September 2021 9 Min Read

Making the Case for Round and Shaped Watches

By Josh Sims

Fifty years ago this year, the motor racing film Le Mans was released, bringing with it a pioneering form of cinematic realism. Not least because its star, Steve McQueen, insisted on doing much of his own driving, but every watch fan will know what was on his wrist: the TAG Heuer Monaco. The watch would become one of a handful of pieces to enter what might be considered the canon of horological icons, but less so because McQueen wore it, and rather because of its obvious distinction: the Monaco is a square watch.

It’s very telling that so many of these icons break with the traditional form language of watches in not being round, but sit on the spectrum. From the rounded square - found in pieces such as Cartier’s Santos, 100 years old this year, or Patek Philippe’s Aquanaut - through to Cartier’s outright crazy Crash. There’s everything, from the asymmetry of Hamilton’s Ventura, which struck gold thanks to its appearance on Elvis’s wrist in ‘Blue Hawaii’ 60 years ago, through to the rectangular (Jaeger LeCoultre’s Reverso), hexagonal (Audemar Piguet’s Royal Oak), tonneau, and cushion cases in between.

One of the more recognisable shaped cases on the market today, thanks to its 90 year history.

But that, stresses Nicholas Biebuyck, heritage director for TAG Heuer, is the point: such watches are readily nameable precisely because “they’ve broken away from the circular design language that so dominates watchmaking.” With anything that breaks with convention, initially at least, it can be rejected. That Monaco? It only found itself on McQueen’s wrist because the film production couldn’t get enough of the Autavia model that they initially wanted.

“What did Heuer have plenty of at the factory? The Monaco, because it wasn’t selling very well,” laughs Biebuyuk. “The Monaco stands out because of its shape, which must have made it look like an alien spaceship landing when it was launched in 1969. But it barely survived until the model’s re-issue in 1998. It’s true that some watch shapes are harder to design – it’s hard to fill up the corners of a square watch, for example, at least in a way that looks nice. But when they work, such designs can be real catalysts for change.”

The Monaco wasn't the first watch to break the mould but it certainly paved the way for a lot more, courtesy of Hodinkee.

Yet clearly it takes a certain boldness to break with such a deep-seated convention. Of course, there are logical and historical reasons for why most watches are round: like pocket-watches before them, their round case shape echoes the movement’s main parts within; and the time readout uses hands that sweep through a circular path, easily marked out with equal spaces to delineate minutes and hours, as sundials would. That the outer edge of the case – the circumference – is, naturally, at all points equidistant from the centre makes for a built-in sense of balance too. There’s a reason why the circle has been privileged throughout humanity’s existence. It could be argued that round is, consequently, the most recognisable form for the watch, much like four wheels, one at each corner, is for the car. The round shape is also ergonomic - it sits on the wrist; it doesn’t catch on your clothing. But these are mostly historic reasons.

“I think the logic of the watch is round, and people in the watch industry tell you round accounts for an estimated 80% of the market,” says independent watch designer Eric Giroud. “But the paradox is that it’s moving away from the round that tends to create distinctive points of reference for the rest of the industry – a new rectangular watch, for example, is ‘just like a Reverso’. That suggests there’s an opportunity there - and more brands are now asking me for non-round forms. Minds are opening.”

Going against the round does have its technical challenges. Watchmaker Vianney Halter - whose Antiqua and Trio pieces both play with the round form, without, most definitely, ending up round – says that finding suppliers of parts configurable for non-round watches is hard work, and so pushes up the price of the end piece. Conversely, the case makers – for watch brands did not always make their own cases – that did push the envelope, often had to search far and wide to find a home for anything too radical.

Take, for example, the Maestro, one of the last designs from the legendary Gerald Genta – the watch designer who also gave us the Royal Oak and the Nautilus – produced by his Gerald Charles brand. Launched in 2006, this has an octagonal shape, except with the addition of a curving flourish along the bottom line. This made waterproofing the crystal at the 5 and 7 o’clock points especially taxing – which led to the first generation of the watch being rated only to a depth of 30m. The development of a special gasket has since allowed that to be upgraded to a more industry-standard 100m.

