Iconic Watch Designers That Changed History

This is Article 3 of a 4-part series on Design & Innovation. Rolex Submariner. Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. Patek Philippe Nautilus. Heuer Monaco. Hublot Big Bang. Hamilton Ventura. Gerald Genta. Jean Claude Biver. These names all share a special bond that few others deserve to be associated with. These people or companies/designs took risks to make something new, something bold. Yet, despite great examples, very few watches or designers today introduce bold new watch designs that are a risk to any watch company.

In preparation for this article, I interviewed luxury jewelry designer Amir Karimpour, founder of Vellere, a luxury jewelry company known for its bold design moves. He was educated in design through multiple world-renowned design programs at the Pratt Institute, Yale School of Architecture, and the Harvard School of Design. I asked Amir to react to the concept of that innovation in the watch industry is focused on material science or in-house movements and he revealed something fascinating to me: the design world has already recognized these are fads of the past and already focusing on aesthetics instead! He told me that designers already realize the material and technology fad has passed and are now focusing efforts on aesthetic design, which is more about a reliable human instinct — feeling. Luxury design is all about convincing someone to pay more for an object because they connect with it through feeling. He said:

Feeling comes down to design. Take the typical car – nowadays, you buy a new car primarily because of a new body, not necessarily because of any new drastic engine change or any new technology (Bluetooth hasn’t changed in 5+ years, navigation systems are standard on our phones). Today you buy a new BMW  because the body looks sleek and the design seems contemporary, not because the engine is 10 times more efficient or because it has an epic navigation or entertainment system that last year’s model didn’t have.

Designs Today Are All About Safety

Watch companies today (for the most part) make something safe, and then all of the other brands take the proven classics of competitors (that are also safe sellers) and make their own. They add a little color here, move the position of those dials there. But at the end of the day, we still have a 3-sub-dial chronograph or a rotating bezel dive watch. While Rolex was the first to make the iconic look, just about every company produces something strikingly similar. Many of these other dive watches are well respected by collectors, and some own each of them. However, my point is that apart from Rolex, the rest of these watches replicate a known sure-seller and are known as the “one that looks like a Rolex Submariner”.

Take a look at Baume & Mercier’s new dive watch collection just released this week at SIHH. Great looking watches but not significantly different from other dive watch collections. The black, orange, and white color scheme is already used by Omega in the Speedmaster Planet Ocean collection and has been for years. Ceramic rotating bezels are used on just about every dive watch these days. What customer value proposition does Baume & Mercier offer over other similar products? Very good looking watches, but little differentiation.



Source: Hodinkee.com

This is a safe move by Baume and Mercier because dive watches sell, but will never shift consumer preferences to create an inflection point for a company’s growth or cause consumers to eventually label a watch an icon. This is why micro brand watch companies are more likely to shift consumers preferences than any major company — because they have nothing to lose and entrepreneurs are willing to take risks. Yet, many of the watches we view as cult classics today were unique for one reason or another. Today, watch consumers are in search of new icons, for something different that captures their imagination.

What They Really Need To Be Is Bold

Being bold is not safe. Amir said “the biggest danger I believe in being bold is alienating the customer. You don’t want to be so bold and “foreign” that they feel like they can’t pull a certain look off, or that they believe you are an alien they cannot communicate with.”

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My previous article explained why the whole focus on “new scientific materials innovation” and in-house movements are all short term marketing gimmicks and not real innovation. In reality, neither of these will lead a consumer to dramatically shift their preferences. Since the watch as a tool was solidified over 140 years ago with the ability to mechanically tell time within 1 second/day, not many improvements can be made to the mechanical movement. Material science is neat but provides little lasting advantage for the inventing company as others replicate it and it becomes industry standard. This leaves design as the remaining vestige; it has shifted consumer preferences many times before (as I will show) and might be the last hope for watch producers today. Sure, other companies can copy designs, but few do initially when it is risky, and this is where icons are born. A few to note about these icons:

-They weren’t always blockbusters from the moment of release (though a few were)

-They brought something different than already existed

-They created a unique identity for the wearer

-They unintentionally came to define the brand

The People:

