On a balmy October afternoon in 1901, as the dashing aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont took off into the Parisian skies in a yellow airship, little did he know that his adventure would eventually mould the history of the wristwatch as we know it today.
Deeply influenced by the rapid mechanical innovations in the early 20th century, Santos-Dumont would often toy around with hot air balloons and motor-powered dirigibles. In fact, he was the only person in Paris with a little flying machine tied to a lamp post in front of his apartment at the Champs-Élysées. He would hop onto his airship and casually land on rooftop bars and restaurants, impressing the city’s fashionable set like no one else. “Every night, he would fly this dirigible to Maxim’s for dinner. During the day, he’d fly to go shopping, he’d fly to visit friends,” recounts Paul Hoffman in his Santos-Dumont biography, Wings of Madness.
That autumn afternoon in 1901, as Santos-Dumont set off to be the first man to complete an aerial circuit from the Aéro-Club de France to the Eiffel Tower and back in under 30 minutes, he realised the futility of a pocket watch for aviators. The man nearly lost the Deutsch de la Meurthe contest and the prize money of 100,000 French francs all because he couldn’t keep time while piloting this journey.
Famous for his spirited air trips, impeccable fashion sense and design sensibilities, Santos-Dumont would often socialise with the likes of the Cartiers and the Roosevelts. On one such occasion, he brought up the timing quagmire to his equally enterprising and ingenious friend Louis Cartier, who then designed a robust, no-frills watch with leather strap for Santos-Dumont’s air expeditions. “The Cartier Santos was the first wristwatch of the modern age designed specifically to be worn on the wrist rather than being adapted for wear on the wrist,” says renowned author, historian and watch expert Nicholas Foulkes.
While wristlets or bracelets with watches had started creeping into women’s wardrobe as early as the 18th century, the Cartier Santos was recognised as the first real wristwatch for men. It was the world’s first pilot’s watch and also the first square watch meant to be worn on the wrist.
In an era largely dominated by round pocket watches, Louis Cartier had presented a rather futuristic timepiece in a square case with rounded corners and a bold bezel with eight exposed screws. Inspired by the silhouette of the Eiffel Tower, the original Santos was a unique piece made for the Brazilian aviator in 1904. By 1911, Cartier had bestowed the name, “Santos-Dumont,” upon its super successful watch, which was now a full production model available in platinum and yellow gold in a 25mm × 35mm case.
The Rise of the Non-Round Watch
Until the First World War, wristwatches or wristlets were largely a woman’s accoutrement. Concealed within sparkling diamond brooches, snuff boxes and long sautoir necklaces, secret watches were a rage in the 19th century. Paired with rich velvet gowns and jewelled slippers, these timepieces helped women keep a subtle check on the passing hours when in the company of men, who believed it was rude for ladies to enquire about time at social dos.
All this began to change as soldiers jerry-rigged pocket watches and strapped them on their wrists for synchronised artillery attacks. Two years into the First World War, the telephone and signal service made the wearing of watches obligatory. The evolution of the pocket watch gradually turned into a revolution by the Second World War, and after the wars, watchmakers clubbed utility with style, giving birth to timepieces used for diving, hiking, racing and hunting, among other adventures.
Buoyed by the success of the Santos, Louis Cartier was now getting more playful with his watch designs. Right from the Tonneau to the Tortue and perhaps the most iconic form watch of all, the Tank, Louis Cartier’s unusual and elaborate case designs sealed the status of the wristwatch as one of the most defining accessories in the postwar era. “In December 1916, the French public had its first glimpse of the tanks used in the war when one appeared looming terrifyingly above a soldier on the front cover of L’Illustration magazine. Cartier’s new watch was said to have been inspired by these mighty machines with the watch’s brancards … mirroring the tank’s caterpillar treads on each side of the machine’s cockpit. For Louis, the watch was not simply about telling the time, it had also to marry function and beauty in a harmonious whole, and the innovative design meant that the strap could be seamlessly integrated into the case,” writes Francesca Cartier Brickell in her book, The Cartiers: The Untold Story of the Family Behind the Jewelry Empire. “Calling the watch the Tank was a stroke of genius from a sales perspective.It instantly tapped into the public’s mood … The Tank’s simple geometric design already appealed to the male aesthetic, but Cartier pushed the macho angle even further … Cartier named their new creation le Tank.”
For the longest time, clocks and pocket watches were constructed in round cases for the simple reason that the mechanism inside them — the interlocking gears and springs — were round by nature. The rotating hands on a dial ensured good legibility when the indexes were arranged in a circular pattern. It was also sensible to make a water-resistant watch in a round case than in any other shape as the case could easily be screwed tight.