“That kind of development takes time and money,” concedes Gerald Charles’ general manager Federico Ziviani. “The demand for non-round watches is there, but it’s just not easy to make them meet that demand. Genta was a pioneer of non-round forms precisely because he thought they were that much more expressive – it was all about going beyond that ‘classic’ round representation of time. And when you find a shape that isn’t round, but which, importantly, is still balanced, it really stands out.”

The angular lines of the Royal Oak might not have been an instant hit, but is certainly now a classic.

So why aren’t there more of them? Look back to the 1960s and 1970s and there were – a lot more of them too. Manufacturers the likes of Hudson, Waltham and Lip, Lord Nelson, Lucerne and Desotos – most now defunct, but influential in their time – produced any number of atypical case shapes, often built around progressive ways of time display, from linear to mechanical digital. Trapezoid, D-shaped, bull-head – you name it, they tried it. But it’s argued that the market dynamic was different then too: the watch industry comprised of a larger number of smaller brands, producing watches in smaller quantities – selling enough to make a profit, but not needing to sell so many that risks couldn’t be taken.

“The industry today is driven by big watch groups and they have serious financial considerations first and foremost. You can’t have a flop and it not matter,” suggests Angus MacFadyen, watch collector-turned-owner of the reborn Alsta watch brand, whose Nautoscaph manages to have its cake and eat it, mounting a circular dial on the chunky rectangular cushion case. “But, speaking as a collector, once you have a few round watches, it’s not long before you’re drawn to anything that isn’t round. Such watches seem to have a romance to them in being just slightly left-field.”

“The quartz era was really the nail in the coffin for that era of experimentation and eccentricity,” adds Mitch Greenblatt, co-author of Retro Watches and an expert on watches of the ‘60s and ‘70s. “Everything started to become produced at scale, and the idea of brands making something offbeat or unusual was to risk that the market wouldn’t support it – if they’d survived the ‘70s, that is. Look to the ‘80s in contrast and it was a much more conservative time for watch design. Generally, that’s still the situation now. More interesting case shapes are there but relegated to designs from ultra-exclusive independent and budget-conscious micro-brands. There’s still experimentation, but it exists mostly on the fringes.”

Very much a product of the Quatrz Crisis, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak.

Certainly, it was a brave move to break with the convention – or the tyranny – of the round form even before the ‘quartz crisis’, which put paid to many smaller mechanical watchmakers. After the crisis, it must have seemed potentially suicidal. It’s surely no coincidence that so many of the non-round classics cited above date to pre-1980: the Reverso and Rolex’s Prince to the 1930s, when Art Deco’s rectangular forms influenced watch design; the Ventura to 1957; the outlandish Crash to 1967, and so on.

Think too of the Royal Oak, launched in 1972 – the first 2000 pieces took three years to sell. However, at the time, Audemars Piguet was making only around 5000 watches per year, so the Royal Oak was a large chunk of its output. Get it wrong and the results would have been disastrous. Get it right, however, and you have a watch that’s still a best-seller half a century later.

“The Monaco [too] was undoubtedly a risky move because it represented a massive change of direction for Heuer, even though there was some motivation to stand out from the competition with ever more striking watches,” says Biebuyuk. “When the case-maker Piquerez came to Heuer with their square case the initial reaction was ‘why the hell would we want that?’ But on reflection, there was a broader movement towards a more avant-garde design language and so it seemed right for the times. Of course, there had been square watches before, but the Monaco just went full brutalist with it.”

An early sketch from Martin Frei of what would later become the UR-103, courtesy of Hodinkee.

