In One Direction‘s song What Makes You Beautiful, the lads advise the object of their collective affection “You don’t know you’re beautiful, oh oh. That’s what makes you beautiful.” So the fact that the subject of the song doesn’t know she’s beautiful makes her beautiful. And since they just told her, now she knows, so she’s not beautiful. Awesome. When it comes to watches – non-sentient objects all – beauty is in the eye of the beholder, not the beheld. But we can still tease out some of the factors that make watch beauty for a large number of people . . .
Symmetry – Watch Beauty in Geometry?
Our friends at lexico.com define symmetry as “the quality of being made up of exactly similar parts facing each other or around an axis.” Symmetrical watches are inherently more beautiful than watches that aren’t. Science says so.
“Symmetry represents order,” American scientist Alan Lightman tells bbc.co.uk. “We crave order in this strange universe we find ourselves in… [It] helps us make sense of the world around us.”
“Facial symmetry is universally associated with beauty and attractiveness in both sexes and in sexual and non-sexual contexts,” concludes Dr. Nathan H. Lents, Professor of biology at John Jay College. “The most well-supported theory for this is that our species has evolved to recognize symmetry, if unconsciously, as a proxy for good genes and physical health.”
Which is one reason – and one reason only – that so many Richard Mille watches are inherently ugly. Oh they’re somewhat symmetrical, but there’s always some jarring feature that isn’t quite symmetrical.
How far can we take this rule of thumb? Does a beautiful watch have to be perfectly symmetrical?
Check out this A. Lange & Soehne 1815. Balanced yes, but would the 18:15 be more beautiful if the subdials were placed at the 9 and 3? If their subdials’ hands were arranged symmetrically for the photo?
OMEGA made the Seamaster Planet Ocean’s helium escape valve the same size and shape as the crown, yet it still sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb.
The date window is the sole of discretion yet the number is noticeably smaller than the 6, 9 and 12 indices. It makes it easier to find, but reduces symmetry. Acceptable compromise?
Speaking of date windows and symmetry . . .
No matter how subtle, a date window shoved in the corner of a watch face ruins symmetry. While we’re at it, is the Bvlgari’s 12 too big? If it was any smaller the indices would seem disproportionate, ruining the symmetry. As always, the devil’s in the details.
Notice here – and everywhere else – that watchmakers always use images of their watches with “happy hands.” 10:13:30 is the magic time because it create perfect symmetry.
I reckon the entire dress watch genre remains popular because simple three-handed watches are often the ultimate expression of watch face symmetry. The Glashütte Original highlights another aspect of watch beauty . . .
Materials – Watch Beauty To Have and To Hold
Once upon a time, a gold watch was considered the height of beauty. Despite the computer screen and video’s inability to convey the full majesty of lustrous gold, the material remains a universally recognized signifier of watch beauty.
How a gold watch is finished makes a huge difference in its overall beauty, including the way that various finishes – brushed and polished – play with each other.
That’s not to say that other materials aren’t beautiful. The subtle gleam of a well made enamel dial holds an enormous amount of charm.
While I’ve turned-up my nose at the Chopard Alpine Eagle, it’s the first watch made of Lucent steel, boasting an “intensely reflective and luminous quality.” Truth be told, I have no idea how it looks in “real life.” Equally, the Chopard’s “eagle’s eye” dial’s texture may be far more attractive in the flesh than it appears here.
The materials used to create texture on a dial deserve special mention. I’m so over the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, but their immaculately textured dials sing a siren song few well-heeled beauty-seeking watch collectors can resist.
Then again, the flat black of the Sinn 556i is unmistakably gorgeous. Although not a patch on the H. Moser & Cie Endeavor Perpetual Moon Phase Concept’s vantablack – “the darkest substances known, absorbing up to 99.965% of visible light.”
The shape, material and finish of the indices can also elevate a watch into the beautiful category. The faceting on Grand Seiko’s indices is meticulously complex. Aesthetically prepossessing.
There’s no question that a watch strap or bracelet made of luxurious materials – whether that’s silky smooth steel (e.g., the Rolex Oyster Perpetual 39), the finest leather, perfectly realized fabric mesh or high quality rubber – also helps lift a watch into the ranks of the truly beautiful.
By the same token, low-cost symmetrical watches made from excellent stainless steel are ruined by disastrous cheap looking and feeling straps and bands (e.g., the Seiko Automatic Diver).
I’m red green color blind – I can’t see the full color spectrum or fluorescent colors. So I’m not the best person to decide what makes a particular color beautiful. But I do know that the blue of the Vacheron Constantin Overseas is exceptional.
Again, pictures and videos on the web are not the place to discern the beauty – or lack thereof – of a given watch dial’s hue. Like a watch case’s finish, the color varies according to the strength, quality and angle of the light hitting its surface. (If it doesn’t that’s a problem.)
Does “rich” color equal beauty? Not necessarily. Simply put, not all white watch dials are are alike.
Watch Beauty – The Final Analysis
Symmetry, materials and color are the holy trinity of beautiful watch design. We can certainly add typography to that list, and we haven’t explored what makes a movement beautiful (a large factor now that most automatic watches use transparent casebacks).
Nor have we dealt with the topic of dependability (a trustworthy horological companion can be beautiful no matter what it looks like) or emotional resonance (a watch imbued with personal meaning has another kind of beauty, too).
I leave you with a note of caution: nothing beats seeing a watch on your wrist in natural light. If you’re in a store, insist on taking a potential purchase outside. That’s where you can get the full measure of a watch’s beauty. And when trying to get over sticker shock, remember Keats’ words: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”