The shape of things to come: watches with unusual cases

The hour has struck for shaped watch cases, as connoisseurs look for elegantly subtle ways to stand out from the crowd. Nick Foulkes reports. Photograph by Omer Knaz

From left: Vacheron Constantin rose gold Harmony, £53,450. Louis Vuitton steel LV 55, £2,770. Cartier rose gold Clé de Cartier, £13,700
From left: Vacheron Constantin rose gold Harmony, £53,450. Louis Vuitton steel LV 55, £2,770. Cartier rose gold Clé de Cartier, £13,700 | Image: Omer Knaz

“In the world of watchmaking, more than 70 per cent of the market is in round watches,” says Julien Marchenoir, director of marketing and brand heritage at Vacheron Constantin, “so a shaped case for a watch gives you a differentiation factor that helps you to stand out from the crowd.” This year Vacheron Constantin celebrates its 260th anniversary and is marking the occasion with a new case shape that it calls Harmony (£53,450). It is inspired by a cushion-case design that first appeared in 1928 on its earliest wrist-worn chronographs and has been chosen to present the house’s new chronograph movements almost 90 years later.

Cartier platinum and sapphire Crash Skeleton watch, £57,000
Cartier platinum and sapphire Crash Skeleton watch, £57,000

Most early strap watches were little more than adapted pocket watches; often ladies’ pendant models were chosen for their manageable size. Many original purpose-designed wristwatches boasted cases that were straight-sided, curved to follow the shape of the wrist or shaped in a manner that gave rise to names like tonneau (barrel), tortue (tortoise) and coussin (cushion) to demonstrate their wrist-specific credentials. As Marchenoir explains: “People who wanted to show they had bought a genuine wristwatch chose a shaped case.”

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Vacheron Constantin is a rarefied brand with strong collector appeal, and students of the marque know it has a long history of shaped-case designs from the early days of its wristwatches to the 1970s, when it brought out the trapezial Prestige de la France. In recent years Vacheron Constantin has cleverly flirted with the shaped case, releasing a series of classic models in a variety of shaped cases called Les Historiques (from £22,750). What makes Harmony significant is that it is entering the main collection and follows on from the launch in 2012 of a contemporary take on the tonneau.

Richard Mille ceramic RM 011 Yellow Flash, £118,000
Richard Mille ceramic RM 011 Yellow Flash, £118,000

Other niche marques such as MB&F (HM5 Carbon Macrolon, SFr54,000, about £35,900) and Urwerk (UR-105 TA RG, about £43,800) have taken the concept of the shaped case further and made a feature of the spaceship-on-the-wrist school of design, but these tend to appeal to a relatively small number of idiosyncratic collectors. Although not strictly speaking niche, the same may be said of Richard Mille, who has used the tonneau design (£118,000) to clothe innovative movements so effective they become his signature. These watches are to a certain extent shaped by their content and this has also been the case with limited-edition launches from major names such as Hublot with its cobra-headed, V-8-style LaFerrari (£238,000) and Chopard’s LUC Engine One H (£56,270).

Rolex steel Oyster Perpetual 39, £3,750
Rolex steel Oyster Perpetual 39, £3,750

But moving beyond the niche it is hard to think of too many runaway shaped-case successes in the 21st century. One of the longest-running is Patek Philippe’s Golden Ellipse (about £14,400) which first appeared in the late 1960s. The Royal Oak (from £10,000) from Audemars Piguet and the Nautilus (from about £27,900) from Patek Philippe effectively created the new market sector of the luxury sports watch, but they appeared in the 1970s. They were created by Gerald Genta who also worked on IWC’s Ingenieur (from £4,650) at around the same time, a design IWC periodically revives. Jaeger-LeCoultre made its comeback during the 1980s based almost entirely on the relaunch of the Reverso (from £4,050), a straight-sided design from the 1930s. Another straight-sided success story from the first half of the last century is the Girard-Perregaux Vintage 1945 (from €7,542). In the early 1990s, Franck Muller hit a bull’s-eye with the Cintrée Curvex (from about £6,100), the same decade that saw Panerai revived on the strength of a cushion-case design.

Tag Heuer steel Monaco Calibre 12, £5,300
Tag Heuer steel Monaco Calibre 12, £5,300

Now, however, Vacheron Constantin’s Marchenoir believes the time is right to bring shaped cases sharply into focus. “People are asking more and more about the stories behind different models, and the savoir-faire that goes into them.” In other words, the level of general watch culture is improving, and with this increased knowledge comes the confidence to try something different.

