The Common Bond of Watchmakers and Architects

Despite wild disparities in the scale of their work, watchmakers and architects share a common bond.

Article by Luke Benedictus

Solomon R. Guggenheim MuseumThe Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Alex Eckermann.

It’s impossible to sit down opposite Pierre Rainero without feeling a little oafish and bedraggled in comparison. Perched on a sofa at the Watches & Wonders fair in Geneva, the Cartier director of image, style and heritage is dressed with understated panache in a navy suit and plum-coloured tie, a whisper of pocket square peeking out of his jacket. With his neat, greying hair and glasses, Rainero is a model of quiet poise and exacting judgement, a man who seems as if he was predestined for his role as the gatekeeper of style for the venerable French maison. Consequently, it’s a touch surprising to hear him reveal that an alternative career once beckoned. “I’m a frustrated architect,” he confesses with a smile.

Had he taken up his protractor and ruler, Rainero would, in fact, have been the sixth generation of his family to become an architect. But his father discouraged him from the trade, warning him of the financial insecurities and so, instead, he began working for Cartier in 1984. Rainero tells me that architecture and horology actually share many similarities. Both practices, he explains, are artistic ones that are preoccupied with how their products — whether it’s a diving watch or a multistorey office block — interact with the human form. “A sculpture or a painting is something you may appreciate but you only look at it as a piece that’s external,” Rainero says. “But you live in architecture, so it’s not only about the aesthetics but that strong human dimension of how it fits into your life. A piece of jewellery or a watch also shares that human dimension because it’s something you wear.”

Architecture and watchmaking are both multilayered disciplines that involve a complex fusion of art, design and engineering. While there is plenty of scope for creative noodling, it must always be anchored by sufficient technical rigour. Both are ostensibly functional pursuits — a watchmaker makes an object to tell the time, while an architect creates a structure for habitation or to house some other activity — yet both practices regularly transcend their utilitarian purpose, becoming expressive mediums for personal style and status.

Consequently, it’s not surprising that a number of high-profile architects, from Frank Gehry to Zaha Hadid, have experimented with watch design. Along the way, these efforts have resulted in some notable timepieces. The Swiss architect and Bauhaus disciple Max Bill was well acquainted with horology due to his grandfather’s profession as a watchmaker and would go on to design watches for brands including Omega and Movado. But his most celebrated work in this field is his collaboration with the German manufacturer Junghans. In 1956, Bill designed a kitchen clock with a timer, an inverted egg-shaped creation made of light blue ceramic that became sufficiently revered that it now hangs at New York’s MoMA. The clock’s spare dial offered a preview of his finest wristwatches. Released in 1961, the Junghans Max Bill timepiece remains instantly recognisable with its squared lugs, spindly hands and printed line hour markers. The watch is a wrist-bound testimony to Bill’s philosophy of distilled functionalism, in which every detail must earn its place.

A 2017 timepiece by Mido, inspired by the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in New York; the museum, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Photography courtesy Mido.
A 2017 timepiece by Mido, inspired by the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in New York; the museum, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Photography courtesy Mido.

The French architect-designer Marc Berthier also picked up his loupe to create a memorable watch in 2010. The Hermès Carré H was a singular-looking square timepiece whose lightly softened edges added visual balance and made it a particularly comfortable watch to wear. Today, rounded corners appear on everything from smartphones to laptops and have become so absorbed into our modern design language that they almost seem like industry standard. But at the time of Berthier’s first Carré H release, they felt sharply contemporary and were quite literally ahead of the curve.

The creative stimulus of bricks and mortar continues to inform watchmaking in other ways, too. “What is good architecture? It’s innovation, functionality and aesthetics,” says Franz Linder, the CEO of the Swiss watch brand Mido. “And when we design watches, those are exactly the ambitions we have, so we wanted to reflect these shared values.” Linder is explaining the rationale behind Mido’s tagline “Inspired by Architecture”, which the brand first used in 2002 when it began translating the design cues of iconic buildings onto the wrist. The first watch in this series riffed on the Colosseum in Rome. Echoing the building’s features, the dial had a multi-level structure, a sandblasted texture to evoke antiquity and an inner flange around the indices to reflect a bird’s-eye of the amphitheatre’s stands. Since then, there have been other watches in this vein, paying horological tribute to landmarks ranging from London’s Big Ben to Singapore’s ArtScience Museum.

In the wrong hands, these timepieces could feel like some tacky form of holiday souvenir, but Mido avoids this by virtue of the restraint of its executions. The Mido x Guggenheim, for example, merely incorporates gentle undulations around the indices to conjure the sinuous curves of the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum. After all, as Linder points out, “No-one wants to wear a building on your wrist.”

Some 20 years since it was dreamed up, the “Inspired by Architecture” slogan is now used more laterally in the brand’s marketing activities. To communicate the tough functionality of its Multifort range, for example, Mido teamed up with the Brisbane-based parkour athlete Brodie Pawson, whose acrobatic flair and general disdain for the law of gravity have earned him a large social media following. “Parkour is a very urban sport in which you use the architecture of a city to practise,” says Linder. “It’s spectacular but it’s dangerous, so you need good performance and precision, which are always key elements for our watches.”

When watchmakers turn to great architecture for inspiration, perhaps the quality they most yearn to emulate is the staying power of a great building. Such longevity is now more important than ever, given the explosion in demand for secondhand watches. The pre-owned market has become the industry’s fastest-growing segment and, according to a report by McKinsey and the Business of Fashion, it’s set to account for up to $45 billion of watch sales by 2025. “People today may wear Mido watches that are 50 years old,” says Linder. “But if we talk about Roman architecture, you have fantastic buildings that are hundreds of years old.” The ambition to make watches that can endure in this way reveals the irony at the heart of modern watchmaking. Despite the basic purpose of a wristwatch, the ideal design is one that is ultimately timeless.

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our seventh edition, Page 34 of T Australia with the headline: “Time + Place”