Watches – from Cartier to Bulgari – are shaping up

The new face of watchmaking is anything but round, says Nick Foulkes

Cartier platinum and ruby Tank Asymétrique, limited edition of 100, £27,000
Cartier platinum and ruby Tank Asymétrique, limited edition of 100, £27,000

“I think we are especially good at designing them,” says Pierre Rainero, Cartier’s director of image, style and heritage, of the brand’s thinking behind the reissue of its star timepiece – the Tank Asymétrique. “Shaped watches are what make Cartier different.”

I find it hard to disagree: first, because I have a particular weakness for Cartier’s non-round watches; and second, because, as even the briefest survey of the Cartier back catalogue will confirm, the assertion is undeniably true. The only problem is that production of the new Asymétrique will be strictly limited to 100 each in platinum and rose and yellow gold, including a small number of skeleton models.

Patek Philippe rose-gold Golden Ellipse, £24,480
Patek Philippe rose-gold Golden Ellipse, £24,480

Dating from 1936, the parallelogram-shaped Asymétrique is the last example of a particularly adventurous age in watch design at Cartier that began in 1904 with the postage stamp-sized Santos wristwatch. The Santos was named for the dandy aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont – and is viewed by some as the first modern wrist-worn timepiece. 

Prior to the Santos, for hundreds of years, watches had been round and worn in the pocket. But in the early 20th century, the wristwatch was reinvented as a design object as much as a timepiece. As such, it began to mirror the tumultuous developments in architecture (arts nouveau and deco), music (ragtime and jazz), the performing arts (Josephine Baker, Diaghilev et al) and painting (fauvism, cubism and surrealism). In the years between the Santos and Asymétrique, Cartier served a banquet of horological geometry during which square, rectangular, barrel, bell, curved, “Chinese” and even “tortoise” shapes appeared.

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“This shape is surrealist,” says Rainero of the Asymétrique, arguably the most enduring shape to have emerged during that period. “There is a notion of a twist on a shape.” It prefigured the Dalí-esque 1960s Crash watch resembling a molten, crooked oval that was recently reintroduced at Cartier’s flagship London boutique. The return of the Asymétrique has been long overdue. It was last seen as part of the much missed Collection Privée in 2006 and returns in three-lugged form. 

As the popularity of Patek’s Nautilus and Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak demonstrate, the shaped watch on bracelet style is enjoying a renaissance. Nor is it just about the return to favour of shaped classics. The Bell & Ross BR-05 is a new sports bracelet watch that eschews a round case for the brand’s signature square. And Bulgari has scored a smash hit with the Octo Finissimo, a versatile shaped-case design in a variety of iterations, dial colours, metals and complications that has become almost a brand of its own.

Bell & Ross BR-05 Blue Steel, £3,990
Bell & Ross BR-05 Blue Steel, £3,990

Meanwhile, over the past six months John Reardon, the former head of Christie’s watch department and founder of the vintage Patek Philippe advisory website Collectability, has noticed a spike in interest in the Patek Golden Ellipse. This quasi-mystical design is inspired by the Golden Ratio and launched with a dial of blue gold in the late 1960s. It enjoyed phenomenal success in the 1970s and ’80s, but then entered the aesthetic wilderness. “People were put off by the shape… almost repelled by it,” he says. “But it has gone from repulsion to obsession. The Ellipse is doing exceptionally well, with people coming to me and asking for an Ellipse who wouldn’t have looked at one a year ago.” Nor is this phenomenon restricted to the vintage market. “I hear some Ellipses, such as the platinum Ref 5738P, have waiting lists as long as the Nautilus 5711,” adds Reardon.

The shape is simple yet hard to define (not round, oval nor rectangular) and above all so strong that at the height of its popularity it spawned an entire line of Ellipse jewellery and accessories. The design transcended the bounds of horology to embrace astrological pendants, cufflinks, rings, money clips, keyrings, even lighters.

Bulgari rose-gold Octo Finissimo, POA
Bulgari rose-gold Octo Finissimo, POA | Image: Anita Schlaefli

As someone who enjoys the odd cigar, I would dearly love to see the shaped Ellipse lighter make a return. For that matter, also, if anyone at Cartier is reading, the launch of a Cartier Asymétrique-shaped lighter might not be a bad idea. 

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