Overturned by the war between 1914 and 1918, the traditional notions of design gave way to a new, unbridled spirit of creativity in the 1920s. The Roaring Twenties, or “The Crazy Years”, as they were known in France, brought about a dynamic cultural change across the world. Thanks to cinema, radio, airplanes, high speed trains and fast cars, life was now all about embracing an exhilarating change.
Just like air travel which tickled popular fantasy in the beginning of the century, wristwatches in varying shapes and dimensions were now becoming the new norm. “Between the introduction of the wristwatch from the pocket/pendant style in the 1920s to the early 1930s, when it became more than half of the annual output of the Swiss watchmaking industry, there was this handover period when all sorts of weird and wonderful case shapes showed up. These designs demonstrated the difference to and distance from very old-fashioned watches. They presented a totally new way of telling the time and, to demonstrate the novelty even further, they adopted curious shaped cases. The best example of this is Cartier, which introduced different versions of the Tank — the Louis Cartier, Tank Chinoise, the Obus, Tank a ̀ Guichet, Tank Basculante and the Asymétrique,” says Nick Foulkes.
Cartier’s compelling designs were deeply entrenched in the artistic and aesthetic movements evolving around the art of watchmaking. Worn by celebrities from the likes of Boni de Castellane, the eccentric Belle Époque art dealer who bought a Tank in 1919; to Duke Ellington, who would wear his as he played jazz onstage; to actor Rudolph Valentino, who insisted on wearing a Tank in his 1926 film, The Son of the Sheik, the Tank was “the watch to wear” in the 1920s.
As the years progressed, Louis Cartier worked towards making these shaped watches more adaptive to the wrist with their curved and incredibly thin cases. In 1921, Cartier created his second Tank watch, the Tank Cintrée. “No watch in the collection was so curved and built as slim as the Tank Cintrée. Over the years, there have been many different versions; not only dials, but also models with different dimensions. However, the watch was always released in small editions of 50 to 100 pieces. The Tank Cintrée is by far the most elegant, most desired Tank watch in the Cartier collection and can be called the gentleman’s Tank,” says Cartier collector and scholar George Cramer.
According to Revolution’s founder Wei Koh, Cartier sourced a very special movement for the Tank Cintrée from Edmond Jaeger. “Jaeger designed an incredibly thin movement to make the design possible. In Cartier-speak, it is the calibre 123. It is round in shape and features 18 jewels, a Swiss lever escapement and a Breguet overcoil hairspring. But if you look at how it sits just behind the curved dial of the Tank Cintrée, you can see that there is barely a fraction of a millimetre to spare as it nestles inside the aggressively curved case. Later, Cartier and Jaeger would create the European Watch and Clock Company as the movement maker for Cartier’s watches, and so many of the calibres in the Tank Cintrée are signed with the acronym EWC,” he explains in his extensive story on the Tank Cintrée in this story.
Between 1904 and 1936, Louis Cartier fostered the reputation of shaped watches as groundbreaking style statements with his strong, individualist designs. Released a year after the Cintrée in 1922, the bell-shaped Cartier Cloche made a comeback as a limited edition series this year. Originally intended as a design for a brooch watch, the Cloche presents a quirky display of hours with the Roman numerals on the dial rotated 90 degrees from their usual position.
It is fascinating to see how these century-old designs still resonate with collectors. “In the 1920s and 1930s, brands such as Cartier, Vacheron Constantin and Patek Philippe released important watch models that have been ignored in recent years, especially from the time when watches had to have a large and masculine appearance. I am very happy that we are finally realising how good these designs from previous years actually were,” says Cramer, who considers the Tank Asymétrique and the Crash as the two most significant shaped watches from Cartier.
Mirroring the geometric eccentricities seen in art forms by Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, watchmakers in the mid-20th century were exploring all sorts of case designs, right from trapezoidal to elliptical, rectangular and even hexagonal. Around the time that Cartier was enthralling the world with the Tank and its fascinating variants, Vacheron Constantin was pushing its creative limits with the most stunning shaped watches packed with complications. “Wristwatches offered the perfect opportunity for watch designers and casemakers to showcase their incredible creativity. For Vacheron Constantin, the first three decades of the 20th century were marked by the ‘cushion shape.’ We aren’t referring to just a particular watch here but the beautiful shape that was used to launch various complications in the late 1920s,” says Christian Selmoni, Vacheron Constantin’s style and heritage director.
