The Art of Naming a Watch

By Josh Sims

Bruno Belamich, the co-founder and the creative director of Bell & Ross, chuckles when we ask him about the art and skill of naming a watch. “Porsche was working on a watch in the 80s and decided to put ‘PD’ on the dial,” he recalls. “Until, that is, someone pointed out that in French ‘PD’ is slang for, you know, pederast. So, they changed their minds. But it points to just how hard choosing a name for a watch can be. You can play with different prefixes and suffixes, which is how we came up with Hydromax. You try to come up with something that is easy to say, easy to sell and makes sense worldwide. If you’re not careful, you can come up with a name that’s very cool in your language and very bad in others. But really, coming up with a name is like a game.”

 

A few well-known names.

 

It’s why, after the Hydromax, Bell & Ross soon switched to using a kind of code. A Bell & Ross watch may be known, less snappily, as the BR 03-92 or the BR 05A-GR-SK-ST/SST. But Belamich argues that, akin to the policy of an Audi or an Airbus or a Martin Margiela, these suit the tenor of the brand – utilitarian, industrial. 

“Sometimes we can lose ourselves in these references and only the guys in marketing understand the logic of them all,” he chuckles. “Sure, it would be easier to give each model a more traditional name. But actually, using a code expresses what Bell & Ross is about. It actually helps us find an identity.”

 

The utilitarian coding system employed by Bell & Ross.

 

A watch is more than its name, of course: the aesthetic, the movement, the details, all come before what it’s called. But it’s hard to deny that the right name can add to a watch’s appeal. Perhaps there’s a good reason why those watches typically dubbed “iconic” all tend to have memorable names, from Omega’s Speedmaster to Rolex’s Datejust and Breitling’s Navitimer. Many such names are descriptive or suggestive of function, adding in a large dose of machismo. 

But they can also be descriptive of a watch’s shape – Louis Cartier named his curved rectangular Tank watch after seeing the then innovative weapon in action in 1917. It can describe its capability, like Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Reverso, for example, or Blancpain’s Fifty Fathoms, a technical way of saying it could be used to a depth of 300m, which was the technological limit of a deep dive in 1950. They can mark an occasion, as Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Geophysic did of 1958’s first International Geophysical Year; or nod to history, as Audemars Piguet’s octagonal Royal Oak marks the eight vessels of the Royal Navy to share that name. These are great designs, but they also have great names – that’s no coincidence, surely?

 

An early advert for the Reverso detailing the revolutionary feature, courtesy of Jaeger-LeCoultre.

 

“The Chronomat took its name from combining ‘chronograph’ and ‘mathematics’. The Superocean Slow Motion was a watch that wasn’t without its challenges to create but expressed the fact that its central chronograph hand – which normally rotates around the dial in one minute – would rotate in one hour, so that divers could use this hand and the minute track to time the duration of the dives,” says Breitling’s chief marketing officer, Tim Sayler. “Our watches are like people, and they need a name that reflects their personalities. The perfect watch name needs to sound good and, of course, be right for the brand. It has to be memorable. But the right name also has to reflect the product in terms of story-telling.”

 

“You try to come up with something that is easy to say, easy to sell and makes sense worldwide…”

 

Indeed, that’s the driving motivation behind any watch name: to be evocative, to add to its emotional appeal. One might well argue, as does Zenith’s product and heritage director Romain Marietta, that selling into a global market has meant watch names have, over recent decades, lost some of their sparkle. When, he argues, the watch industry was more abundant with independent makers, more localised, and unsuspecting that it may become the post-quartz, brand-led, group-organised global giant it is today, it was ready to be more experimental in names as in style. This was the era of Caravelle’s Bullion, Amida’s Digitrend, Hamiton’s Ventura and Wittnauer’s Futurama, of Desotos’ Bullhead Cuffbuster and Rado’s Golden Horse. That’s not a name easily forgotten.

 

The ever-recognisable Speedmaster signature.

 

“Inevitably, the things we have to think about now when naming a watch mean many watch names chosen by the industry over more recent years can sound a little dull in comparison,” he concedes. “We could come up with much cooler alternatives to the ones used but often they don’t work for some reason [of international sales and marketing]”.

That lack of cool today is also, in part, because the kind of in-depth analysis made by, among others, the car industry – employing creative agencies that specialise in product naming, running the options through focus groups and analysing the feedback – is anathema in the watch industry. In contrast, it still typically takes a charmingly amateurish approach to naming its watches, tending more to stumble over its names. Jaeger LeCoultre’s Polaris, for instance, may now be regarded as one of its signature models, but it was launched, in 1968, using only the company’s then standard coding. Unromantically, it was called the E859. It took the US sales agent to point out that this really wasn’t saying anything at all, and to consequently give the watch a name that nodded both to the north star – ideal for an adventurer’s watch – and also to the decidedly dangerous, and perhaps a little adventurous, nuclear missile system launched by the US six years previously.

