The Fonts of Time

The Fonts of Time

You look at your watch on average 65 times per day, but have you ever really paid attention to the numerals? Without looking at your wrist (no cheating please), can you recall whether your timepiece has Roman or Arabic numerals, in serif or sans serif? Or maybe it has applied gold baton indexes, or diamonds, or a mix of both? Not sure? Well, don’t worry, because you aren’t actually supposed to notice them.

A watch font that is immediately noticeable can often cause a distraction from the overall design of a dial and spoil the harmony of the watch altogether. It is a little like the music in films which is supposed to set the scene – not have you reaching for your phone to Shazam a tune.

Having said that, paying attention to the details is all part of the appreciation of a fine timepiece, and looking into the world of horological fonts reveals a rich history that spans the fields of archaeology, printing, IT, psychology, art, design and much more.

A brief history of numbers
The story of where written numbers come from is intimately linked to timekeeping. Early civilisations needed to keep track of the days, the phases of the moon and the cycles of the seasons for their own survival. The first written numbers were recorded using a tally system, where lines would be carved into a stick or bone. Almost all number systems started in this way and most number ones still use a single line to mark its distinction. As time evolved, and the need to record greater quantities arose, the numbers evolved with it to include a bar across four lines to mark five and a cross to mark ten. This system was the precursor of the Roman numeral system that is used by almost all watchmakers today in at least one of their collections.

As for Arabic numerals, their story is equally fascinating, as they didn’t come from Arabia at all. They were in fact invented by an Indian astronomer called Aryabhatta. This system was a revolution over Roman numerals as it included the number zero, enabling people to do addition, subtraction and multiplication (it is impossible to do maths with Roman numerals). In 771 AD Arab merchants invited some Indian scholars to Baghdad to help explain the new number system. The Arab traders then incorporated the Indian number system into their own books and when they travelled to Europe, the numerals were incorporated into Latin and became widely known as Arabic numerals.

The origin of fonts
The beginning of the history of fonts, however, didn’t occur until some 700 years later. It all started in Germany in the 1440s with Johannes Gutenberg and the very first mass-production printing machine. Gutenberg’s invention used individual metal letters that could be reused and reconfigured as many times as needed. These first letters and numbers were made to look like the elaborate handwriting of the scribes, mainly because that is what people were used to reading.

Over the following decades, printing presses were set up across Europe, each with their own unique font. Little by little the style of the fonts moved away from the ornate gothic fonts of old, in favour of less elaborate letter-forms. By the 16th century, fonts had evolved into the Roman type, mainly thanks to the work of Frenchman Claude Garamond whose type was the most popular in Europe for the better part of 200 years. The Garamond font is still used in some children’s books today, including Dr. Seuss and the American editions of the Harry Potter series.

The Swiss contribution
The history of fonts is such a large subject to cover in a few lines, but we cannot skim over it without mentioning the Swiss. Not only renowned for their watchmaking talents, the Swiss are also recognised for their input into the history of fonts. After the Second World War, modernism swept across Europe and no area of design was left untouched, including the field of font design. In 1957, two new fonts emerged, Univers by Adrian Frutiger, and Helvetica by Eduard Hoffmann and Max Miedinger. Both had a huge influence on the modern world as we know it.

Helvetica has since become a cult typeface and the font of choice for a number of watch companies, including Mondaine, which even has a collection dedicated to it. Helvetica is a favourite of some of the world’s leading brands, such as Nestlé, BMW, Jeep, North Face and Oral B, to name a few, and the little characters even inspired filmmaker Gary Hustwit to make a movie about it called, quite simply, Helvetica. In 2010, New York type designer Cyrus Highsmith set himself the challenge of getting through a day without Helvetica and it was an impossible challenge. He had to search long and hard for clothing without Helvetica washing instructions on the labels, he couldn’t take the subway, he couldn’t read The New York Times, and he ended up closing his eyes for a good part of the day, drinking Japanese tea.

The godfather of fonts
The next font revolution is credited to none other than Steve Jobs, who, after dropping out of Reed College in Portland, Oregon, decided to stay on to take a calligraphy class. In an address to students at Stanford University in 2005, he explained the impact it had on him: “I learned about serif and sans serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.”

Jobs’ love for typeface led to a complete change in digital typography. Early computers only had one font, called Digi Grotesk (designed in 1968 by the German designer Rudolph Hell for cathode ray typesetting machines), but when Jobs designed the Macintosh computer in the 1980s, he decided to offer users a choice of fonts. This was the first time people were able to choose a font that they liked, and it allowed them to express themselves digitally.

From Ariel to Zapf Dingbats
Everywhere we look we see an array of different fonts. From the tube of toothpaste we grab in the morning, to the letters on our coffee machine, to the road signs on the way to work, the newspapers we read and the time on our watches (more of this soon, I promise). Fonts are everywhere, and they have been everywhere since we were small children able to recognise the packaging of our favourite sweets or the letters on our toys. We have been learning about the secret meanings of fonts our whole lives, without even realising it.

Our brains are very clever pattern-matching machines. Every font we have ever seen gets processed and catalogued so that when we see a fancy script font, for example, we immediately associate it with something handcrafted, luxurious and expensive (think Breguet, H. Moser & Cie or Louis Moinet). When we see a simple sans serif font, we often make the connection to a product that has a cool design, is trustworthy, reliable and precise, (like Tudor, Nomos or IWC). Sporty fonts taken from the automobile or aeronautic industries communicate adventure, speed and endurance (as in Zenith, Blancpain and Chopard, among others).  There are even feminine and masculine fonts with the female versions often preferring curvy lettering and the male versions striking a pose in thick bold typefaces.

