Once again they are forced to combat the third tier of the watch market – the knock-off – now taking a surprising new form. With even counterfeiters now alert to the possibilities of wearable tech, that scrappy Rolex you might have been offered around Camden or Canal Street is old news.

In its place are a number of apps, such as FaceRepo, which allow smartwatch users to download and switch between animated digital faces from some of the most recognisable watch brands. It’s equivalent to changing your computer’s desktop wallpaper, except you’re choosing between an Omega or Audemars Piguet rather than scenes of bucolic pastoralism.

Fake Watches

Pirated watch faces from FaceRepo. The app is aimed particularly at Motorola’s Moto 360 for its near-round screen and enables users to fake any watch store on the market

The use of the faces in such apps is, of course, unauthorised by the watchmakers and has already attracted their litigious attentions. Unlike illegal music downloads, however, it seems very unlikely that these fakes might steal business away from traditional watchmakers. That said, the establishment would do well to recognise the far stiffer competition the soon-to-be-released Apple Watch will surely present. As it stands, the arrogance of the established marques looks set to position them for a repeat of the Quartz Crisis. 

According to Jean-Claude Biver, head of luxury giant LVMH’s watch division, the much anticipated collaboration between Apple’s Jony Ive and Marc Newson looks simultaneously as though ‘it was designed by a student in their first trimester’ and ‘too much like the smartwatches already on the market’. Though the wearable tech category certainly still possesses a ‘first gen’ whiff, such acerbity is unfounded and seems to speak of institutional panic. Ironically, the USP intended to elevate Apple’s design from the pack is its obvious use of high-end jewellery and conventional watches as a source of inspiration – there’s going to be a solid gold version, rumoured at around £5,000. What’s more, though its practical functionality remains untested, Apple Watch’s ‘digital crown’ for zoom navigation could not be any more direct in its analogy to chronographs of old. Where Steve Jobs promised the iPhone would reivent the phone, the Apple Watch looks likely to merely be another player in the market.

Gold Apple Watch

iBling. The gold Apple Watch is rumoured to be priced at £5000

The most revealing of Biver’s comments, however, is his remark that design looks ‘too feminine’. I suspect what lies behind this statement is an attempt to hit Apple where it hurts – their healthy bottom line – by attempting to deter the traditional male watch buyer. In this, one sees just how out of touch the old guard remains to the ever-growing number of independent and affluent women, not to mention evolving male tastes. Thus while it remains to be seen if Apple will succeed with this addition to their powerful digital ecosystem, it’s clear that at both extremes of the current watch market, it’s time for a change.

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