The free spirit of icons in watchmaking
Every year, in the spring, watchmaking events set out to demonstrate that Swiss know-how is alive and well, and that when it comes to design and technical innovation, the world still looks on the richness of our committed heritage brands with envy. The icons of the past are one perfect illustration. But does contemporary watchmaking have the resources to create new ones?
By Cristina D’Agostino12 avril 2021
In 2021, there is no shortage of watchmaking talent. Every year there are new ideas, shapes, materials and colors. The industry remains prolific. But how many brands are willing to dare, to go off the beaten track and blaze a new path that is exuberant, unexpected, even shocking in its contradictions?
After waiting a year to see what new creations would ultimately emerge from the workshops, will the promised wonders actually be there? In 2021, the new collections still draw largely on the iconic greats of the past. The reason? The “safe” value that the customer gets from purchasing a piece that can live up to the labels “classic” and “timeless” piece reassures and justifies the expense. This year, many brands have once again taken inspiration from their glories past. Breitling just relaunched the "Premier" collection, originally created in the 1940s, which according to the brand’s marketing slogan celebrated "everyday elegance" back then. And Breitling’s new chronographs are very much dressed in the characteristic vintage style of that time
But there are quite a few more examples of vintage-inspired watches among the 2021 novelties presented at the digital edition of Watches & Wonders. Cartier’s new products are firmly rooted in the brand’s past: the Cartier Privé collection brings back the "Cloche" watch designed in the 1920s, while the Tank Must, inspired by the Louis Cartier Tank watch, draws on a double heritage - a century-old one for the Tank (1917) and another that goes back five decades, the Must collection (1977). You might even call it a triple heritage if you consider the allusion to the monochrome color codes of the eighties. Meanwhile, at Vacheron Constantin, the company is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the iconic American 1921 model, a particularly favorite among collectors and connoisseurs of fine watchmaking, with three new interpretations. For IWC, it's the Pilote range, a legendary timepiece designed for aviation in the 1930s.
An icon for risk-takers
But can an icon for today be born from a style inspired by yesterday? And can a clear design allusion be the foundation for a new icon in the making? Eric Giroud, art director and independent product designer, thinks so. “An icon is directly linked to freedom of thought,” he says. “But this freedom has a price, the price of taking risks. It's an approach that shakes things up, that communicates a deliberate stance and that ensures very high quality. Something that is practically indestructible… a Porsche, a pair of 501 jeans… objects that represent a singularity in their quality. An icon entails taking risks in relation to its time. I'm thinking of the Royal Oak by Audemars Piguet. Or closer to home, the watches of Richard Mille, always the outsiders when it comes to classic trends. Watches that have character and personality, created by specific names in the field, have a chance to become iconic. Take MB&F's Legacy Machine with its round case and flying balance wheel, like a heart beating on the outside now that’s thinking out of the box. Just like François-Paul Journe's Elégante, a watch with a very high-quality electromechanical movement made by one of the greatest watchmakers - that is also testimony of a free spirit."
An icon is not timeless
But is an icon as timeless as they say? Have Patek Philippe's Nautilus, Audemars Piguet's Royal Oak, Rolex's Submariner, IWC's Portuguaise, Jeager-LeCoultre's Reverso, Omega's Speedmaster and all the others always been considered iconic watches? Emmanuel Gueit, independent watch and jewelry designer, says "You don't create an icon, you create a design. The watch or the jewel will earn their iconic status with time. But it is important to know that an icon is not immutable.
The Reverso is the icon of the Maison, very recognizable. It was conceived as a challenge.
Lionel Favre, Product designer at Jaeger-LeCoultre
Patek Philippe's iconic Nautilus model, created in 1976, was not as much of a hit in the 1990s as it is today. It was not a coveted object at the time, whereas today the waiting lists are getting longer and longer. The seventies saw the birth of many iconic shapes. What turns a piece into an icon is its being different. And in the 1970s, after the oil crisis - the most prolific period for icons - everything seemed possible. Extravagance was the rule. Brands took risks and calculated them differently than today. The oil crisis shook things up. The pandemic we're experiencing today can also shake things up."
An environmentally-conscious response
There is little doubt that for more than a year, the pandemic has been shaking up the economy across every sector. And the question remains: are we about to switch to a different paradigm, is the world about to change for good? Let us consider how the watch industry has responded to this question. Many brands - like Panerai and its watch designed with entirely recycled materials, an absolute first - have responded with eco-friendly innovations, in line with the times and with the expectations of the younger generations. Similarly, Cartier's SolarBeat TM movement is recharged with solar energy thanks to photovoltaic microcells hidden under the dial, IWC boasts vegan leather straps, and Swatch opted for bioceramics combining three-quarters ceramic powder and one-quarter bioplastic. “At the moment, and for several years now," explains Eric Giroud, "watchmaking has been actively reinventing itself on an ongoing basis. This year sees the brands going back to building on their past achievements. But I am confident that the new generations will dare to break away from comfort and will have their own personality. After a crisis, there is always a lust for the new."
Likewise, for Gueit, replicating icons has lost its charm. "We have entered an era where design must become essential. If brands want to increase their sales, they must create, invent new forms and stop copying old ones."
What makes an icon
We asked Gueit what makes an icon, and this is what he replied: “It is the small details that make the icon. Paring down and going back to basics. All the décor - like crown shields, multi-level dials, multifaceted hands, for example - prevents us from seeing the essential. The explosion of details came with the ultra-high tech of 3D drawings. If you look at a Rolex Oyster model, there is very little detail. Everything has a function. Personally, I always design with a pencil first. And when I draw a shape that has potential, I feel a kind of alignment with what's around me, with the era, with the time."
According to Giroud, icons are also about a search for beauty, for pure aesthetics. "In Switzerland and in watchmaking, this absolute quest for beauty, the sensuality of beauty, is not always there,” he explains. “Designers like Charles de Vilemorin come to me to ask me questions. Or Phoebe Philo, Victoire de Castellane, or other who are more distant from us, like Jean Prouvé, Madeleine Vionnet, Suzanne Belperron, André Putmann, Cristobal Balenciaga. If watchmakers designed their creations like couturiers, there would be more icons… But it is not a matter of price, nor of value. It is about an object that is unanimously elevated to that status, through beauty."
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