The Case for the Creative Caseback

Not so creative caseback - Seiko Castle in the the Sky

Check out the caseback on the Seiko Presage Studio Ghibli Castle in The Sky. What is that? A crude, barely discernible depiction of the movie’s floating castle obscuring Seiko’s not-at-all-glamorous caliber 6R31 automatic movement. The Brits have an expression for this sort of thing; a dog’s breakfast. Seiko is hardly the only watchmaker guilty of a sticker-based creative caseback fail . . .

Breitling Premier Norton creative caseback

As I pointed out in Breitling Norton: Caseback Fail, the above design is anti-Hannah Montana (the worst of both worlds). The sticker on the back of an otherwise admirable Premier B01 Chronograph 42 ruins the image of the bike and the view of the Breitling’s B01 movement.

Slapping a sticker on a standard-issue watch’s caseback to appeal to a bunch of nerds – be they anime enthusiasts, biker boys or Hendrix fans – is the least creative, least expensive and most cynical marketing approach I can imagine.

The practice mars a perfectly good watch, in terms of both aesthetics and resale value. How many British bike fanboys are willing to pay $8500 for a pre-owned Breitling Norton? If nothing else, they’re too busy recovering from the financial pain caused by Exhaust Port Thread Destruction Disorder.

Ball Roadmaster Archangel Bronze caseback

Does the caseback – the bit of the watch no one but its owner sees – really matter? Of course it does – precisely because only the owner sees it. To quote the eminently estimable Hanson brothers, it’s a secret no one knows. A source of personal pleasure. If we’re going down that road . . .

Wearing a treasured timepiece with a creative caseback is like escorting a beautiful woman through town, knowing that her secret charms are just as beautiful. Charms you know well, instantly available in the privacy of your own bedroom. Not worrying about anyone else sharing your satisfaction.

Omega 125th Anniversary Tresor

If that isn’t enough to give this analogy legs, don’t forget that you only see your watch’s caseback when you “undress” your watch. And the caseback is the most intimate part of any watch; the bit that rests against your skin. (You might say the strap/bracelet is the more sensually compelling metaphor but I couldn’t possibly comment.)

The two caseback images above – taken from Ball’s Roadmaster Archangel Bronze and OMEGA’s 125th Anniversary Tresor – are excellent examples of the art of the closed caseback. (No commission on links.) The engraved designs delight the eye and define both the watch and the brand.

[OK, Ball’s rep comes from railroads, not deep sea diving. But if Gerald Genta could riff on a diving helmet for Patek Philippe’s Nautilus, I reckon Ball can stay on the ball under the sea. Or something like that.]

Chronoswiss - the mother of all exhibition cassbacks

By this point you may have noticed I’m not singing the praises of exhibition casebacks, the trend for mid to high end watches.

Hats off to Chronoswiss’ Gerd-Rüdiger Lang for being the first to transport mechanical watch lovers with transparency. I love watching a mechanical watch’s bits doing their thing. A case could be made that the exhibition caseback did more to save the Swiss mechanical watch industry than the aforementioned Mr. Genta.

That said, it doesn’t take a lot of creativity to build a watch with a window – unless you put something other than the watch’s guts in the window. How about this (description courtesy OMEGA’s website)?

OMEGA Speedmaster Moonwatch Silver Snoopy Award 50th Anniversary creative caseback

On the [OMEGA Speedmaster “Silver Snoopy Award 50th Anniversary’s] caseback, Snoopy appears inside his Command and Service Module (CSM) on a magical hand. When the chronograph seconds hand is used, Snoopy takes a trip around the far side of the moon, which has been decorated on the sapphire crystal using a unique micro-structured metallisation.

There is also an Earth disc, which rotates once per minute in sync with the watch’s small seconds hand.

OMEGA’s orbiting beagle represents a new frontier: animated casebacks. (More animated than the spinny thing powering an automatic watch’s mainspring.) Snoopy’s progress opens up the possibility of even more creative casebacks.

It’s a throwback to watches with obscene automata informing certain gentlemen’s timepieces and a throw-down to watch designers. Post-Snoopy they need to step up, to push the outside of the envelope on the underside.

Will this “hey check out my caseback” entertainment function change the “meaning” of the caseback?

While I’m sure 50th Silver Snoopy OMEGA owners will remove their watch to show friends and family Snoopy’s potentially endless journey around Earth’s natural satellite, that’s a one-time deal. At the end of the day, the creative caseback holds a personal appeal. Even if it is a cheap ass sticker.

3 comments

  1. I have to agree with the article, a properly executed special case back is a secret pleasure. I am fortunate enough to have three examples that go from sublime to ridiculous, all from Omega. Sublime – Seamaster 1948 London Olympic 2012 Ltd Ed: 18kt gold London 2012 Olympic medallion on the solid case back. No other Olympic branding at all, so when I wear it only know about the gold next to my wrist. Excellent: Railmaster 1957 Trilogy Ltd Ed – reproduction of the original 1957 solid case back, including the double bevel and the same engraved hippocampus. Ridiculous: Seamaster 1948 70th Anniversary Ltd Ed – display case back in sapphire crystal with an engraving of a boat and a Gloster Meteor jet that completely obscures the movement, the watch is still a special thing on the wrist but could have been so much nicer!

  2. I’m the type that’s good at keeping secrets from my self by forgetting all about stuff, so the allure is somewhat lost on me. The Mr. Jones photo above reminded me that I have that serialized case back with cutesy etching.
    So I’m terrible at this. I use the Seiko 5 window to confirm the thing is being wound. Otherwise, I get picky about orientation of snap backs during battery changes and that’s it. But yeah, bas relief has so much more potential than 2D imagery, especially one color ones.

  3. My living room window has a beautiful view of Crested Butte, but sometimes it’s not enough.

    (takes can of Krylon and sprays “Crested Butte” on window)

    Ahh, much better.

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