This year, Vacheron Constantin is celebrating 100 years of its most famous cushion-cased watch, the American 1921, with a unique piece made using manual techniques from the 1920s and earlier. An exact replica of the original watch that had inspired several models in the Historiques collection, the new model in 3N yellow gold is equipped with a movement that is a faithful reproduction of the original 11-ligne Nouveau calibre, built from scratch with both new and vintage parts.
For the longest time, it was believed that the American 1921 with its dial positioned at a 45-degree angle was specifically designed for motorists. However, a closer look at the watch would lead you to a more plausible reason behind its asymmetrical layout with the crown at the top and the small seconds at the bottom. In the early 20th century, most brands would employ stock movements from old pocket watches to design some really innovative timepieces for the wrist. “The cushion shape is not easy to work with. It has a little touch of vintage, but you have to be cautious about how you design it. It’s a lot harder to do well with shape as compared to a simple round watch. In 1919, we introduced the very first iteration of the American model. It had radium printed Arabic numerals and instead of having the crown to the left, it had one on the upper right side with the dial also positioned to the right,” says Selmoni.
Another shaped watch from Vacheron Constantin, which, I would say, is even more daring and exceptional in its design than the American 1921 is the unchristened number 10970. This highly curvaceous beauty from 1917 with a silvered grain dial and black enamelled Arabic numerals was recently seen at Vacheron Constantin’s new flagship boutique in New York. “This particularly large and curvaceous piece represents our attitude and inhibited creativity from that era. We haven’t found any name for this shape because this is so unusual. It’s a great demonstration of our ability to transcend norms to be able to present something absolutely amazing,” says Selmoni.
As per Alexandre Ghotbi, Phillips’ head of watches for Continental Europe and the Middle East, Vacheron Constantin was probably the most playful in its designs among the “Golden Trinity” of Swiss watchmakers. “Unlike Cartier, for example, who set the benchmark for many shaped watches in the past century, Vacheron Constantin’s watches had more to do with complications than design. I would say that in the 1920s the most interesting were what is called today the American 1921 and a tonneau piece with date and moonphases,” says Ghotbi.
Besides offering the most good-looking chronos in cushion-shaped cases, Vacheron Constantin was also making a lot of intriguing timepieces with shuttered dials and fancy lugs between the 1930s and 1950s. “We have a lot of watches in our archives that are not just about complicated techniques but a style unique to the maison. For instance, the ref. 1755 is an absolutely stunning, singular single-button chronograph from 1928. At that time, most chronographs were quite large because people were still using pocket watch movements, but this one from 1928 had a dedicated chronograph movement made for a 33mm cushion-shaped wristwatch by Vacheron Constantin. We also worked closely with Paris-based jewellers Verger Frères to create some remarkable shutter watches. There is this example from the 1930s in a rectangular white gold case. The watch features a concealed dial under hinged panels. A switch on the bezel allows one to open the shutters and reveal the time. Especially designed for tough, sporting activities, this watch is one of our most creative innovations,” says Selmoni.
According to Ghotbi, the crown jewel of Vacheron Constantin’s 20th-century wristwatch production was the mysterious “Don Pancho” or ref. 3620 — a unique, tonneau-shaped minute repeater with day and retrograde date made in the late 1930s. “This is not only one of Vacheron Constantin’s most important pieces, but also one of the most important watches from the first half of the 20th century,” says Ghotbi, who was instrumental in bringing this watch back into the limelight in a Phillips auction in May 2019.
Made on order for a Spanish businessman named Francisco Martinez Llano, the watch had a large yellow gold tonneau-shaped case, a crown at 12, a minute repeater with the lowest possible notes, a repeater trigger on the right side of the case, day, retrograde date and Llano’s initials in blue enamel on the caseback. Besides these features, the owner also requested for two dials, one with enamelled black Breguet numerals and the other with radium numerals, both with 12 numerals, and six straps that could be easily changed. After the owner’s passing in 1947, the watch remained in a safe for more than 60 years before it was rediscovered by his family and sold to Phillips. Says Christian Selmoni, “The ref. 3620 was like a myth until Phillips bought it from the original owner’s family. The watch was not just unique but highly complicated. It was bought for a price of CHF 740,000 [approximately USD 809,000] in 2019.”
Talking of shaped watches and the mysteries around them, there is one conversation piece from Audemars Piguet that demands our attention. Popularly known as the Audemars Piguet World’s Fair watch from 1938, it has been a part of Michael Friedman’s collection since 2003. “It resembles the Patek ‘Top Hat’ design by Markowski on first impression. However, the stepped lugs take on a more cylindrical form with a hooded section for the strap. It has been illustrated with its own chapter in [the Matt Hranek book] A Man & His Watch and was also included in Audemars Piguet’s advertisements, circa 1940. It was exhibited at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, hence the moniker. This is one of the many watches I would love to see in the metal one day,” says the immensely knowledgeable Charlie Dunne, the man behind Instagram handle @books_on_time. Though we don’t know much about the story behind the making of this watch, Friedman says it epitomises his father’s and his “mutual love for the crossover between culture, technology, and design.”