Fonts help us choose what we like. If you picked up a copy of Revolution and all the watches featured the font Times New Roman, for every brand name logo and numeral, it would take you much longer to decide which timepiece you liked best. You would have to do far more reading and research to figure out which watch suited you the most. So our brains file all these design codes away to help us make informed decisions when needed.

Font personalities
Fonts turn words and numbers into personalities that influence our interpretation of the products they adorn. Take our quiz here to see which watch appeals to you the most by first choosing the type of font that you like best. Then click through on your favourite font type to find out which watch brand the font is from. (The quiz is based on a similar survey by Sarah Hyndman in her book, Why Fonts Matter. She asks people which font they would date, and the results are uncanny.)

Who’s your type?
You may find that you are drawn to space-age fonts like the Star Wars typeface used by MB&F, or the elegant swirls of the Breguet font may be more your thing (Breguet didn’t just invent the tourbillon, but one of watchmaking’s most famous fonts, too). Or perhaps you are more attracted to German precision and engineering with the simple, no fuss industrial fonts that almost tick-tock all on their own.

We often prefer fonts that take us back to childhood; we just can’t escape them, however hard we try; although we don’t necessarily have to have lived during an era to appreciate a historical font. The recent vintage trend has created ripples across the fashion industry, the world of interior design and the field of watchmaking. A large number of historical watch brands have created reiterations of old timepieces from the 1920s to the 1980s, which have become extremely popular with older and younger consumers alike. There is an emotive attraction with nostalgia that makes us feel good and these timepieces capture a particular moment in time and transport us right into that world.

Fonts don’t act on our subconscious mind; they send supraliminal messages to the brain. We are aware of supraliminal messages as they are above the threshold of consciousness, but we often don’t pay attention to them. It is a little like the example of music in a film mentioned earlier: we hear it but don’t really notice it. If someone points it out to us, however, we are perfectly able to focus on it. Fonts on a watch dial act in the same way. They send us information about a watch, about its style, the type of people who may wear it, the kind of movement inside, and even give us an indication of the price, without us really being aware of these messages.

Type casting
For the watch designer, choosing the watch font is extremely important. Get it wrong and it is like watching a film where the main character has been wrongly cast. We understand the story – like we can read the time – but it causes a distraction and ruins the overall result.

In the past, numerals were hand-painted onto the dial, or handcrafted in gold and then applied, making them an essential part of the creation of a dial. “Today, as everyone uses and abuses fonts, it has undervalued an art form that requires years of understanding and know-how,” explains Johann Terrettaz, independent graphic and typeface designer at Twice2. “In the case of watch design, the font should be an original design so that the watch has its own unique character; it shouldn’t feature a font that’s already on the market or one that is close to what the designer is looking for.”

For Chanel’s Monsieur collection launched earlier this year, the French maison created a brand new font for the dial. “The biggest challenge when creating a completely new typeface is to make it unique,” explains Nicolas Beau, Director of Chanel’s International Watch Division. “We need to immediately understand where the watch comes from, what it expresses and what it evokes.”

“The typography must always be in harmony with the world in which the watch is intended to be positioned, where its own unique personality is different from others,” Terrettaz agrees. “The design of a watch and its typography are completely inseparable.”

But it isn’t only the choice of fonts that challenges the watch designer or dial maker. With such a small area to play with, legibility, precision and position are everything. Each numeral needs to be placed perfectly without overcrowding the dial. Some designs place the numerals vertically, while others will radiate the numbers out from centre of the dial. There is also the possibility of inverting the figures from four to eight. Watchmakers aren’t afraid to change numerals for the purpose of design either. Many use the fictive Roman numeral IIII instead of IV, because they all feel that it just looks better.

Watch brand Mondaine found things quite challenging when it decided to incorporate the Helvetica font into a new collection. “Once we decided on Helvetica, it was a real challenge to develop it into a timepiece,” Mondaine’s CEO Ande Bernheim explains. “We use fonts but we don’t live fonts like typographers and font people. We had to really dig into typography, so we talked with a lot of people – professors, writers, typographers, designers – to see what the font really means, what it stands for.

“Then, we had to look for the right designer, someone who could translate the font into a watch, to get the spirit of a font which has been around for 57 years,” Bernheim continues. “The watch had to be modern, like the font still is today. Martin Drexel was the designer and he did a great job finding the right mix between a font and a watch.”

Dial design gets even more complex with the addition of complications where several different indications need to be included on the face of the watch. Designers will often mix numerals with indexes, or interchange Roman and Arabic numerals on the same dial to help legibility.

Often it is the simplest things that create the biggest challenges for the font designer. In the creation of the Slim d’Hermès collection, designer Philippe Apeloig was given the task of designing an elegant, classic, yet contemporary font that would speak to the essentials of the brand. “Sobriety and minimalism were the qualities upon which I focused,” explains Apeloig. “I built in constraints, limiting the number of shapes that I could use to create the numbers. Each is drawn using a continuous line in which small cuts are made. Not only do the cuts draw the eye in, but they reduce each number to its elemental parts and they make silence visible. In this context it represents the silence of time – its stop and its start.”

Under the loupe
Taking a moment to study a font opens up a whole new world of watch appreciation. It gives us an insight into the inner world of a brand and its values, as well as the challenges of watch design, and why we would choose one font over another. Our choice of watch has always spoken volumes about us – watches give off supraliminal messages all on their own – but a font can narrow things down even further. So next time you are winding your watch, take a look to see if you are more of the fancy French type or more of a retro-galactic warrior – your font could be saying more than you know.