A Century Of Watch Design Told Through This Year’s New Releases

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A Century Of Watch Design Told Through This Year’s New Releases

Words by Mr Simon de Burton | Photography by Ms Virginie Khateeb | Styling by Mr David Lamb

4 October 2021

It was the American typeface designer Mr Frederic W Goudy who once wistfully observed “all the old fellows stole our best ideas”. The same could be said of the watch business, judging by the enthusiasm with which many top manufacturers today bring back models from 20, 30, 40, even 80 years ago – but it’s a good thing they do, because it gives us a chance to own brand new versions of some all-time classics.

Tributes, continuations, backdates, revivals – call them what you want, they’re the ideal way to wear a love for vintage on your sleeve with all the benefits of modern engineering and none of the downsides associated with a watch that’s decades old (such as its reduced shock and water resistance, potential unreliability and often impractically small size). As an added bonus, the 21st century versions are often more affordable than the models that inspired them.

The current vogue for reviving past designs is so strong, we can take a walk right through 20th century watch design purely by looking at watches released in 2021. Here, then, are six watches that will take you back to the future and a short history of their design origins.

In late 1916, Mr Louis Cartier spotted the first press photographs of the original British Mark armoured tank. The design inspired him to create a watch case with sides longer than the dial to mimic the tracks of the British Mark and, three years later, the first Cartier Tank watches went on sale. The model became a runaway success and spawned several versions over the years, including the Tank Cintrée, Tank Américaine and Tank Française, but their precious-metal cases meant they remained the preserve of the wealthy. In the 1970s, however, managing director Mr Alain Dominique Perrin came up with the idea of producing more affordable versions of the historic Tank with gold-plated cases and unusually coloured dials under the Must de Cartier name. They developed a cult following and Cartier has now reprised the idea with an all-new range of five Must models in small, medium and large sizes that include mechanical and quartz versions as well as one with a SolarBeat photovoltaic, solar-powered movement.

Panerai was founded in 1860 by Mr Giovanni Panerai in a tiny watchmaker’s workshop on Ponte alle Grazie in Florence, but it came to specialise in designing and making marine equipment, such as missile sights and submersible lighting. This led to a commission from the Italian Navy to produce a batch of watches for the elite Gamma underwater commando unit in 1936, the result being the original 47mm Radiomir (the 3646, for all you numbers geeks), which was based on a Rolex pocket watch to which Panerai added a screw-down crown and a highly luminous sandwich dial. The design gradually evolved, with water resistance being improved by the invention of a lever device that locked the crown down hard against the case. The mechanism, which was trademarked by Panerai in the 1950s, remains a distinctive feature of the modern-day brand’s ultra-tough Submersible range and enables models such as the PAM 1223, pictured here, to remain watertight down to 300m.

Montblanc’s 1858 range doesn’t so much pay tribute to watches that have gone before as the origins of the movements that drive the new ones. The year refers to the date when Mr Charles Ivan Robert and his brother, Mr Hyppolite Robert, established their movement assembly workshop in the Jura valley village of Villeret before registering the Minerva brand name 19 years later when they began making their own mechanisms. Minerva established a reputation for superbly finished and highly accurate chronograph movements, but was forced into bankruptcy during the 1930s and sold. The brothers’ shares in the company were eventually dispersed among various family members before an investor bought Minerva in 2000 and then sold it in 2006 to Montblanc’s owner, the Richemont Group. Now known as Fabrique d’Horlogerie Minerva SA, it continues the tradition of producing superb hand-wound movements that are used in Montblanc’s higher-end models, such as the Geosphere UltraBlack, which contains a world-time complication featuring a pair of revolving globes on the dial side, each of which rotates 360 degrees every 24 hours. The northern hemisphere at 12 o’clock turns counter-clockwise, the southern hemisphere turns clockwise.

Baume & Mercier’s Riviera range has its roots in the early 1970s when many accepted watchmaking conventions were being turned on their head – not least the idea that a luxury watch had to be made from precious metal and should not be considered suitable for sports use. It was the era of riviera chic where sun, sand and carefree days inspired the jet set to dress down for the occasion (“down” being relative and having nothing to do with a reduction in style). The new, all-steel sports watches with their state-of-the-art bracelets that, for the first time, were integrated with their cases made it possible to keep one’s expensive timepiece on one’s wrist from dawn to well beyond dusk, whether on the beach, in a speedboat or clubbing at the trendiest spots in town. The Riviera of 1973 was one of the first such watches and the latest chronograph version recalls all the features of the original, including the distinctive, 12-sided bezel and that all-important air of sporting elegance.

H. Moser was established in St Petersburg in 1828, but 20 years later, founder Mr Heinrich Moser opened a factory in Switzerland to supply the pocket watches he sold to wealthy Russians, princes and other members of the imperial court. The Moser name had been virtually forgotten by the turn of the 21st century, when it was bought and revived with the help of Moser’s great-grandson, Mr Roger Nicholas Balsiger. H. Moser & Cie. relaunched in 2005 and quickly impressed with the Perpetual 1 model that executed the perpetual calendar complication in a new way. A tiny centrally mounted pointer was used to indicate the months of the year using the hour indexes displayed around the dial, while the date appeared in a window in the usual way. The innovative system has now been introduced into the Streamliner, an integrated bracelet watch that combines a sporty look with Moser’s exceptional attention to detail. While it might be easy to lump the Streamliner in with the recent boom in steel bracelet watches, the organic lines of its case and flowing bracelet aren’t quite drawn from the same mid-1970s well of inspiration. Moser itself references Art Deco railway engines, but in pure watchmaking terms, there is something of the early 1980s to it (think Piaget’s original Polo) and the soft curves of the early 1990s, an era watch designers are only just starting to reappraise, although Moser has a habit of being ahead of the crowd.

Hermès Timepieces has only had a dedicated watchmaking division since 1978, but its relationship with timepieces goes back to 1912 when the young Ms Jacqueline Hermès, a descendant of Mr Thierry Hermès, who had founded the high-end harness maker 75 years earlier, was given a leather strap and protective case made by the firm’s craftsmen so she could wear her pocket watch on her wrist. Hermès made further forays into horology in 1928 with the Ermeto handbag watch and, in 1945, even made a belt buckle watch for Umberto II of Italy to wear while skiing. The timepiece side of the business faded away post-war and it wasn’t until the late 1970s that anyone thought to revisit the brand’s past by not only making luxurious straps but the watches to go with them. For the first 30 years, about 90 per cent of Hermès watches had quartz movements, but the house got serious in 2006 when it acquired a 25 per cent stake in mechanical movement manufacturer Vaucher and set about establishing itself as a true watchmaker. The Slim d’Hermès range, launched in 2015, clearly demonstrated that Hermès had made the grade and the double-moonphase Squelette Lune, its first skeleton-dial watch, takes the brand’s horological ambitions to new heights. You can make a firm case for skeletonisation as the dominant force in watch design this century, as we’ve written about before, and in bringing this neo-industrial, highly technical approach to the Slim d’Hermès, the brand shows it’s able to flex its creative powers without deviating from its strong aesthetic.