Says Sébastian Vivas, Audemars Piguet’s heritage and museum director, “Before 1951, every single watch made by Audemars Piguet was a unique piece because there was no model reference for these watches. So it means that they’re all different from each other. We know these watches were made. We have all the archives about their production and their distribution but very little information about the way they were made.”
While one gets to see the real jaw-droppers from Patek Philippe between the 1940s and 1960s, the company favoured tonneau-shaped cases for some of its complications like the jump hour watches in the 1920s. One of the earliest known Patek Philippe jump hour wristwatches was made in 1927. It was a rectangular tortue-shaped jump hour timepiece equipped with a modified calibre 10-ligne ébauche by LeCoultre. The movement’s modification was done by Louis-Elissée Piguet of the famed complications specialists from the Vallée de Joux. “I think Cartier and Patek were pioneers in early wristwatches despite it representing a smaller portion of their market. As a result, they played a major role in shaping what we define today as ‘traditional’ watches. The tonneau-shaped wristwatches made for Chronometro Gondolo that later inspired the ref. 5098 have so many quintessential designs! Of course, I love everything designed by Gilbert Albert but to be a bit of a contrarian, I will say the tonneau models that Patek Philippe used within their jump hour wristwatches are amazing. I doubt I’ll ever get to hold an original model from the late 1920s, but the 150th Anniversary ones from 1989 aren’t too shabby,” says Dunne.
Perhaps it was Patek Philippe’s collaboration with the South American retailer Gondolo & Labouriau that pushed the company to introduce some of the key Art Deco elements to their shaped watches in the 1920s. Gondolo would request for elongated, rectangular cased watches, which would wrap effortlessly around their clients’ wrists. At a time when Europe was struggling with the First World War and its economic repercussions, Gondolo alone retailed close to a third of the entire production of Patek Philippe watches. In Brazil, the sales were so spectacular that “Patek” became a substitute for “watch.” Instead of buying a watch, you bought a Patek — even if it wasn’t actually a Patek Philippe. The company sold around 12,000 watches through Gondolo & Labouriau.
By the 1930s, functional elegance started emerging as one of the primary criteria for men’s watches. As sportswear like knickerbockers found patrons in the likes of the then Prince of Wales and tennis player René Lacoste’s practical, half-sleeve shirts made headlines for their comfort and style, trends in wristwear too began to change. “The tennis or polo shirt was a crucial catalyst in changing attitudes towards what constituted appropriate dress, and its modernising effect can be likened to the impact of the wristwatch. However, as businessman César de Trey was made aware during a business trip in 1930 in India, further development was required before the wristwatch could match the purposeful practicality of the polo shirt,” says Foulkes.
Eager to rise up to a challenge posed by British colonial army officers in India, de Trey set out to create a watch robust enough to endure the rigours of a polo match. He brought up the matter with Jacques-David LeCoultre and Edmond Jaeger, the masters of micromechanics, who had already established their proficiency in miniaturisation with the Duoplan watch in 1925.
A tough row to hoe, the task was finally accomplished with the help of French designer René-Alfred Chauvot, who created a perfect rectilinear case, which in the words of patent application No. 712868 filed at the French Ministry of Trade and Industry on March 4, 1931, “can be slid in its support and completely turned over.” With its Art Deco aesthetics alongside baton-shaped hands, dart-type indexes, Arabic numerals and the swivelling case with three decorative gadroons on top and bottom, the Reverso turned out to be a runaway hit. “The Reverso’s design was dictated not by a desire to be different but by mechanical functionality. Its value lay not in the costliness of its materials and lavishness of its embellishments but in the ingenuity and intricacy of its engineering. Its choice of materials, its intentions, its innovative manufacture and the need it met made the Reverso, in many ways, the quintessential Art Deco product,” says Foulkes.
1950S: The Golden Era of Shaped Designs
The postwar era in the 1950s was marked by an unprecedented boom in economies across the USA and Europe. A renewed optimism and faith in mankind’s abilities to do better was finding wonderful expressions in art, architecture and science. It was also the time when space travel was being explored, and people’s imagination looked to the future with endless creativity. “The golden era of form watches was the era between the two World Wars, however the 1950s saw the arrival of a more streamlined design, tauter lines, designs with less frills. It was a period of breakthrough with the past and the arrival of the ‘modern era,’” says Alexandre Ghotbi.
