Tissot Visodate
Tissot Visodate

The burden of the past

Good news for retronauts: the newest smart watches will look like the designs from the early 1900s

One day in 1904, aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont was at the Maxim’s de Paris restaurant, celebrating with friends. He had just won a flying competition. In the course of the evening, Santos-Dumont complained about how troublesome it was to use a pocket watch while flying.

At the time men, including extreme specimens such as Santos-Dumont, continued to use pocket watches attached to chains that were cumbersome to use.

Sitting next to Santos-Dumont in the restaurant was jeweller and friend Louis Cartier. He began to wonder. What if men could wear watches on their wrists? Cartier soon supplied his friend with a watch attached with a leather strap and a buckle that could be worn on the wrist.

Cartier had ignited a timekeeping revolution that continues to sputter, burn and spark—but never die down—to this day. In the last decade or so, experts have often announced that the wristwatch industry is standing on the edge of a bottomless pit. That only Luddites wore watches and they would soon realize that you didn’t need a watch at all, what with so many timekeeping devices all around us in the form of phones, tablets, TV screens and public displays.

The Santos-Dumont Carbon Skeleton Titanium

The fascinating thing is not just that the wrist is proving to be such a hardy platform for notifications, but that the form factor of the wristwatch has remained unchanged for over a century.

The latest smartwatches in the market all continue to look almost exactly like Louis Cartier’s designs from the early 20th century. Indeed, the Pebble smartwatch, a particularly popular product, even looks remarkably like vintage Cartier Tank models that have been classics for decades.

It is hard to say if Cartier knew what he was getting into when he made that first wristwatch. But within months the public began to notice the little watch on a strap.

In 1911, Cartier began to mass-produce the watch, now called the Santos in honour of the original wearer. The Santos continues to be one of Cartier’s most popular designs to this day. While the exact form factor has been refined to match contemporary tastes, there is no mistaking the provenance. It is apparent at first glance that the oldest and newest Santos models all belong to one tightly knit family of designs.

Watchmaking is perhaps that part of the luxury industry that has the strongest roots in its past. The watch business was retro before retro was cool. That was because it was always a business with its head turned to one side, one eye peeking over the shoulder to see what came before it.

There is much to appreciate here, but also much to criticize.

On the one hand, this obsession with the retro has helped to keep several arts and crafts, not least that of mechanical watchmaking, alive. If you seek the finest exponents of enamelling, straw marquetry and micro-sculpture, you’ll probably find them in the workshops of a watchmaker somewhere in the Jura mountains of Switzerland.

On the other hand, this obsession with the past can be frustrating for buyers seeking true innovation. Generally, among the high-end watchmakers, nostalgia is mostly reserved for two, perhaps three, phases of international design.

The first may be called the “mother" phase. This is the period in the 18th and 19th centuries when watchmakers supplied their wares to royalty all over the world. The timepieces were intricate, even baroque, works of art that were evidently made by hand. Many watch brands date their origins to this period.

The second is the period just before World War II, when watches were beginning to get popular. The Santos belongs to this period of minimal watchmaking. Look through the catalogue of major brands and you’ll see at least one piece that oozes Bauhaus and is reminiscent of the International Style of architecture. For instance, Vacheron Constantin’s Patrimony Contemporaine watch is of a piece with Walter Gropius’ phenomenal work with furniture and architecture.

The third phase is the period after World War II, when economies began to boom again and the international civil aviation industry was at its sexiest. Watches from Tissot’s Visodate to Rolex’s GMT Master model are the children of this age.

All this may make it sound like the luxury watch industry is a haven for fans of retro designs. It is. The problem is that watch industries also often flog the life out of these designs. At the merest hint of an economic slowdown or a contracting market, many watch brands immediately turn back to what they know best: their back catalogues.

So if you were in the market for a watch any time between 2008 and 2012, you would have found brand after brand falling over each other to present you with “heritage-inspired collections". It could, and often did, get tedious.

Which is perhaps why the best innovations are often to be found among the smaller, independent brands. Brands which are not afraid to try and fail; which don’t and can’t say they were established in 1855.

However, if you are a retronaut, all this is besides the point. The luxury watch industry harbours some of the finest retro designs, and inspired designers, money can buy. From French Third Republic designs to Dieter Rams’ minimal genius from the 1960s, there is a watch out there that embodies these philosophies in a perfect, wrist-sized product.