 

Breitling doing a good job of showing where the Navitimer name came from, courtesy of Breitling.

 

At Zenith, names are chosen by a committee of senior managers including the CEO and departmental heads. Those names can come from anywhere, and the group takes its time to agree on one – eventually. Some watches in the 2021 product line-up still don’t have a name yet. At Breitling, a large number of employees brainstorm for watch names and maybe one comes to the surface, inspired by the look of the piece in question. On other occasions, a project gets given an internal nickname – just to make talking about it easier – and the name just sticks. “When we realise that everyone is using this nickname to describe the watch, we can be confident that customers will also find it easy to remember and appropriate for the product, which is a good sign,” reckons Sayler. 

Get a watch name right, of course, and it can become a powerful and extremely valuable brand in its own right, allowing a company to dominate a category, at least in the public imagination – arguably Submariner and Oyster are both a match for the Rolex name itself. Get it wrong – The Hamilton Jazzmaster? Doesn’t the Glycine Incasore sound more like a medical complaint? – and it must hurt sales at least a little.

 

A classically descriptive and memorable name from Rolex.

 

However, in fairness, the naming of a product is a black art, as Jeremy Miller, brand naming consultant and author of Sticky Branding puts it. “So many watch names end up being clichéd because companies with long histories especially, tend to fall into conventional processes when it comes to names or because their ethos is so much about craft, about making things, that naming becomes an after-thought, something they’re not that versed in and the very last thing they get around too. And how can a watch name stand out when so many makers take the same line?”

The challenge is made greater still by the fact that, as he puts it, “there’s now a kind of naming drought, in which every noun has been trademarked or used in a domain name. Perhaps that drought will force more creativity. Or the use of quirky, odd names that might be rejected by a committee, but which can still work well. In the meantime, the problem is not so much coming up with a great name, but a great available one.”

 

Before it was known as “The Moon Watch”, courtesy of Ad Patina.

 

It’s why names get re-used. Zenith first used the Defy name, for example, in the 1960s, and then in 2009, and again in 2017 – not simply to extend an ancestral line of like watches, so as much as because Defy is a name Zenith owns. Likewise, other brands with sufficient history own – legally or effectively, through extensive usage – their own selection of names too. Furthermore, when good names are now hard to find, returning to the tried and tested in some variation becomes commonplace. When Roger Dubuis created a 36mm edition of its Excalibur line, naming the watch the Excalibur 36, it may have lacked imagination, but it no doubt saved a lot of work. Compare that, as Barbara Hans, chief marketing officer of A. Lange & Söhne stresses, with the effort of securing property rights of a new name in all 60 countries where its watches are sold. 

 

While they may not name their watches Bell & Ross are keen to position them in what they see as their natural surroundings, courtesy of Bell & Ross.

 

“In the beginning, we considered the name ‘Semper’ for the Zeitwerk, for example, which was a reference to Dresden’s Semper Opera, which houses the famous digital five-minute stage clock built with the assistance of Ferdinand Adolph Lange. But in the end, the idea was rejected because of conflicting property rights,” she explains. “Names are important though. For us they convey a certain ‘Germanness’. And I’m convinced customers care about the names of the watches they choose. After all, the purchase of a watch is a highly emotional matter, and I believe it’s useful when the object of desire imparts more than just a reference number.”

And yet that’s the route some manufacturers take in order to dodge the issue altogether. Patek Philippe, for example, may be one of the world’s most esteemed makers, but stops short at naming its creations, using a reference number only. Seiko does the same, though does get as far as starting all of its Grand Seiko calibers with the number nine, a lucky digit in Japan. 

 

It’s hard to think of a name with a clearer connection than the Daytona, courtesy of Ad Patina.

 

Maybe this is also why watch names – take the mouthful that is the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona “Paul Newman”, for a famed example – can seem to be as often bestowed by collectors as they are by makers. It’s a process made more feasible by the interaction of collectors online, but often results in the kind of inventive, affectionate monikers that, arguably, the industry itself misses. Unofficially, thanks to its fans, Seiko now has the Monster, the Turtle, the Skyflake, the Arnie – after Arnold Schwarzenegger wore the model in a film – and, best of all, the Tuna Can.

 

“There’s now a kind of naming drought, in which every noun has been trademarked or used in a domain name. Perhaps that drought will force more creativity…”

 

Just how much better is the Tuna Can than the S23631? How much more effective is that in firing the imagination, maybe even in getting you to reach for your wallet? Indeed, it’s a name which, once heard, cannot be disassociated from the look of the watch. It’s almost a name to take us back to the golden era of the likes of the Golden Horse.


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