One man who absolutely revolutionised the design landscape in watchmaking during the 1950s was Gilbert Albert. His asymmetrical designs with playful names like “Ricochet,” “Flying Saucer,” “Asymétrie,” “Futuriste” and “Tutti Frutti” were not just disruptive for that age but particularly so for Patek Philippe, which was known for its classical sensibilities. “In 1955, Henri Stern took something of a gamble and hired the then 25-year old Gilbert Albert, initially to inject a youthful design aesthetic into jewelled watches for women. However, Albert soon became head of the creative department, and his influence was seen on all Patek timepieces produced for the next decade,” says Tania Edwards, who worked with Patek Philippe for nearly three decades and is currently the marketing communications specialist at watch website Collectability.
Henri Stern’s gamble paid off and by 1960, Patek Philippe had won the most coveted award in the world of watch design. For three consecutive years from 1958, Patek Philippe was awarded the Diamonds International Award. Gilbert Albert would go on to achieve this award an unprecedented 10 times (including twice for another watch brand and five times under his own atelier).
Inspired by Art Deco artists such as Piet Mondrian and Constantin Brâncuși, Gilbert Albert’s whimsical designs would come across as totally asymmetrical but even the most eccentric-looking timepiece from him displayed a clean geometry with carefully constructed lines and sharp angles. “Gilbert Albert re-invented the way that Patek and other watch manufacturers looked at watch design. Now a watch case could be asymmetrical or triangle. When the new designs were presented at the Basel Fair, people would line up, excited to see what was new and to be amazed. Selling through to retailers, however, was not so easy with many partners around the world thinking that the traditional Patek Philippe had ‘lost its mind!’ As ever, Patek was ahead of its time. Apparently, many of Albert’s designs were simply too ‘far out’ for even the forward- thinking Henri Stern to commission,” says Edwards, who is one of those lucky few to own a “Ricochet” pocket watch by Albert. “He would hand-chisel and engrave each piece to lend it a sensual touch. The Ricochet has a soft, smooth form and its classic flecked engraved design is mesmerising,” she says.
Albert’s most famous designs include the rhomboid- shaped ref. 3422 from 1960 and the ref. 3424 “Ricochet” watch. Made in precious metals like yellow gold, pink gold and platinum (for the 3424), these watches presented the designer’s trademark black sector lines radiating from the centre to the ends of the case. However, the most dramatic of all Gilbert Albert watches was the ref. 3412 from 1958. Designed like a triangle with two sides of the case in extreme proportions, this watch turns the notion of traditional lugs on its head. The angular corners and intersecting lines on the dial gave it a very strong identity. “When you look at a catalog or advertisement by Patek Philippe from the 1930s, you will notice that almost every watch looks like it is a unique piece. But they were all, in fact, part of regular production, even though the production numbers weren’t necessarily too high. This just goes to show how creative Patek Philippe was in terms of case shapes during the 1930s, as well as the 1960s,” says watch collector Dogu Tasoren, who has an exceptional collection of old Patek Philippe advertisements.
The mid-century watches were also heavily influenced by iconic buildings and avant-garde cars. Right from the curves of the Studebaker Champion to the base of the Eiffel Tower, watch brands would find inspiration in pop culture icons and give it their own twist in designs. “My favourite shaped watches from the 1950s and ’60s are from Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin. They were making these oddly-shaped timepieces that were absolutely fascinating. Look at the ref. 2554 ‘Manta Ray’ with an angular flared side resembling ref. 2441, often referred to as the ‘Eiffel Tower.he marine creature by the same name or the r’ The distinct lugs of the latter were inspired by the base of the Eiffel Tower. Only 200 pieces of the ref. 2441 were made between 1948 and 1955. Though the ‘Manta Ray’ is a little underrated today, I think it’s a very interesting watch,” says Foulkes.
The unprecedented creativity in design was not just limited to asymmetrical shapes; squares and rectangular shapes were also given playful twists with the shape within a shape form. One of the most striking examples of this is Vacheron Constantin’s “Cioccolatone.” Says Selmoni, “It’s a rectangular timepiece with a square opening and a very curved case. The Italians called it ‘Cioccolatone’ because it looked like those chocolate squares from that time. The first references of the watch, 4821 and 4822, were manual winding and then we replaced those with self-winding models refs. 6440 and 6440 Q.
