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The Most Influential Watch Designers You’ve Never Heard Of

Vacheron Constantin 222 Ref. 11990

We’re all familiar with famous architects, directors, and fashion designers like Tom Ford creating hot fits. And while we know that the best vintage Ferraris were designed by Pininfarina, what about the watches we love? Who are the watch designers creating these works of art and mechanics on our wrists? Except for the late Mr. Genta, you might not know their names, as for many years the watch industry kept its cards pretty close to its chest.

When producing the perfect watch, good design goes far beyond Instagram’s obsession with Octagons and porthole inspiration. Many of the greats are still working today, including big hitters like Bulgari’s Fabrizio Buonamassa Stigliani. But this is about the names that don’t get dropped, a who’s who of the those designers whose influence too often goes under the horological radar.

Jorg Hysek

Jorg Hysek

German-born Jorg’s heyday was at a time when industrial designers were part of the company wallpaper, rather than portrayed in the sales literature. Hysek had a finger (or should that be a pencil?) in every horological pie, including work for Cartier, Seiko, Rolex, and many more. But his oeuvre was always the Vacheron Constantin 222 back in 1977.

Some of us remember the days before the bracelet-grail hype when you could find one for five grand. Today a battered 34mm automatic is £25K, partly thanks to Vacheron’s shrewd 2022 Historiques re-issue. Jorg Hysek is still working today, though focusing increasingly on art for delightful art’s sake, visible on his website.

Vacheron Constantin 222 Ref. 11990

Vacheron Constantin 222 Ref. 11990

Vacheron Constantin Historiques 222

Vacheron Constantin Historiques 222

Many a timepiece has languished in the shadow of Genta grails, like the Nautilus. But today the hotly contested arena of integrated bracelets includes a recently revived Jorg Hysek creation. As the precursor to the Vacheron Constantin Overseas, many still believe the 222 to be the work of Genta. With its sleek case, scalloped bezel, and rhomboid bracelet links it’s back in the spotlight, and we’re still hoping for a steel version.

To be honest, we were surprised at the studied restraint of Vacheron not releasing a re-issue of its lesser-known sports grail. The market for integrated-bracelets is scorching hot, and we do find it a near-perfect design. Last year’s reissue (which we reviewed here) in 18K full gold was a power move by what is the oldest watch manufacturer still operating under its own name.

Richard Habring

IWC 3711 Doppelchronograph 1992

IWC Doppelchronograph Ref. 3711 (1992)

Richard Habring is the quietly spoken movement mastermind you will not recognise unless you’re a collector with a penchant for IWCs. This is where Habring created the world’s first affordable split-second chronograph 31 years ago. He did it through a stroke of genius re-working the everyman-calibre Valjoux 7750. The chronograph is still one of the most complex complications bar a QP or Sonnerie, and the fascination remains.

Richard Habring's IWC-Ref. 3712 Unique Prototype

Richard Habring’s personal Portugieser ref. 3712 prototype was the first IWC model based on the ETA Valjoux 7750, image credit: Phillips.

ETA’s Valjoux 7750 – the most widely used, if not loved, Swiss chronograph movement. IWC valued Habring’s calibre enough to make the decision to put Habring’s innovative split-seconds chronograph into the brand’s Portugieser model, Pilot Doppelchronograph, and the now neo-vintage Da Vinci.

Habring’s movement was also the base of the Il Destriero Scafusia, one of the most complicated series-produced watches. IWC’s patent ran out about a decade ago, so today you can get a bespoke version of Richard’s famed calibre built and signed-off by the man himself.

Richard Habring Watch Designer

Together with his wife Maria Kristina, Richard started their eponymous brand Habring² (see?) in 2004. Their small Austrian atelier offers off-the-shelf and completely bespoke wristwear, with a deep emphasis on in-house production. One of their latest offerings is the sweet-sized Doppel 38, their first 38.5mm-sized watch with the iconic movement, their version being the Calibre A11R_H1.

Hajime Asaoka

Hajime Asaoka
Hajime Asaoka 2013 Tsunami

Hajime Asaoka Tsunami (2013), image credit: Phillips

Art Deco is a rarer theme than you’d think, despite Cartier’s massive resurgence with their Tank. Hajime Asaoka however has taken the elegant style from the early part of last century and made it his own, blending it with a semi-industrial monochrome vibe and obsessive detail. This year the secret is out, with a Hajime Asaoka Tsunami 2013 going for over six times its reserve at a Phillips auction.

