If someone asked you to explain what makes a good product design, you’d probably say something that ‘looks nice and is easy to use.’ Unless of course you’re a professional product designer, in which case you would probably have something a little more insightful to say. The fact is, most of us probably don’t spend too much time thinking about the individual elements that go into making a good design. We definitely know it when we see it though, which, ironically, is what makes a good design a good design. No one needs to tell you why it’s good, it just becomes obvious as you use the product.
Sadly, as we’ve all come to know all too well, in the world of product development, not all designs are created equal. Some things look great but are completely impractical to use, whilst others are exceptionally easy to use but are more boring than your dad’s stories about the ‘good old days’. Some, however, achieve that rare balance between aesthetic beauty and functional practicality. Several notable examples exist in the world of high-end mechanical watches, including the Patek Philippe Calatrava, the Cartier Tank, the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and of course, the Rolex Submariner. Which leads us to the obvious question and the title of this article; what makes an iconic watch design?
It’s a question we here at Walteri have been asking ourselves since before we launched our first watch, the Oceaner 41. After much debate, many late nights, countless cups of coffee and a lot of takeaway food, we think we’ve come up with four key-pillars that help make an iconic watch design. These are not the only factors of course, but we think they play a pretty major role. Have a read and see if you agree.
Before a watch design can become iconic, it must first be ahead of its time. The Cartier Tank was designed in 1917, at a time when most men still carried a pocket watch. Although attitudes were slowly changing, the prevailing opinion was that wrist-worn watches were too feminine. French jeweller, Mr. Louis Cartier, saw things differently, however, and believed that an elegant yet strong design, different from anything available at the time, could capture the hearts of customers. 100 years later, it seems he was right, with the Tank still one of the most popular Cartier watch collections ever.
No matter how forward-thinking a design is, however, if it is not functional, then it is already destined for failure. Especially if that design is for a watch. After all, whilst we may wear watches because they look good, their job first and foremost is to allow us to read the time (and any other indications), in an easy and reliable way. Perhaps one of the best all-time examples of this is the Rolex Submariner, considered by many to be the grand-daddy of all dive watches and a constant source of inspiration for us here at Walteri. Although it’s easily one of the most recognisable watches in the world, what makes the Submariner an iconic design is the fact that it is so functional. Everything about its design is geared towards making it the best mechanical dive watch possible: crown guards and screw-down crown, a black dial with contrasting luminous indices, a bi-directional rotating bezel. All these elements serve a functional purpose and yet they also play a key role in the timeless aesthetic appeal of the watch.
When the original Patek Philippe Calatrava Ref. 96 was first released in 1932, its case measured a mere 31mm in diameter and was only 9mm thick. Yet, this Bauhaus-inspired design has served as an instant indicator of wealth, status and good taste for decades. Numerous models and variations have been added to the collection over the years but they all largely share the same design and adhere to the principle of form follows function. It’s amazing to think that a watch design that is so understated and so elegant could also be so distinctive, and yet for many, the Calatrava is the basis against which all other dress watches are judged.
As critical as good design is, however, it’s the story that goes along with it that really helps a product become iconic. Everyone knows, for example, that the Royal Oak by Audemars Piguet was designed by famed watch designer Gerald Genta. Less people realise however, that in the early 1970’s AP was on the verge of bankruptcy. They needed a new watch that would quickly get a lot of attention and sell well, and they knew the only way to do that was to come out with something completely unexpected. Their solution was to invent what would become the world’s first true luxury sports watch. Made of steel, the introductory price tag in 1972 was 3,300 Swiss Francs (ten times the price of a Rolex Submariner in steel and more expensive than an 18k gold Patek Philippe dress watch at the time). As you can imagine, at first people were shocked and thought AP was crazy. No one was going to pay that much for a steel watch. The strategy worked however, and eventually the Royal Oak became a huge commercial success for AP. To this day, it remains the defining model of the brand.
Here at Walteri, we have tried to learn from these great brands and their incredible timepieces. We can’t offer you a luxury watch with a four or five figure price tag, but we can offer you something that we think is forward-thinking, functional, distinctive and has a unique angle. Not bad for just $99, right? Check out our Oceaner 41 collection for yourself now, and see if you agree with us.