Moving over jewelled minute repeaters and cushion cubist shapes from the 1930s, Audemars Piguet had also started experimenting with some oddball designs in the 1950s. One such remarkably designed shape-within-a- shape example was sold by Heritage Auctions in May 2014. Designed by Gérald Genta, the watch presented a round dial encased in an intriguing H-shaped linear case. “The Bauhaus vibes are not subtle and are executed in distinct Genta fashion. We see again the slender peaked batons for hours, this time interconnected with thin black lines forming a peripheral frame. This clever dial layout serves a dual purpose. Not only does it add depth to a design that would otherwise risk being a bit austere, but serves as a spectral continuation of the outermost H-like linear structure. A square inside a circle inside a square. In the centre lies a set of Audemars Piguet’s ubiquitous baton hands,” explains Josh Rankin, an expert on vintage Audemars Piguet and founder of Stetz & Co.
According to Rankin, if there was one watch that embodied the aesthetic boldness that Genta brought to Audemars Piguet in the early years, it was the ref. 5093. Known by Italian collectors as the “Disco Volante,” or “Flying Saucer,” this mid-1950s watch marked Audemars Piguet’s most audacious foray into ultra thin watchmaking, which was underscored by Genta’s design that shifted focus from the round dial to the broad, knife-thin bezel. “He did this by adorning it with a vast array of patterns and ornamentation; examples are found bearing rows of engine- turned Clous de Paris, embellished with precious stones or florentine’d, and ran the full gamut of precious metals. The bezel wasn’t always out to steal the show, however, and as bezel designs ranged, so did the dials,” says Rankin.
By the 1960s, Genta was on a roll. Though we were yet to see the Royal Oak in the works, there were two watches which stood out for their eccentric shapes from the house of Audemars Piguet. One of them featured a prominent C-shaped case surrounding a round dial and the other featured an elongated rectangular asymmetrical dial marked with black sector lines. In these watches, Rankin opines that Genta seemed to be courting “the Japanese design principle of fukinsei with a case resembling a capital ‘C’ stretching from left to right to swallow up the round watch head, as if Pac-Man had discovered a sudden taste for horology. The open mouth of the ‘C’ on the right is balanced by a slight taper as the eye moves left. It’s clear that the inner section of the two-tone dial began as a pure and innocent circle before Genta’s tectonic shift of left and right hemispheres moulded the slender indexes to their will.”
While Gilbert Albert is the most obvious name associated with asymmetrical designs from the 1950s, another designer who contributed some really outlandish watch designs in that era was Richard Arbib. An armaments specialist inspired by military aviation and the ‘50s race to space, Arbib was the man behind Hamilton’s eccentric Electric watches. “Hamilton is by far the most underrated brand based on the designs from Richard Arbib alone. While they may not have the same level of cache as the late Gilbert Albert, they had some of the greatest retro watches like the Pacer, Flight I & II, Ventura, Everest and Altair. The Hamilton Electric era is a fantastic example of American designers and casemakers showing off their own style and watchmaking acumen. Jonell, Biggs, Star Watch Case Company, Schwab & Wuischpard were some of the star casemakers from the USA then,” says Charlie Dunne.
Roni Madhvani, one of the most celebrated collectors of shaped watches, especially the Gilbert Albert timepieces from the 1950s, feels this phase of uninhibited creativity in watch designs wasn’t limited to Swiss brands alone. “The era between 1945 and 1965 was the belle époque of watch design across brands. Of course, certain companies did produce designs that have since become iconic and collectors think of those at first recall. This creativity wasn’t Swiss-centric either. Incredible design-driven or shaped watches were created by Benrus, Bulova, Hamilton, Lip and countless others. In fact, I’ve been venturing into collecting such brands as those in my traditional focus to date have become unaffordable or next to impossible to find. The hunting grounds of design genre watches from Longines, Universal, Zenith and others are the new frontier,” he says.
For the Love of Lugs
Ask a design fanatic, and he will tell you how the mystique of shaped watches goes beyond the obvious oddball cases. Originally designed as one of the crucial and transformational components of the early pocket watches that were being strapped on the wrists, the lugs on a wristwatch were given a huge stylistic makeover in the mid-20th century.
“Vacheron Constantin has probably the greatest creativity in lug design since the inception of the wristwatch. Some of its most iconic lugs include the ‘crab claw,’ the Cornes de Vache (‘cow horn’), the ‘flame’ and the ‘teardrop.’ Of all the watches that emerged from this period, the crab claw lug ref. 4659 is both the most unusual and one of the most appealing. It represents every part of the post- World War II exuberance and optimism that I love and that continues to inspire me,” says Wei Koh, who was also bowled over by the ref. 4261 minute repeater and its contemporaries showcased at Vacheron Constantin’s Les Collectionneurs exhibit in Singapore in March. Besides the famous Cornes de Vache chronograph ref. 6087 with its cow horn lugs and the crab claw lug ref. 4659, the “Batman” ref. 6694 is one of the most audacious Vacheron Constantins from the period. According to Christian Selmoni, this watch is the perfect example of Vacheron’s classic style with a twist.
