This is Article 1 of a 4-part series on Design & Innovation. What does it take to shift consumer preferences? A lot. My marketing professor used to always say “never underestimate the customer’s reluctance to change.” In today’s watch industry, many classic watches designed 50+ years ago continue to fascinate consumers and define expectations in watches. Yet, many of these companies are not exactly innovative either. While some see classic design, critics see lack of innovation. People naturally look to innovation in the mechanics of the watch, but this is hard to do and consumers can’t notice the changes. I will present a case for why design is the next revolution in the watch industry, and has a chance to shift consumer preferences back to the mechanical art.
“I’m committed to this art form expression, and I’ll continue to design in this direction… so do I think the story should be told? Absolutely” responded Richard Paige (RPaige Watches) when I told him why I wanted to tell the Art Deco story. Art Deco is a design movement that made the Roaring 20’s famous across the world, but is the next great frontier for watch design. The designs of Art Deco are bold, nostalgic, and Richard Paige and Mark Carson (Individual Design) are capturing the essence more than any other watch designers out there.
I had a chance to meet Richard and Mark on a recent trip to Hawaii. Since then, I found myself drawn to their watches more than Patek Philippe, Rolex, A. Lange & Sohne, or Audemars Piguet. Something about these watches captured my imagination and I was forced to reckon with why? The answer is Art Deco. These two watch designers are collaborating on a movement that is reviving the spirit of the Roaring 20’s that has the chance to recapture the consumer preferences for watches through a bold move in design. Design might be the next innovation revolution in shifting consumer preferences.
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Why There Are No Recent Revolutions in the Mechanical Watch Industry
Professors Isabelle Campo and Philipp Aerni of the University of Zurich point out in their recent book When Corporatism Leads to Corporate Governance Failure how Swatch Group hasn’t had a significant patent in recent years. Despite the calls for innovation (including my own), one has to admit that few significant inventions have changed the course of watch history in the last 120 years. This period saw two significant improvements: the automatic movement and the waterproof case, which are both aspects a consumer can see and experience. But consider a more recent significant invention: the double barrel escapement. Consumers cannot feel, see, or experience the benefits it provides. As such, it’s become a point of marketing and a selling point, but it has not allowed Omega to sweep the watch industry like when Rolex introduced the Oyster case. Most of Omega’s recent success has been due to successful marketing. While at Omega, Jean Claude Biver stated that his most memorable contribution was coining the James Bond relationship. This drastically contributed to Omega’s growth to the top two of the most desired and purchased brands in 2016. This leads to the conclusion that little of watch sales has to do with innovation, rather mostly depends on aura, image, and desirability.
Outside of brand ambassadors or market positioning, it is hard to create aura on its own. Marketing creates an image around an otherwise relatively boring watch. But a watch is art (which can also be boring), yet art stands on its own while watches have massive advertising campaigns to create the aura. Imagine if museums tried to create a new aura around an obscure nineteenth-century artist in order to outpace Van Gogh. It would be difficult. Which brings me back full circle to my point: watches have recently succeeded on marketing, but what if a watch succeeded on its own as art — an art of expression. The watch would have to be different yet appealing. Perhaps the industry has found the masters in Richard Paige and Mark Carson?
Defining Art Deco
What exactly is Art Deco? One art blog describes it as “Luxurious and splendid in their appearance, Art Deco designs marked the period of newly found optimism after the war and great depression. Although it drew its inspiration from the past art movements, one of the main features of Art Deco style was its orientation towards the future and celebration of modern ideas of progress.” More specifically, google defines it as “the predominant decorative art style of the 1920s and 1930s, characterized by precise and boldly delineated geometric shapes and strong colors, and used most notably in household objects and in architecture.” Most people in modern day associate the Great Gatsby starring Leonardo DiCaprio as being the symbol of Art Deco. It has significantly affected art, architecture, furniture, clothing, and myriad other symbols of life that we take for granted. Most notably, Art Deco inspired the Chrysler Building and Empire State Building in New York City. Culture Concept captures why Art Deco had the ability to shift consumer preferences and tastes (and I argue, it still can):
Art Deco manifested itself emotionally with great zest, color and playfulness in an age that was all about prospering. It was also about fulfilling a deeply felt need for a style that would not be threatened by change, because as it turned out it was adaptable for almost every culture on the planet. In many world cities you will still find marvellous examples of the Art Deco style lurking gloriously. It was definitely all about a hunger for life and a desire for feeling good about self.
The Next Revolution in Watch Preferences?
Richard Paige is considered to be an expert in Art Deco design. He started out making his watches (that mostly use American Pocket watch movements manufactured between 1895 and 1935) with an Art Deco flair. He originally owned an Art Deco jewelry store in San Francisco in the 1980’s before he became the famous watchmaker he is today. When I interviewed Richard, he told me his number one priority for design was that any watch he makes must “stand out across the room. Someone should be able to see your watch and know right away what it is.”
Richard, who defines himself as a “conceptual designer” challenged Mark, an industrial designer, to collaborate on a design that was Art Deco “irresistible”, and this collaborative fusion resulted in the Crash of ‘29 (named after the stockmarket crash that was the first major casualty of the Great Depression). Mark made the designs from scratch, not looking to any previous watches for inspiration. Richard then crafted the watch. They then modified the watch to create the next model: the Skyscraper, which was named after the Art Deco buildings that inspired it’s shape and design. The Crash of ‘29 & Skyscraper are bold design moves (which earned them an award in the 2016 Micro Brand Watch Awards). It captures Art Deco not only in it’s shapes and it’s curves, but in its whole concept: “fulfilling a deeply felt need for a style that would not be threatened by change.” This watch is not “in-style”, rather it is its own style and because it charts its own course, it will always be its own — just like Art Deco has never ceased to satiate the human palette, Art Deco design in watches presents an equivalent opportunity with bold moves.
The watch industry brands watches today as an identity, or craftsmanship, or a status symbol. Yet at their core, we value them as art of expression. To truly shift consumer preferences, the watch industry needs something beyond another marketing campaign, a new aura, or another meaningless mechanical modification to the movement. These don’t fundamentally change how consumers see their watch. The image around particular models of contemporary watches shifts with each new marketing campaign, making it confusing for the consumer who wants to be wearing art of expression. New mechanical movement features are generally completely unnoticeable to the consumer and require imagination to feel their presence. However, bold design moves such as Art Deco allow the watch to be physically re-imagined and felt. It captures a timeless design preference not typically associated with watches, yet makes a bold move away from the normal safety the watch industry operates within.
The Last Frontier for Mechanical Watches
Innovation is normally focused on technology, materials, or marketing. For example, Rolex brought us the ceramic bezel, Apple brought us the first mainstream-accepted smartwatch that transformed the watch back into a tool (watches used to be a tool until there were clocks everywhere, at which point they transformed to art). Innovation in watch marketing has been going on for over 140 years beginning most notably with the Waltham Watch Company in the nineteenth century, who was the first to use effective marketing to sell watches. Innovation has been continuing in that field since. But what if innovation came to the actual design of the watch? What if others made bold moves to redefine how we don art of expression using classic schools of design (such as Art Deco) that are apart from the normal round or rectangular watch? As Nike famously says “Just Do It.” Other companies have emphasized this school of design: TAG Heuer’s Monoco, the Hamilton Ventura. I think Richard and Mark are onto something. Time will tell.