Hublot PVD titanium MP-05 LaFerrari, £238,000
Hublot PVD titanium MP-05 LaFerrari, £238,000

Two of the biggest sportswatch brands have also chosen to give new life to classic shaped watches from their back catalogues. At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Tag Heuer relaunched its Monaco (£5,300, available in October), the emblematic watch propelled into the pantheon of classics by Steve McQueen in the film Le Mans, by partnering with his son Chad McQueen on a documentary about his father’s passion for racing.

Urwerk PVD titanium/rose-gold UR-105 TA RG, about £43,800
Urwerk PVD titanium/rose-gold UR-105 TA RG, about £43,800

There is similar retro appeal to a recent revival from Omega. Picasso famously turned a bicycle saddle and handlebars into a bull’s head, but while it succeeded as a work of art, it did not tell the time. That had to wait until the 1970s when Bullhead chronographs were made for a period by a number of brands. It is a surprisingly expressive name. Essentially the traditional stopwatch configuration of crown and pushers was applied to a wristwatch; the two push pieces are the “horns” at the top of the face, while the shield-shaped case is the “skull”.

Chopard titanium LUC Engine One H, £56,270
Chopard titanium LUC Engine One H, £56,270

“The design reminds me of the way Americans used to wear watches on the inside of their wrists so that they could see their watches while driving,” says Omega president Stephen Urquhart. “It is a very cool look of the 1970s. We did a limited-edition re-entry in 2013 [from £6,070] and the reaction was very positive.” So positive, in fact, that Bullhead (£6,075) re-entered the main collection in July, though Urquhart is the first to admit that, taken in the wider context of Omega’s annual production, the Bullhead remains a recondite watch.

Omega steel Olympic Collection Bullhead Rio Co-Axial, £6,075
Omega steel Olympic Collection Bullhead Rio Co-Axial, £6,075

Luxury behemoths have also chosen this year to introduce new montres de forme. In April, Cartier brought out Clé, and in October Louis Vuitton launches the LV 55 (£2,770). Since the arrival of the Tambour collection in 2002, Louis Vuitton watches have been characterised by the round tambour (drum) case. “The tambour is a striking shape but it is a casual weekender,” says Hamdi Chatti, vice president at Louis Vuitton Malletier. “We wanted a shape that is so easy to wear you can do so every day, but at the same time is so individual you recognise it at a glance. It is like a smooth pebble, and at the centre of the pebble you have a perfect circle. It’s at the intersection between a round and tonneau case and is our biggest launch since Tambour.”

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Chatti clearly has considerable ambitions for LV 55 given that he is launching it in a range of sizes, from a dainty 32mm to a masculine but wearable 41mm. He believes that a shift in tastes over the past few years favours the shaped case. “Shaped models have a very strong identity. When Rolex launched its Oyster Perpetual [£3,750] it was linked to sport, but today it has become a classic that you can wear on any occasion, no matter how formal.”

It is certainly a delicate balancing act in that too much of a daring design would limit the appeal, but make it too conventional and the risk of anonymity creeps in. “That is why we took the little lock detail from the traditional Louis Vuitton trunk and used it as the link between the ‘pebble’ and the bracelet. It is subtle but strong and is a very nice signature,” says Chatti.

A similar thought process seems to have been behind the Cartier launch. The Clé (£13,700) is easy to wear and blends the familiar circular dial with the distinctive silhouette of a tonneau-shaped case. It too has unisex appeal with case dimensions that run from petite and feminine at 31mm, to a comfortable but not oversized 40mm. In this case the ingredient adding to the extra presence on the wrist is the winding crown, the clé (key), which is a sapphire set flush with the crown guards that presents a new but discreet and elegant take on winding a watch and references the cabochon sapphire that is such a characteristic of Cartier crowns.

Cartier, perhaps more than any other brand, can claim mastery of the montres de forme. The Tank (from £1,570), coming up to its 100th birthday, is continually being reinterpreted by the maison. As if to prove a point, Cartier has also produced a limited, skeletonised series of its Crash watch (£57,000), an asymmetrical shape that looks as if it has come from a Dalí painting. While Crash watches are an acquired taste, Cartier clearly intends Clé to take a leading position among its most popular models, with bicolour steel and gold versions launching this month. Indeed, if all goes according to plan, Clé is set to be the shape of things to come.

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