“The ‘Batman’ represents our ability to transcend the round design by using very creative lugs. It is very flamboyant and appealing. I love this tension between the very classic round shape in some of our watches adorned with these particularly surprising lugs. My other favourite is ref. 4261, an emblematic minute repeater with a super thin movement and beautiful teardrop lugs. We made around 40 of these between the 1940s and the early ’60s,” he says.
In the 1960s, the Rolex King Midas was another extraordinary watch. It looks like it was designed in the ’70s but actually the name was registered in 1959. “I believe this was Rolex’s answer to the calibre 9P from Piaget. It was a very, very slim hand wound movement that enabled them to make funky watches, you know, because they’ve enabled them to use hardstone dials in slimmer and slimmer cases.I like to call [Valentin] Piaget the Richard Mille of the 1960s and early ’70s, in that he made these incredibly funky designs. Rolex saw this, and their answer was Midas, which was the most expensive watch in the world at the time. I’ve got a couple of them because they’re not particularly sought after now. But they’re very, very heavy to wear. This watch had an integrated case and bracelet design, which was a true landmark, I think. And it was also a numbered series, which you don’t get from Rolex very often,” says Foulkes.
This was also the most creative period for Cartier London, which gave us some really intriguing watches like the Dali-esque Crash, the Pebble and the Maxi Oval between the late 1960s and ’70s.
Casemakers: The Unsung Heroes of Watchmaking
Unlike these days, when an integrated manufacture is counted as one of the biggest milestones for a successful watchmaking firm, the era of shaped watches was dotted with extremely talented casemakers, dial makers and designers who would contribute to a brand as third parties. Traditionally, it wasn’t the designers but casemakers, who would dictate the design of a watch based on what they could manufacture in a certain quantity. With an exposure to changing trends and rising celebrities like Gilbert Albert in the field of design, casemakers took a backseat and were gradually relegated to a secondary role.
“Gilbert Albert’s asymmetrical watches and the legendary Golden Ellipse designed by Ateliers Réunis completely changed the industry and the techniques that casemakers eventually had to master. Besides C. Markowski, who made some of the most dramatic cases for Patek Philippe, there were others like Antoine Gerlach (known for his ‘Ricochet’ cases such as refs.788 and 789) and Eggly & Cie., who produced the three variations of the ‘Flying Saucer’ ref. 855, working with the brand,” says Tania Edwards.
Indeed, one of the most celebrated casemakers from the 1950s was C. Markowski, who transformed the simple tonneau-shaped cases into provocative works of art. Right from the “Top Hat” with its hooded lugs to the ref. 2442 “Marilyn Monroe,” Markowski’s cases evoked sensuality and intrigue like no other. More interestingly, this was the time when the movement inside these beauties from Patek Philippe followed the form; the watches were equipped with the tonneau-shaped in-house calibre 9”’90. With a thickness of just 3.65mm, the movement was perfect for the wildly imaginative timepieces of the postwar era.
Geneva and the watchmaking hamlets around it were home to a lot of gifted casemakers who worked closely with brands like Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin. For instance, in the 1930s, Audemars Piguet was sourcing the steel cases for its chronographs from Georges Croisier. “We had Eggly designing our cases since 1909. In our archives, we have a beautiful two-tone minute repeater wristwatch in a cushion-shaped case done by him. Then there was Wenger in the 1930 and 1940s, who worked with teardrop lug shaped cases,” says Sébastian Vivas. Vacheron Constantin, too, worked closely with Eggly & Cie., Wenger and F. Baumgartner from Geneva.
According to Edwards, one of the most respected casemakers from that era was J.P. Hagmann, who had a reputation as the maker of the finest minute repeater cases for Patek Philippe. He also made the watch case for Patek Philippe’s legendary Star Calibre 2000.
The 1970S and The Post-Quartz Era
Just a year before Seiko unveiled the world’s first quartz watch and hit Swiss watchmaking giants with an unprecedented crisis unfolding over the next decade, Patek Philippe introduced its most elegant shaped watch, the Ellipse, in 1968. “With its classic, elliptical shape based on the Golden Section principle of design, together with its blued gold dial, it truly is an example of a commercially successful shaped design,” says Edwards. Even with its simple, elliptical shape, the Ellipse made a style statement that was one up over all the other gold watches in the market. Its stunning cobalt blue dial and enduring shape made it an instant hit with collectors, who also invested in an array of “Ellipse” accessories like lighters, cufflinks, rings and even clocks.
