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Tips for Designing a Great Watch from the Experts at Grand Seiko, Bulgari and More!

Gerald Genta Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Concept Drawing Original Sketch

Gerald Genta’s original Audemars Piguet Royal Oak sketch

We’ve all thought about it at one point or another. The story of a collector failing to find the watch of their dreams and going on to create it is a Kickstarter archetype, enough that moonlighting as a watch designer is worryingly tempting. All it takes is a good supplier, a website, and most importantly, a great watch.

Well, the first two are pretty simple. The latter though? Where does one actually start creating a watch? Sure, you might have the germ of an idea, be that something you’d like to buy yourself or a hole in the market ripe for exploitation, but how do you turn that into a fully realised idea? We caught up with some heavy hitters in the watch industry for a few tips.

Now, a blank page is a broad remit, so it’s worth deciding what kind of watch you want to create. Diving watches need to be relatively rugged and much larger than dress watches, while dress watches tend to be smaller and more delicate. Want to tap into the sports luxe zeitgeist? You’ll need industrial facets and an integrated bracelet. It’s worth looking at the classics in whatever field you want to create – the IWC MkXX or Breguet Type 20 for pilots pieces, the Nautilus or Royal Oak for 70s luxury steel, the Submariner or Fifty Fathoms for divers. Only for inspiration mind you. I doubt anyone has a particular desire to build a… let’s say ‘homage’.

Judith Borowski NOMOS Glashutte Head of Design

NOMOS Glashutte Head of Design Judith Borowski

There is one aspect though that defines far more of what you can do than you might expect: the calibre. “The movement determines not only the diameter and volume of the watch,” explains NOMOS Glashütte’s Head of Design, Judith Borowski, “but also what will appear on the dial: Date, world time display, power reserve display, and three or, sometimes, two hands. The case is tailored to the movement by our designers, with the movement filling the case as much as possible.”

Grand Seiko

Grand Seiko Evolution 9

Then of course, you have to think of who you’re designing the watch for. No timepiece is created in a vacuum and even brands that have been relatively static in their design language are starting to embrace new ways of designing watches. Take Grand Seiko’s Evolution 9 collection, for example. It looks more like a Prospex offshoot, but with the high watchmaking they’re known for.

Kiyotaka Sakai Grand Seiko Designer

Grand Seiko Evolution 9 designer Kiyotaka Sakai

‘The previous Grand Seiko models mainly used dressy mirror surfaces,” explains Grand Seiko designer, Kiyotaka Sakai, “as they were meant to be worn in a suit. Considering work style in recent years, with many who wear sneakers to work, the whole world is becoming sporty. With such trends, I created the Evolution 9 case with a more hairline finish, which fits both on and off style.”

Perhaps one of the biggest factors that feeds into your initial idea pool though is one that no designer really wants to think about: price. Do you want to be an accessible alternative to a luxury timepiece, or are you facing the other direction and aiming higher than Seth Rogan on a Sunday night? Well, if the latter, then price is no object. For accessibility, nobody does it better than microbrands.

Studio Underd0g Watermel0n
Studio Underd0g Watermel0n

Studio Underd0g Watermel0n

As Studio Underd0g founder (and Head of Design and Marketing Manager) Rich Benc says, “good design can be found at any price point. The same could be said for bad design too! With the way communication technology has evolved in the past decade, new and agile players are starting to innovate at a much faster rate – and lower price point – when compared with brands that have been around for decades. Of course, to be accessible means there may be certain limitations when it comes to materials and techniques. You won’t find an accessible platinum cased, tourbillon watch featuring hand-cranked guilloche dial anytime soon!”

Fabrizio Buonamassa Stigliani (Creative Director of Bulgari)

Creative Director of Bulgari Fabrizio Buonamassa Stigliani

A lower price point often means a cheaper movement – Japanese instead of Swiss, let’s say – and lighter finishing across the board. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As Bulgari’s Fabrizio Buonamassa says: “What you often see in Italian design and industrial design history is to turn a constraint into an opportunity.” In that case he was discussing the QR code barrel of the Octo Finissimo Ultra, but it’s a way of thinking that every would-be designer should adopt, be that case shape or dial layout.

Original Bulgari Octo Finissimo Ultra Sketch
Bulgari Octo Finissimo Ultra

Bulgari Octo Finissimo Ultra

Speaking of dials, despite one of the funkiest, most idiosyncratic dials around in his price point, Studio Underd0g’s approach to dials is oddly traditional: “I find that the approach for dial design resembles that of the ancient Chinese art of Feng Shui (which aims to achieve harmony and balance in an environment – typically associated with interior design). It’s also very important to realise that even though most dials are flat, they are still a three-dimensional component, which cannot be designed in isolation.”

NOMOS Glashütte Watch Sketch

Despite having a completely different aesthetic, veering only slightly from their Bauhaus roots, NOMOS Glashütte has a similar approach: “We attach great value to good legibility, clarity and understatement”, explains Borowski. “Every element is necessary. This gives the dial the strength it needs to be appealing in the long run. It is therefore always reduced to the essentials – without being minimalist at its core.”

So, no matter what you’re hoping to achieve on your watch face, less is more. After all, at its most fundamental sate, a watch is an instrument and needs to be readable. There’s also limited space to work with, so being careful with how you use it is, as pretty much every brand we spoke to mentioned, a careful balancing act.

What you actually include tends to be thematic – a tachymeter for a racing watch, the various timezones of a worldtimer – and that in turn is largely dictated by the movement. But one of the greatest balancing acts on any dial is the most often overlooked: the shape of the numerals and indexes.

Hermès
Hermès

If you’re going for the retro diving or military angle, a sandwich dial goes a long way to evoking it. Pure minimalism might call for hour markers and not much else. But if there’s one brand which, above all others, nail its typography, it’s Hermes – and that’s because it’s something that they think about from the very beginning.

“Typography is an integral part of our creative process since the beginning of the project,” explains Philippe Delhotal, Horological Creative Director at Hermès. “When we imagine the dial, we also imagine how will be the numerals dressing it up. It must be well visible but must remain discreet at the same time. Typography has the power to convey emotions, echoing the overall design of the watch and, very often, the shape of the case. They are all made-to-measure at Hermès.”

About the author

Sam Kessler

Legend has it that Sam’s first word was ‘escapement’ and, while he might have started that legend himself, he’s been in the watch world long enough that it makes little difference. As the editor of Oracle Time, he’s our leading man for all things horological – even if he does love yellow dials to a worrying degree. Owns a Pogue; doesn’t own an Oyster Perpetual. Yet.

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