Design icons: The evolution of watches
Great moments in design: Essential watches
Words— Jeremy Freed
Watches may be essentially obsolete (at least watches that don’t play podcasts or measure your heart rate, that is) but they remain fascinating objects all the same. In addition to telling the time, watches tell the story of the 20th century, of technology and society and—occasionally—of people who dreamed of creating a better world through design. More importantly, they are also beautiful.
These five examples trace the evolution of watch design from the midcentury through the 1980s, a period when a watch went from being a buttoned-down tool for daily life to an exuberant accessory. These aren’t the only important timepieces from this era, of course, but in an industry predominantly geared towards luxury, they do have the distinction of being some of the most affordable. And that’s a beautiful thing, too.
Bulova Accutron Spaceview (1960)
Bulova was one of the most innovative watch brands of the mid-20th century and their Accutron personified the unbridled space-age optimism of the early 1960s. Prior to the Accutron, watches had been exclusively powered by rotors and springs—essentially technology held over from the last century. Bulova brought watch design into a new era with this electric watch, powered by a battery and a vibrating tuning fork. So proud was Bulova of this technology that they put the watch’s guts front-and-centre, eschewing a traditional watch face for a view of the cutting-edge electronics within.
Junghans Max Bill (1961)
Alongside more famous graduates of the Bauhaus design school like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Wassily Kandinsky and Le Corbusier, Max Bill doesn’t get as much attention as he probably should. Nonetheless, Bill’s legacy lives on through his architecture, sculpture and—most significantly—his watch designs. In the 1950s the German watch company Junghans tapped Bill to design a kitchen clock. A few years later the result was adapted into a line of wristwatches whose design personifies the form-follows-function ethos of the Bauhaus. It remains a textbook case of midcentury design in wearable form.
Timex Easy Reader (1977)
Timex traces its roots back to the 19th century, and since those days it has been a brand for the people. By using mass-production, it created clocks and watches that were affordable, utilitarian and—famously—tough. In the 1960s Timex strapped watches to boat propellers and froze them in ice cube trays, establishing themselves as the brand that “takes a licking and keeps on ticking.” As this campaign suggests, Timex watches were designed to be supremely functional in both looks and construction, and there’s no better example of that than the Easy Reader. Its large serif numerals, squared hands and monochrome black-and-steel aesthetic make it a timeless example of pure watch design. Forty years and 100 million Easy Readers later, it has barely aged a day.
Casio G Shock DW5000C (1983)
When a talented engineer takes on a complicated problem, the results can be world-changing. Such was the case with Kikuo Ibe, who in the early 1980s set out to design a better digital watch. It would have a 10-year battery life, be waterproof to 100 meters and be capable of surviving a 10-metre fall. After three years of extensive testing involving over 200 prototypes (some of which, as legend has it, were dropped from a third-floor men’s room window) the Casio Gravitational Shock was born. Better known as the G-Shock, it quickly became the timepiece of choice for athletes, soldiers and anyone else who demanded the most out of their watch. Its black rubber case and strap were the polar opposite of the watches from the previous decade and this was entirely by design. This was an entirely new breed of watch.
Swatch Keith Haring (1986)
The 1970s were a tough time for the Swiss watch brands. Competition from cheaper, more reliable battery-powered watches was destroying demand for complicated, expensive Swiss watches, and the companies that made them were in serious trouble. Swatch arrived into this tumultuous era in 1983 and turned the industry on its head. Instead of precious metals and complicated movements, Swatch offered watches that were simple, colourful, affordable and collectible. Quite simply, they were a new kind of watch for a new era. Among its most important early achievements was a collaboration with New York-based pop artist Keith Haring, who designed four pieces for their 1986 collection in his signature style. Who said watches need to be so serious, anyway?