As the global watch market started to flood with battery powered watches from Japan, the Swiss continued to resist the quartz onslaught with daring timepieces like the 1972 Prestige de la France watch from Vacheron Constantin and Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak. Vacheron Constantin won the Prestige de la France award from the Comité de France in 1972 for its trapezoidal-shaped unisex watch powered by a tonneau-shaped calibre. Despite its austere dimensions (15.4mm × 13mm), the calibre offered efficient technical features such as a special balance wheel with no screws and an adjustable inertia. “The 1972 Prestige de la France watch from Vacheron Constantin is at once elegant and refined as well as fascinating due to its shape. Vacheron made a number of non-round watches even before the American 1921 was designed and they also added complications such as perpetual calendars, minute repeaters and the like to these form watches,” says Robert Esposito, an avid Vacheron Constantin collector and expert on vintage timepieces.
Determined to steer through the crisis with some outlandish designs then, Gérald Genta ushered in the concept of a luxury sports watch in steel with the Royal Oak in 1972. Big, bold and outrageously expensive — at least 10 times the price of a Rolex Submariner — this watch with its octagonal shape and integrated steel bracelet would eventually become one of the most defining timepieces of the century. “There is no doubt that the most significant shaped watch from Audemars Piguet is also the most important watch ever — the Royal Oak. If you look at it closely, it’s not only shaped from the front, but it’s also shaped from the side. It’s a rounded octagon and a tonneau shape at the same time,” says Vivas.
Following the success of the Royal Oak, Genta rolled out another iconic design in 1976 — the “Jumbo” Patek Philippe Nautilus inspired by a ship’s porthole. Advertised as the most expensive steel watch in the market, the first Nautilus ref. 3700 came as a shock to most retailers, who were concerned about convincing their conservative clients to buy it. Five decades on, we don’t have to tell how the prices for this legendary watch have spiked up in the secondary market.
Shaped Watches: Then and Now
Fast-forward to the early 1990s and the present, wristwatch design is finding new meaning as mechanical sculptures brought to life by some of the most talented individuals like Max Büsser, Martin Frei, Felix Baumgartner and Denis Flageollet. According to Nick Foulkes, this era of modern shaped watches was duly ushered in by Richard Mille at the turn of the 21st century. “I think Richard Mille was a milestone in many ways. He chose to introduce his unique aesthetic in the tonneau-shaped case, first of all, and I think that that was the milestone. There is also Franck Muller, who was kind of overshadowed by Mille in the 1990s but was a super hot watchmaker. He made some very interesting complications like the Cintrée Curvex in tonneau-shaped cases. He also did the Muller Long Island collection, which seemed hugely inspired by Patek’s Gondolo wristwatches from the 1920s,” he says.
While Muller revived the tonneau-cased watches with his hugely popular Casablanca, Richard Mille made it an absolutely hot shape with his bold and colorful complications. We can’t talk about the most iconic shaped watches in the 21st century without mentioning the Bvlgari Octo Finissimo, which has charted a fantastic growth story for the brand with seven world records in ultra thin watchmaking in the last seven years. “The Octo Finissimo’s story, not only in terms of record-setting technical achievement, but also its rise as a contemporary icon to truly rival the entrenched integrated bracelet, sports chic watches, Patek Philippe’s Nautilus and Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak, is a statement of the inspired leadership of the true innovator that is Bvlgari’s CEO, Jean-Christophe Babin,” says Wei Koh.
While Cartier and Vacheron have always offered some of their iconic shaped watches as part of contemporary collections, the desire for formed watches is on a rise thanks to the reigning trend for vintage designs in the market. “I’m not saying that I have anything to do with it at all, but I have been asking Cartier for the reintroduction of these shaped watch designs from their archives for some time now. You don’t go to Mercedes to buy a raincoat. You know what I mean? So if you want a round complicated watch with an astronomical function, you probably go to somebody like Patek but if you want a shaped case, a watch with great elegance, you probably go to Cartier, which has been doing it for the last 100 and something years,” says Foulkes.
Says Tania Edwards, “I recently attended the Sotheby’s Important Watch auction in New York where a Cartier Crash, circa 1991, sold for over USD 100,000. Such a high price at auction indicates the serious interest in these shaped watches, and it will be interesting to see how the market continues. Gilbert Albert’s asymmetrical ref. 3424s are now selling for several hundred thousand dollars. I’m sure both Gilbert Albert and Henri Stern would be thrilled!