Watch design is a subject of great discussion and debate among collectors, who love to over-analyse each minute detail of a case or dial. The real challenge, these days, is designing something both aesthetically pleasing, while not resembling anything else too closely; for fear of catching flack from the previously mentioned eagle-eyed enthusiasts. One designer who has made a name for himself designing the original and the wonderful, alongside traditionally tasteful offerings, is Eric Giroud. We flew to Geneva to spend the afternoon with Eric, to discuss all things design and horology.
Let’s begin with the basics. Tell us a little about how you found yourself working in the watch industry?
It was almost by chance, as I used to work at an agency designing all sorts of objects, furniture, electronic equipment, and one day we received a watch project. I found it intriguing, because it was just so unknown to me, like, where to start, where to end.
And you ended-up working on that project?
Yes, and really enjoying it. It created a lasting bond between myself and the individual who delivered the brief, as we hadn’t really become familiar, when I was designing other objects for him. Through this project, I discovered an area, where there are passionate people with rich ideas and dreams. It very much appealed to me.
Who were you designing for in the beginning?
Brands like Mido and Tissot. I learnt a lot, working with both brands.
Well they would start me off designing dials. Single components. It was a gradual process to gain their trust.
You’ve now worked for some very high-profile brands like, Vacheron Constantin and MB&F, to name but two. Among all the projects you’ve worked on, which has given you the most personal and professional satisfaction?
[laughs] That’s a very good question. In my line of work, there is the length of a project, and then there’s the object itself. There are projects which can be enjoyable to work on, with great objects at the end, and that would be a 100% success. For example, the Harry Winston Opus 9 was very interesting to work on, as I was surrounded by very passionate people, resulting in a beautiful product.
Do you always know where the product is going to end up design-wise?
Not necessarily, there are some projects that have left a lasting impression on me which I didn’t initially know, where they would lead. So the Legacy Machine for MB&F, for example, was the first round-cased watch that we designed with Max Busser, and this was not an easy project for either party.
It was difficult to make a round watch that suited the aesthetics of MB&F. I think one of the nicest is the LM101, with the asymmetrical dial, because of its simplicity and openness. It pays homage to classical watchmaking.
"Sometimes I don’t necessarily agree with the approach, and will always speak up. I never just say "I love that" for the sake of it."
Do you have a typical design process, or is it always different?
Each brand is different. I have my ways of working, but that isn’t always how it goes. Max at MB&F, for example, has a lot of ideas. He would come up with a first draft, which we would talk about and develop. I would then go away to do some drawings, bring them back in, and we would talk some more. Sometimes I don’t necessarily agree with the approach, and will always speak up. I never just say "I love that" for the sake of it.
What would the next steps be like?
When we have an idea together and sketched, the whole team would discuss it around a table. There’s a lot to be thought about, from waterproofing, to techniques and the mechanics. With some brands, there’s an expectation that I bring the idea to the table from Day One. They would say something like, “we want to do a watch like so and so”, and you have to come up with some ideas to fulfil their rough brief. It's a question of exchanging ideas with the different specialists around the table, to work-out the best version of the project. It's the adventure of the project that's fantastic and exciting.
Which approach do you prefer?
I don’t really have a preference, to be honest. The most important thing for me is not the brand or the way of working, but the people involved. There has to be an atmosphere of trust. Some people are afraid to reveal their ideas, or claim not to have any big ideas, but when you start digging at them, some amazing ideas come out. It’s like they wait for me to make my move first, before playing their card. The key thing before starting to design is to really understand every aspect of what the project might involve.
"Some people are afraid to reveal their ideas, or claim not to have any big ideas, but when you start digging at them, some amazing ideas come out. It’s like they wait for me to make my move first, before playing their card."
How do you find working with standard movements? Does the layout often dictate the design possibilities?
It really depends on the calibre in questions, because in some cases, the calibre doesn’t yet exist. This is great, because you can design in a vacuum, you can choose how the time should be displayed in a very unique way. In other cases, the mechanical specs are based around an off-the-peg' calibre, which can be challenging. It's a very different approach around a project, that really focuses on the aesthetics of the case and not at all on the mechanics of the watch.
What kind of problems would you face there?
Well, a brand might have aspirations of making a very thin-profiled watch, but the movement they have to use is just too thick to allow it. Sometimes they will talk about chronograph counters that should be nicely spaced in a large case, but the movement is designed for 38mm and we might be working on a 45mm watch, so that creates a big limitation, in that, without designing a new movement, the desired look cannot be achieved. There are two different schools, tailoring the case and dial to the movement or designing from scratch. Two completely different approaches, but two different types of brand equally.
How do you feel about watch designs these days, are they getting better or worse, in your opinion?
That’s another good question [laughs]. It’s a difficult question to answer because there are brands which, if they don’t create something new with each model, they’ll lose clients. These types of brands have very loyal followings, because they get noticed. They design beautiful things, irrespective of trends and styles, that’s the spirit of leaders and followers. Leaders do well. If I look at a brand like Omega, for example, they create fantastic and contemporary design. A lot of brands fall into the trap of vintage design, but neglecting to keep the allure of a contemporary feel. Though, there are complexities to taking risks for big brands. I mean, who would have thought that Daniel Wellington would have sold as many watches as they have? No one. It’s a simple and fantastic design. Calvin Klein were doing the same thing a few years back, simple designs that sell incredibly well.
Are there any designers that you’re particularly fond of?
Yes, many. I admire Eddy Schopfer because he made some beautiful designs for Tag Heuer and Ebel back in the 1980s, I find his work very interesting. Equally, Gianni Bulgari, for his magnificent work at the heart of the Maison Bulgari in the 1970s and 80s.
Aren’t you related to the Heuer family?
Yes, I am. Jack Heuer is the uncle of my wife.
Is vintage Heuer something that you are interested in?
Personally, I’m not such a huge fan of vintage, but I certainly find it fun to learn about watches that I’ve never seen before, particularly with Omega. It’s astounding just how many watches they’ve created in their history. A lot of these brands are tapping into their vintage designs more and more, like Tudor for example. I don’t especially like wearing ‘used’ watches that have belonged to other people. For me, a watch is so personal, that it makes me feel uncomfortable if I don’t know who has worn it before me. I do wear some vintage Heuer occasionally, because they belong to the family, but I wouldn’t go out and buy a vintage watch, I think these things should be handed down as heirlooms.
So are you not such a fan of vintage-inspired designs on modern pieces?
Well, in some cases, there are inspirations and interpretations that are tastefully done. This might start with a vintage watch, but it evolves into something else. There are examples that are clearly very inspired by great vintage designs from the past. Some better than others, but there you go.
So the new MB&F was just released, did you work on that?
Yes, I worked on rearranging the dials. The DNA was already there for this piece, so there were just a few things to be done. The bridge for the balance wheel on the dial was slimmed down and much softer in appearance. I worked on the tiny counters as well; it’s basically micro-surgery with a much more subtle approach, to finally achieve a watch that's truly "Très belle!".
It must be quite satisfying…
[laughs] It’s good fun. I think the whole ensemble was really successful and harmonious, calm and peaceful.
What are you wearing today, by the way?
I’m wearing my F.P. Journe Octa Reserve De Marche.
I really admire François-Paul’s work. it’s not a ‘designers watch’ as such, but I think he has a very sharp eye for graphic design when it comes to his dials. He’s an excellent designer with a natural feel for making the different elements appear balanced. I’m interested in both his watchmaking and his design equally. It’s truly beautiful, what he does.
Please visit Eric Giroud's website by clicking here.