Watch Design – What Does it Take?

Gerald Genta watch design sketch for Royal OakDesign is an all-encompassing field. It influences and determines what we see and what we make. Some underlying characteristics are similar through all applications. One in particular: good design “happens.” It’s not influenced by time. Good design is a Eureka moment applied to a shape. It can and can’t be rushed. Here’s a famous tale of watch design that illustrates the point . . .

Royal Oak ad

The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak is one of the most groundbreaking timepieces in history. Not for its technical characteristics, which were – and are – pretty plain. The importance of the RO stems from its disruptive watch design.

For the first time in history, a watchmaker made a luxury timepiece in stainless steel with an integrated bracelet. The Royal Oak was so unlike other watches it seemed to come from another planet.

Gerald Genta - the genius of watch design

The author of this amazing piece of work was possibly the greatest watch designer of all time: Gerald Genta. (Click here to read his full story.)

George Golay - the man who commission the Genta watch design

Genta was already an accomplished watchmaker and designer, famous in the industry. One afternoon in 1971, Genta received a phone call from Audemars Piguet’s executive director, George Golay (above).

Golay asked Genta to design a completely new and water-resistant steel sports watch – no holds barred. By morning.

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Selfwinding 34mm

Genta took out his sketchpad, possibly prepared himself lots of coffee, and went to work. The next day, the design of the Royal Oak was born. You can see Genta’s original sketch for the watch design at the top of this post.

When the company presented the watch in the next Baselworld in 1972, the public thought Audemars Piguet had gone mad. It was oversized (by the standards of the time). It was made of steel and cost 3,750 Swiss francs ($25,568.05 in today’s money) – a level previously reserved for gold watches.

Patek Philippe Nautilus blue dial

Eventually, the Royal Oak gained traction. Its disruptive shape and style garnered acclaim with the brand’s clients. So much so that two years later, Patek Philippe commissioned Genta to design the not-entirely-dissimilar Nautilus.

The Royal Oak’s success was resounding. Almost 50 years after its launch, the RO’s by far the biggest seller in the Audemars Piguet model range. So much that if you search for other models of the venerable Maison, you find very little. This fact takes us to the second part of our story.

Code 11.59 huh?

Audemars Piguet was – and is – concerned about relying on one horse, even if the horse is a champion.

Five years ago, AP started developing a new line of watches, a reference known as Code 11:59 (name explained here). They wanted the Code 11:59 to be a link between the Royal Oak and the brand’s dressier timepieces.

The Code 11.59 is a beautiful watch. It looks both distinguished and sporty. Check out the case, superbly executed and finished to perfection. Clock the dial’s design, enriched by the sophisticated engineering of the calibers mounted within.

The Code 11:59 was released with tremendous fanfare in Baselworld 2019, sold as the best thing in horology since the self-winding watch. Audemars Piguet pronounced it as a groundbreaking blockbuster, destined to return Audemars Piguet to the top spot of the Holy Trinity of watchmaking.

Except it didn’t.

AP Code 11.59 white dial

The public considered the Code 11.59 and felt no compulsion to buy it. The normally obsequious watch press called the Code 11.59 cold and soul-less. It was too good in everything to be good in something. It failed to move hearts.

One year later, Audemars Piguet is still struggling to make ends meet with the Code 11:59, with major positions within the firm advertised on jobwatch.ch.

Audemars Piguet boutique Atlanta

It’s been said many times that a watch that “grows on you.” But it’s clear the Code 11.59 it isn’t going places. It’s a nice watch, but it doesn’t have a shadow of the impact of the Royal Oak. Not even an echo of it.

To recap: you can design a legend in one night and you can spend five years developing a perfectly-average watch.

Genta watch design - Universal Polerouter

Good design doesn’t depend on time or resources. It’s a question of doing the right thing at the right time. For sure it depends on luck, but great design is also the fruit of the elusive gift that only great designers possess. A touch of genius.

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Franz Rivoira’s comprehensive book The Watch Manual is available for sale. You can find more of his horological writing at Quora.com.

2 thoughts on “Watch Design – What Does it Take?”

  1. Indeed. Then Mr Genta started his own label and released several ‘not-entirely-dissimilar‘ Gérald Genta Octo which became the very similar (may as well say the same for the case) Bulgari Octo. The man (who I knew nothing of prior to lockdown) was brilliant. Popping over to your ‘full story’ article now.

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