Anatomy Of A Hit: How Hermès Produced The Standout Watch Of 2021
It’s hard to compare watches from one brand to those of another. Everyone sets out to make a great watch, and they do it with different audiences in mind; different budgets, different tastes and different priorities. Watches are a subjective business, too. You can play Top Trumps with the spec sheet if you like – is it a chronometer? How many meters water resistance? How many hours of power reserve? – but fundamentally we buy watches because they speak to us on a personal level.
Nevertheless, sometimes a watch rises above the chatter, stands out from the crowd. It might offer something people have never seen before, but often it’s just the right thing at the right time. The Bulgari Octo Finissimo or Tudor Black Bay are great examples from the past decade. But in 2021, the watch that has got people talking like nothing else is the Hermès H08.
Launched at Watches and Wonders in April, the H08 is Hermès’ first foray into sports watches: the most competitive class of mainstream watches. Without boasting any particularly new feature or function, it has wowed journalists and customers alike. Asked if he expected it to be such a hit, Hermès Timepieces CEO Mr Laurent Dordet says, “We were hopeful, but it is definitely a challenge to attack the core masculine watch segment – there are some small competitors out there! Hermès is elegance and simplicity; when coming to a sports watch, which are sometimes super-bulky and super-crowded, sometimes over-engineered, we wanted something elegant and simple.”
Easily said, but getting there is another matter. How exactly did the H08 take the watch world by storm?
You can create a sensational watch movement, you can invent complications hitherto unseen, and you can deploy technical knowledge unmatched by your rivals, but if it all comes together in an underwhelming design, the best you can hope for is niche success. Hermès focused its firepower on making sure the H08 looked distinctive enough to have character, but wasn’t derivative of anything else in its class.
“Until now, we had the Arceau and the Slim, which are quite conventional,” says Dordet. “We wanted something sporty, for daily use, but a unique shape that was not round.”
A round watch pits you against icons like Rolex or IWC; anything too unusual can be off-putting. Hermès walked a tightrope between the two, and it paid off. It’s not a dive watch or a pilot’s watch; not a “tool” watch or a dress watch, but a casual watch with elegant touches. Interestingly, Dordet says that the H08’s shape also adds to its versatility – comparing it to the square Carré H design of 2017, which Hermès has no plans to expand on. By contrast, he revealed that more complicated versions of the H08 will be rolled out soon, with the first model launching later this year.
Proportions are everything, and every millimetre counts. There’s a lot to be said for the balance between dial opening and case silhouette; the ratio of the overall case size to the bracelet or strap, and the thickness of the watch (a very reasonable 11mm). But it’s the width of the watch that has the most immediate effect on how it wears.
I know buyers who swore before they saw it that 39mm would be too small, but the minute they had it on their wrists, agreed that it was the perfect size. It’s not the most complicated element in this equation, but a fraction bigger or smaller and the H08 would have had to work a lot harder to win people over.
Here’s where Hermès really shines. Its watches are always notable for a fine touch and the H08 is no different. Check out the brushed finish to the bezel, or, one of my personal favourites, the way the seconds hand sits centrally across the axis, like the needle on a compass, rather than extending out in one direction. But what really reels you in is the typography – the numerals are so characterful, so unlike anything else out there. Plenty of brands rely on go-to staples of clear, simple typography, or adhere to traditional, cursive scripts (known as “Breguet numerals” in the business), but Hermès goes its own way.
It has form in this department, too – for the launch of its Slim d’Hermès line, it commissioned designer Mr Philippe Apeloig to create a typeface for the watch. On the H08, however, all the work took place in-house, under the leadership of designer Mr Philippe Delhotal, but significantly, with input from Ms Véronique Nichanian. Nichanian is the influential artistic director of the brand’s menswear “universe”, as the maison describes it.
“At Hermès, each object has to have its own typography,” says Dordet. “Since the idea of the case was to mix geometric shapes, it led us to this strange, new case shape, and the typography flows from there, from the bezel shape – especially in the zero and the eight, the numbers that give the watch its name.”
Another no-brainer, but something Hermès can really deploy to its advantage. A dose of colour has been de rigueur in watch design for some time now. But by launching with a collection crafted mostly in monochrome tones (both in terms of the titanium or graphene used in the cases, and the textured finishes on the dials), Hermès set itself up to play a trump card: its trademark orange.
Like Cartier’s red or Tiffany’s turquoise, Hermès has turned one shade of orange into an extension of its brand, and introduced it to the H08 with style. Visible on every watch at the tip of the seconds hand, the tone is most effectively used on a full orange rubber strap, which – no coincidence – is already the hardest model to get hold of.
Dordet returns to the influence of Nichanian in describing the H08’s use of colour and materials: “Look at her collection; it’s all about mixing traditional materials with one or two highly technical materials… and you have subtle colours with one ‘flashy’ colour every season. That’s why we have the flash of orange on the second hand.”
No one needs telling that Hermès is one of the biggest names in the luxury world, full stop. So, of course this helps its cause when launching a new product. But in the watch world, Hermès is a relative newcomer, something Dordet knows very well. “We have only been making men’s watches for 10 years; 10 years is nothing compared to our competitors,” he says. “We have a lot of success for our size with high-end, complicated watches, but this was something new.”
Leveraging that outsider status while going toe-to-toe with the biggest players in Switzerland is a bold move. Hermès manages to have it all its own way: its watches are Swiss made, and over the past 15 years it has invested in Swiss dial-making and case-making companies, as well as taking a 25 per cent share of Manufacture Vaucher – the same firm making movements for the likes of Parmigiani, Richard Mille and Corum. So, it benefits from above-average mechanics and the prestige of Swiss watchmaking, while bringing a Parisian flair to its design and branding.
Last, but not least: all of the above would be for nothing if the H08 carried a five-figure price tag. The watch had to be competitive, and coming out at between £4,440 and £4,890 depending on the exact model, it’s done that. How many stylish, unusual, titanium-cased watches with really decent movements – a definite step up on an ETA or Sellita – from brands with the kind of name recognition that you get from Hermès, can you name for under £5,000? The answer is not many. Not many at all.
Even its flagship model, which uses a lightweight graphene composite for its case, paired with a ceramic bezel, costs £7,250. That may not be pocket change, but usually when watchmakers start experimenting with radical substances the costs skyrocket (not just as a result of manufactured desirability either – machining composites can be a nightmare to get right and the rate of failure much higher).
Let’s not forget either that in all its forms, the H08 doesn’t skimp on the basic credentials for a sports watch; a screw-down crown and 100m water resistance, plus a decent power reserve at 50 hours.