Design icons: The G10 Infantry Watch
Great moments in design: Military time
Words— Jeremy Freed
For all the wild and wonderful watch designs of the last century or so, it’s easy to forget that the essential purpose of a watch (a watch in the traditional sense, not a wrist-borne smartphone) is actually quite simple. As its most basic level, a watch is a tool for telling time as clearly and reliably as possible. While there are countless variations involving precious metals, gemstones, and ever-more elaborate mechanical movements, some of the finest examples of watch design are also the least complicated.
With its robust steel case and big sans-serif white numerals, the Cabot Watch Company’s British Military G10 (or the CWC G10 for short) is one such design. It tells the time of day in hours, minutes and seconds, and can be easily read at a glance thanks to luminous markers and hands. A robust fabric strap keeps the watch securely attached to your wrist, resisting the corrosion of sweat, saltwater and daily wear. The G10 isn’t what you’d wear to a black-tie gala, and at $300 it’s not much of a status symbol, but it’s suitable for just about any other occasion and makes a stylish statement on the wrist nonetheless.
Part of what makes the CWC G10 different from the majority of watches in the world is that it was created not to entice consumers, but to serve a very practical purpose. “The origins of every watch CWC makes came not from the pen or mind of a watch designer but from a specification document,” says Jason Heaton, founder of content agency Swimpruf, and a specialist in military watches. The G10, he says, has its origins in World War II, when the British military requisitioned a “Watch, Wrist, Waterproof” as a general service timepiece for soldiers, sailors, and airmen. The name G10, in fact, comes from the name of a form that a soldier needed to fill out to get the watch. “As time went on and watch technology changed,” says Heaton, “these specifications were updated, but the basic formula remained: white on black, highly legible, with fixed strap bars to prevent watch loss in the case of a strap failure.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, the British military bought variations on this basic design from a number of different brands, but by the 1970s they were in search of a new G10 and a new supplier to make it. Cabot Watch Company was founded in 1972 by Ray Mellor, specifically to meet this demand. A seasoned watch company executive and former merchant marine sailor, Mellor received the contract to make the G10 from the British Ministry of Defence in 1980, and it remains in production, mostly unchanged, almost 40 years later.
“Robust, highly reliable, battery hatch for ease of replacement, acrylic glass which does not shatter into tiny pieces, easy to read,” says a representative of CWC, listing the key factors considered in the original design. While previous G10 models had been hand-wound (that is, mechanical watches that required manual winding every day) new quartz technology that emerged in the 1970s offered an improved design that could run for years on a tiny battery.
Since 1980, CWC estimates that a quarter-million CWC G10 watches have been made, many of which—thanks to its function-first approach to design—are still ticking today. Among the watch’s most famous fans was Leonard Cohen, who was photographed wearing his G10 in the late late ‘80s. A man who valued style and simplicity in equal measure, it’s hard to imagine a better representative for one of the world’s greatest understated watches.