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Look, no hands: How watchmakers are changing the way we tell the time

8 April 2019 • Written by Zoe Dickens

In an age where our phones are our primary timepieces, how does a mechanical watch house make itself relevant? Zoe Dickens investigates a range of novel approaches that may just change the way we think about time itself…

During a recent press presentation at Baselworld I found myself admiring a rather exquisite timepiece - then immediately turning to the journalist to my right and saying, “It’s great – but how do you tell the time?” It’s a question that’s been cropping up more and more frequently thanks to a new vogue for dials that eschew traditional hands and indices for a display which offers something entirely new and unusual.

This is undoubtedly a response to an age where smartphones are our primary timekeeping devices. As Augustin Nussbaum, head of product development at Ulysse Nardin, attests, “The first function of a watch is not what it used to be. What people look for now is originality in a world that is becoming more and more standardised.” The brand, accordingly, has been a leader in the field of non-traditional watches, introducing its Freak collection, which matches cutting-edge mechanics with unusual displays, in 2001.

The Ulysse Nardin Freak NeXt

The most recent addition to the collection is the Freak NeXt, an ultra-modern timepiece which foregrounds its mechanics by displaying the hour via a rotating window and using its innovative oscillator movement as a minute hand. “The cutting-edge technology of the movement was, of course, paired with an ultra-modern design and the ‘absence’ of dial was aimed at creating this avant-garde look. It was a choice, not a necessity,” explains Nussbaum. The result is unarguably striking, with the intricate blue oscillator contrasted against an almost entirely white timepiece making it clear that this is a serious bit of horological kit.

For others, however, stepping away from time-honoured tradition is not merely a design choice but their entire raison d’être. Founded in 2012, watch world disruptor HYT uses a unique system which displays the time with a gauge that fills with coloured liquid over a 12-hour period, springing back to the beginning at 6am and 6pm each day. For HYT, however, this is about more than aesthetics or standing out from the crowd.

“Watches keep becoming less and less useful when it comes to information but the perception and measurement of time is part of the essence of humanity,” says CEO Gregory Dourde. “We invented a new way to tell the time that helps change the way you experience the day. The liquid flowing through the tube visualises the past and the things you have already accomplished while the transparent portion represents the future and the things yet to come. You instantly know where you are situated within the flow of time.”

And, while this may sound a little philosophical for those who just want to know if they’re running late for a meeting, HYT’s gauge-style display addresses a pressing modern issue. In 2018 a report found that many British schools were replacing analogue clocks with digital ones because students were unable to read the older dials, with the problem only due to worsen as children grow up surrounded by smart devices. Comparing HYT’s display to a computer progress bar, Dourde argues it is actually a far more intuitive way of telling the time, using as evidence the recent decisions by Ferrari and Lamborghini to switch from hands to gauges on their dashboards.

HYT's H2 Tradition, H2O and H4 RC44 watches

Of course, none of this means there has been any dumbing down in the actual watchmaking. HYT’s timepieces combine a mechanical movement created in collaboration with watch industry titans such as Audemars Piguet Renaud-Papi and Jean-Francois Mojon with a fluidic device – a partnership that took 15 years to perfect and features technology patented across more than a dozen different categories. “We create sophisticated watches, both in terms of cutting-edge design and technological relevance, based on current scientific achievement in the aerospace, semi-conductor and medical device industries,” says Dourde. “There is a huge difference between developing a new dial for the purposes of decoration and animation and our project.”

Which isn’t to say that aesthetics alone won’t be enough to win over even the most discerning watch wearer. At SIHH 2018 Cartier bowled over press, buyers and consumers alike with its Révélation d'Une Panthère. The traditional timepiece featured a dial covered by tiny golden balls which, when tilted, trickled down and magically revealed the outline of the brand’s signature panther motif. Gucci, meanwhile, is hoping to curry favour at the mid-market level with its new quartz Grip collection designed with a solid metal case displaying the time and date via three rotating discs. Reservoir, a relative newcomer to the watch world, is also tapping into the trend with its line of watches inspired by boat, plane and car gauges which feature an hour window and retrograde minute dial.

Pieces from Gucci's new Grip collection

But are brands in danger of going too far in the ever-escalating war against the smartphone? According to Dourde and Nussbaum, apparently not. “Our first customers were mainly experienced collectors with industry know-how,” says Dourde. “Now we’re increasingly observing the development of a new customer base who, much of the time, had stopped wearing watches. They choose HYT not only for our radical difference, but because we’re anchored in modernity.”

Disparately, Nussbaum believes the appeal of the Freak NeXt is in its combination of modern technology and traditional skill. “The love of craftsmanship and the value of mechanical and technological assets have always played a role in how people choose their watches. I believe a mechanical watch is one of the most technological devices one can own and, even though it’s only a prototype, we’ve already received requests for the Freak NeXt from some very excited watch enthusiasts.”

While these watches may never become the norm or even affordable for most – HYT’s entry-level timepiece is £33,000 – those concerned about the future of mechanical watchmaking can rest easy. This historic industry has plenty of tricks left up its sleeve.

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