Since timepieces were invented, round cases have made up the overwhelming majority of watches in the market, simply because the gears and springs in a watch movement are by default, round, and a round dial provides optimal space for the rotating hands to be read intuitively against a circular train of indexes. Also, round watches are the easiest to make water-resistant because the case can easily be screwed tight. But the alternatives to the organic, circular watch case are inseparable from, and at times, even seminal in the history of watchmaking.
Cartier, more than any other brand, had thrived on this sub-genre, creating styles that have proven remarkably resilient and notably influential. Louis Cartier had an intrinsic advantage as a jeweller, or in other words, a design obsessive. One of the first wristwatches designed specifically for the wrist and for men was the Santos Dumont. Shortly after the Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont became the first European to achieve sustained flight in 1906, he lamented to Louis Cartier that he didn’t want to be fumbling for his pocket watch to read the time in the air. The legendary jeweller responded by designing a watch that was mounted on a leather strap. The Santos parted with convention in many ways as wristwatches up until then were little more than adapted pocket watches. Moreover, the Santos was square, with rounded edges and exposed screws – the very same shape it retains today.
Two years later in 1906, Cartier presented the first tonneau watch (French for barrel) – the ideal compromise between the round and square-shaped watch. Vacheron Constantin was also amongst the first to adopt the barrel-shaped case in 1912. The model has been continuously interpreted over the years and has become a mainstay in its collection.
A decade later, Cartier would produce a watch inspired by a different type of transport. Born in the crucible of war, the Tank took the form of the newly invented, fearsome armoured vehicles like the Renault FT-17 tanks, seen from overhead. Furthermore, the Tank incorporated a flat rectangular case and strap in a single and complete design. Its lugs were joined into the bare edges of the flat vertical brancards, demonstrating a purity in design that bore nothing in common with its wholly utilitarian namesake.
In the 1930s, another rectilinear gem, which pushed nascent tenets of modernism even further, was born. The Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso, with its unique swivel case, was originally conceived as a sports watch. The brilliant idea of a watch that could be turned back-to-front was born on the polo fields of India. French designer René-Alfred Chauvot developed and patented a case mechanism that allowed the watch to be flipped over while on the wrist to keep the dial safe from sporting blows.
By the mid twentieth century, sports watches came unto their own, foreshadowed by Rolex’s 1926 development of the water-resistant Oyster case, which eventually bulked up into the Submariner and Sea-Dweller.
And Rolex also developed the 47mm cushion-shaped watch the brand had made for Panerai. In 1955, Panerai would introduce the Luminor, which saw the introduction of a self-luminous substance that was safer than the radium-based powder used in the Radiomir. Also, it had the crown-protecting bridge and a lever to strengthen the watch’s water-resistance. Panerai’s cushion-shaped watches are easily some of the most recognisable watches in the world.
Needless to say, haute horlogerie houses such as Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin have an impressive legacy of experimenting with shaped watches, often housing superb form movements. One of the oldest watches in Patek’s present-day catalogue is the Golden Ellipse, which turns 50 this year. The elliptical design was based on the golden ratio, which resulted in a simple watch of formal beauty.
Patek Philippe also created asymmetrical watches such as the ref. 3424 and 3412, designed by Swiss jewellery designer Gilbert Albert who had an eye for modern art. And Vacheron Constantin introduced the skewed, trapezoidal watch, dubbed the 1972, the namesake year when it became the first watchmaking company to be honoured with the rare ‘Prestige de la France’ award. But again, the most distinctive and iconic asymmetrical watches came from Cartier, beginning with the Tank Asymétrique of 1938.
But more extraordinary is the Crash of 1967 that’s perhaps one of the most iconic watch designs ever. Born in London, some believe that the jeweller was inspired by the melted clocks in Salvador Dalí’s famed painting, The Persistence of Memory, while others believe the watch was, in fact, a Baignoire or Maxi Ovale that had melted after a car crash. Regardless of which, it reeked of its time and place, bearing the visual spirit of the Swinging Sixties.
The 1970s was a decade when a new category of watches thundered onto the scene, going where no other luxury watch had gone before. Launched shortly after the introduction of accurate and affordable quartz watches, both the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and the Patek Philippe Nautilus were designed by Gerald Genta, one of the first designers to carve a reputation beyond the maisons he worked for.
Genta’s influences were heavily maritime, with the Royal Oak having an octagonal bezel inspired by a brass diving helmet and was secured by eight hexagonal nuts. Coming four years later, the Nautilus was inspired by the porthole of ocean liners and marked a ground breaking departure from Patek Philippe’s earlier watches with its unusual style and dimensions. Furthermore, both watches were made of steel yet they commanded the price of a gold watch.
In the early 1990s, the same decade that saw Panerai revive its cushion-cased watch for the civilian market, Franck Muller hit a bull’s eye with the Cintrée Curvex, which was a large tonneau case that curved on three axes, a reinterpretation of the early 20th century form. Then, at the dawn of the new millennium, Richard Mille would pick up the baton from where Franck Muller had left off. In fact, he injected rocket fuel to one of the oldest and most traditional of watch forms with three-dimensional constructions inspired by the chassis of racing cars and cutting-edge technology.
Since then, limitless inventiveness in case design has dominated the watch world. The new wave of watchmakers – the indies such as MB&F, Urwerk, Greubel Forsey, De Bethune have taken the concept of shaped cases, or even watchmaking in general, past the point of no return. These watches, in their unclassifiable, idiosyncratic forms have come to define modern watchmaking as we know it today.
So, despite the round watch case’s near monopoly in the watch market, it’s good to know that just as many shaped watches have left a mark in history.