Gerald Genta – Mr. Genta is perhaps the most celebrated visionary for watch design of all time. He brought us the Patek Philippe Nautilus and his crowning achievement, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. Both of these bold designs were “weird” to say the least when they were introduced. The AP Royal Oak didn’t even take off. The Royal Oak was iconoclast (at the time) for a few reasons: it was designed to be worn for all occasions, it would be made of stainless steel, it showed much of the watch hardware that wasn’t supposed to be seen, it had sharp angles in an era of smooth curves, and it’s bracelet was completely integrated. Mr. Genta designed it in one night under pressure from AP’s Managing Director Georges Golay, who needed something bold and new to show at the Basel Fair the next day. Looking back, Mr. Genta said “he himself would never have accepted such a watch because it denatured the Audemars Piguet spirit” according to the official history of the Royal Oak (yes, it has it’s own official history). In addition, the company notes “a steel sports watch went completely against everything that had been created up until then and did not match the brand’s overall image.” In fact, the company viewed the Royal Oak as a “minor product” for years to come. (Official history is available in hard copy at AP boutiques).

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak with Black Dial in stainless steel 15200

No one looked at the Royal Oak in 1972 and said “this is the next icon.” Rather, few people bought it — high price, bold design, counter-culture to anything out there. While Mr. Genta is owed credit, the AP management that said ‘give us something bold and new’ deserve their credit too. They recognized they needed something different than the status quo. Instead, they needed something that would shift consumer preferences and they got what they asked for, though not right away.

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak

Do we have any management and design teams looking to these counter-cultural methods and designs? Are companies willing to make something that goes against the brand image? To create something that risks damaging the brand? I know of at least one person (more of a legend) in the watch world today who has the ideas of Genta and the vision of AP’s Management — Jean Claude Biver.

Jean Claude Biver – Mr. Biver is the current CEO of TAG Heuer and the president of LVMH’s watches division. However, he is also the design genius of his day. First, he promotes a work environment that is designed to find the next bold design. He is known for rewarding failure as long as designers are trying to “be first; be different; be unique.” He gets it, so much so that Harvard Business School has an MBA case study devoted to him.


HBS has a case study devoted to Jean Claude Biver (Author’s Photo)

Mr. Biver said “People think you can succeed without making mistakes, but the failure is the step to get to success. You need failure, you need challenges, and you need to be an entrepreneur… We must have the courage to be wrong, the courage to fail and the courage to make a mistake. Just be careful never to repeat the mistake twice because the mistake is there for you to learn. If you repeat the same mistake that means you didn’t learn.”


Source: hublot.com as shown in Dr. Peter Stojanov’s article

He is responsible for the Big Bang at Hublot, where he completely re-imagined how we see the watch and he understood that people don’t wear a watch to tell time. He used materials not typically associated with watches such as carbon (which is common now). He created a watch that was counter-cultural and strictly designed to not be a visible timekeeper, rather an homage to contemporary design, especially with the Bigger Bang All Black.


By World Economic Forum – Flickr: Jean-Claude Biver – World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2012, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18192406

As Dr. Peter Stojanov said “The All Black is functionally useless, totally illegible, under performing in every way as a keeper of time, and yet it commands retail prices in the tens of thousands of Swiss Francs. It can be beaten in its most basic function, namely, that of telling the time, by a plastic cased SWATCH watch with a retail price of CHF 50.”  Mr. Biver has made bold moves throughout his career, and is likely the reason why TAG Heuer and LVMH has the most potential to invent the next bold iconic design.

Stay tuned for the next article where I’ll pick up where I am leaving off. I’ll cover the watches that unintentionally became icons through bold design for their look (aesthetic) or as a tool (technical mastery). To Be Continued….

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I have a passion for watches and am a collector of luxury watches. I write opinion-based articles that try to bring the business lens to my writing to provide readers with a view of the business, marketing, and strategies of the watch industry companies I look into. In addition to Watch Ponder, I do speaking, freelance writing, and publish in other watch blogs and magazines. I do this as a hobby and because of my passion for watches. I am also a member of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors.

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