Indeed, Martin Frei, the designer behind Urwerk, argues that watch design goes through phases much like art does, swinging, pendulum-like, between the avant-garde and the conservative, underscored by the economic and political circumstances of the times. Perhaps newish watches the likes of Piaget’s Polo, with its four-sided crystal set inside a gently elliptical case, Bell & Ross’s BR line or – like Franck Muller before – Richard Mille’s tonneau cases are the start of a broader change to come. So weighted towards the round is the watch market that arguably Bell & Ross and Richard Mille have successfully turned their divergent shapes into brand signatures. Being bold has paid off for them. Major brands have used non-round shapes before – take a look at Zenith’s Futur or Girard Perregaux’s Casquette, as well as pieces by Rado or Jaeger-LeCoultre. They can do it again.

“There are always eventually reactions against the dominant trend, and when Urwerk launched it took me a while to realise that I could be freer with case shape, which is why our first two watches were pretty round,” he chuckles. “But art is an elite world precisely because you have to be secure to enjoy having your viewpoint shaken up.” Likewise, customers of non-round watches – and certainly of those from the high-end independent brands – can afford to break away from convention. And this art-related approach to watches – as in the art world – is still mostly apparent at the market’s edges.

The shape of any Richard Mille gives them an individuality, all of their own.

“Everybody says now that ‘watchmaking is a sculptural art’ – since the function of the mechanical watch has been superseded – but if that’s true, why are the vast majority of watches still round?” asks an outspoken Maximillian Busser, founder of one such ultra-exclusive independent watchmaker, MB&F. “The fact is that to move away from round is invariably to create a watch that’s hyper polarising, something that the industry broadly sees as aggressive and scary because ‘that’s not what a watch should look like’. Even Cartier, with a reputation for interesting shapes such as the Tank, eventually opted for the [round] Ballon Bleu. Why? Because it’s true that round sells. And because this is an industry at the moment dominated by marketeers who like safety.”

Max Busser could never be accused of being afraid to experiment with shapes in his design.

The problem with this approach, Busser adds, is that, while many of the industry’s big hitters can ride on their iconic, and increasingly historic, un-round designs – “those outliers of yesterday,” he calls them – they’re not seeding the next generation. There’s not even much experimentation with the round form, as there can be, and is, he argues, with MB&F’s latest M.A.D 1 piece, or with the Ikepod’s Marc Newson-designed Megapode. How “ballsy” was it, Busser suggests, that Apple – in creating a product of which it intended to sell not a few thousand but millions of units – decided to make its watch rectangular? Given the fact that the Apple Watch has sold in its millions suggests that perhaps consumers are not as fearful of non-round shaped timepieces after all.

Vianney Halter is not so sure. He reckons he can sell 10 round watches for every rectangular one. “The round watch is very common, and for the common people,” he jokes, adding that customers who buy into non-round tend to be converts. “The fact is that round watches are reassuring because they’re familiar, and that even makes them easier to sell on,” he laments.

Julien Schaerer, of the watch auctioneers, Antiquorum, agrees. “I reckon around 85% of my customers only buy round, perhaps just because that shape is the core essence of what a watch is for many people,” he says. “After owning so many round watches, I once bought a Reverso myself and just a few months later sold it. I just couldn’t get on with a non-round watch. They’re just very hard to get right.”

A shape that's hard to describe and even harder to forget, courtesy of Les Rhabilleurs.

So, is the consumer being persuaded to buy round watches, because that’s the bulk of what they see, or is the industry being persuaded that the bulk of its production should be round watches, because that’s what the consumer buys? It is, if you like, a circular argument. And it’s time, Martin Frei reckons, to break free of it. “Ultimately the case is just a protective skin of what’s inside, and, really, it’s not as though there’s a need for a watch to be aerodynamic,” he laughs. “So why don’t we have stranger looking watches? Round can be harmonious. It can be beautiful. It’s just that a lot of brands do watches that way – but it’s not the only way.”

We would like to thank all of those who spoke with us for this piece, including; Nicholas Biebuyck, Eric Giroud, Vianney Halter, Federico Ziviani, Angus MacFayden, Mitch Greenblatt, Martin Frei, Max Busser and Julien Schaerer.