Hajime Asaoka Tourbillon Noir

Hajime Asaoka Tourbillon Noir

It is all the more impressive when we know Asaoka to be a self-taught watch designer, starting in 1992 as a designer with a focus on furniture and electronic appliances. Hajime Asaoka taught himself watchmaking through George Daniel’s book Watchmaking, and between 2005 and ‘07 he designed his second watch, which had a Tourbillon. After producing three prototypes, his first sale was as recent as 2011, with the Tourbillon 1.

Kurono Tokyo Chronograph 3 HISUI

Kurono Tokyo Chronograph 3 Hisui

With his accessible brand Kurono Tokyo, Hajime Asaoka has made his signature design cues affordable, with hand-crafted small-cased wristwear. New owners are welcomed as members of a small, exclusive club, but we’re not talking VIP lounge vibes. Imagine the warm atmosphere of a traditional Machiya townhouse with tatami mats and a 150-year-old Bonsai tree outside and you’ll get it.

Emmanuel Gueit

Emmanuel Gueit
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore 20th Anniversary edition

Emmanuel Gueit’s personal Royal Oak Offshore, image credit: Phillips

We all know Gerald Genta designed the Nautilus and the Royal Oak, right, so where does Emmanuel Gueit fit into this octagonal puzzle? Love it or hate it, but there’s no denying the big waves caused by the Royal Oak Offshore. The responsibility was remarkably given to 22-year-old Gueit to create the 42mm bold version of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak 20th Anniversary edition.

It became an outsized celebration of the magic octagonal-bezel grail and revamped Audemar Piguet’s image. Big, brawny luxury brands and latter-day hits like the Big Bang might never have seen the light of day if not for Gueit sending the Royal Oak for a stay at his virtual boot camp. Today we can recognise the importance of the RO’s big brother opening a new door to the luxury sports casual-crowd sporting £4K Dior Air Jordans.

Rolex Cellini 50505

Rolex Cellini 50505

But while skeptical at first, devoted traditionalist fans of the slimmer Royal Oak took to the Offshore, as its sporty alibi enabled a brand loyalty many brands would pay good money for. Gueit is one of many designers from the quiet days of the nineties and noughties, before the massive resurgence of Genta.

With a huge portfolio to his name that includes Piaget, Harry Winston, Hermès, and Zenith, it reads like the who’s who of horology. But Emmanuel isn’t all about the big money flex. In fact, he designed the very antithesis of the brawny Offshore, the quietly spoken revamped Rolex Cellini back in 2014.

Eric Giroud

Eric Giroud

At Baselworld 10 years ago, one designer stood out in the crowd. Eric Giroud’s designs were in eight different brand booths with 10 designs. And we don’t even know if that was his peak. Eric is an award-winning designer known for such avant-garde goodness as the sleek hypercar-inspired MB&F HM8 Mark 2.

With his signature bold-framed specs, he has had a hand in numerous designs over the years, including many MB&Fs. He’s also been associated with Max Büsser’s mad (M.A.D actually) lab of horology since its inception and the 2006 HM1.

MB&F LMX

MB&F LMX

Known as the secret weapon of many Swiss watch brands, Eric has penned designs that cover all tiers, while usually wearing a fave seventies Carrera ref. 1158CHN. As we have seen before, some of the best designs in the watch world come from non-product designers, as is the case with Giroud who opened his architecture practice in 1989, only later being drawn into the world of graphic design and watches.

Swarovski Crystallium

Swarovski Crystallium

You’ll find his creative output in watches from Tissot to Vacheron Constantin, with big-budget indies including Badollet, MCT and Harry Winston showing off his vast spectre of style. Eric Giroud also won the coveted Red Dot award in 2013 with the mad Swarovski Crystallium.

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About the author

Thor Svaboe

As the sole Norwegian who doesn’t like snow or climbing mountains, Thor has honed his florid writing skills at Time + Tide, and is now an editor at Fratello Watches. This Viking would fearlessly go into battle under the banner of independent watchmaking, and his End Game watch would be the piece unique Greubel Forsey Hand Made 1.

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