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A Cartier, a Junghans and what makes a watch a design icon

A great wristwatch doesn’t just tell the time, but is also the epitome of good design and great art

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s 1963 Cartier Tank was sold for $379,500 at a 2017 Christie’s auction.
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s 1963 Cartier Tank was sold for $379,500 at a 2017 Christie’s auction. (Getty Images)

Let’s be honest. The real reason we love watches is because of how they look. Yes, the movement inside is very important, but what attracts us and keeps us hooked is the design of the watch. It’s an aesthetic choice that can be difficult to quantify; after all when we talk about wristwatches, there are so many different types to choose from. A dive watch has its own unique characteristics, one that is very different and distinct from that of a two-hand dress watch or a chronograph, or a perpetual calendar, or a pilot watch.

A watch is primarily a tool. Telling the time is its basic function. But some watches also give you the day and the date, others can be used as a stopwatch, while yet others come with a slide rule for complicated measurements. The functions that a particular watch performs inform its design, but every now and then, along come a watch that makes one gasp with wonder.

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In the past hundred or so years, there have been plenty of watches that have passed into the design hall of fame. These designs have, at various points in time, either re-invented the wheel or have provided fresh new tweaks to an already popular design. For example, each one of the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms in 1953, the Rolex Submariner Ref. 6205 in 1954, the Omega Seamaster 300 in 1957 and the Seiko 62 MAS (see image below) in 1965 played an important role in advancing the function and design of the dive watch. Each of them had a distinct look that set the benchmark and launched a thousand imitators. The same can be said about the Longines Hour Angle (1931), IWC Ref. IW431 (1940), the Breitling Navitimer (1952) and the Omega Speedmaster Ref. 145.012 (1966) when it comes to aviation-inspired pilot watches.

Me, I love dress watches. I love their simplicity, their uncluttered but sophisticated design language, their smaller sizes and the spare but perfect use of the dial furniture. So I’m going to talk about a couple of dress watches that, for me, are the epitome of watch design. In a world of vacuous marketing, I would say that these are true icons. Let’s start with the Cartier Tank. When you see a Tank, you know exactly what you’re looking at, even if you may not know the name. It’s one of those quintessential 20th century designs that are now ubiquitous enough to become an archetype: in this case, the archetypal rectangular case watch.

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And yet, it isn’t even the first rectangular wristwatch that was produced by Cartier. That was the Cartier Santos, which was made for aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont in 1904, at a time when a watch was supposed to reside in your pocket, not on your wrist. But it wasn’t till 1917 that the Tank would change the way the world looked at personal timekeeping. Third generation owner of Cartier, Louis Cartier who had designed both the Santos and the Tank, said that the latter’s case shape was inspired by the treads of the Renault FT-17 tank used in World War I. That could well have been marketing (after all the company had precedence with Santos), but the name stuck. The Tank, which was first sold to the general public in 1919 under the name Tank Normale, debuted with a fully-formed design language. A rectangular case, fat Roman numerals, an inner railroad track, centrally mounted blued-steel sword shaped hour and minutes hands, the beaded crown with its cabochon—all of which scream Art Deco.

Rudolph Valentino wearing a Cartier Tank in the 1926 movie 'The Son Of The Sheik'.
Rudolph Valentino wearing a Cartier Tank in the 1926 movie 'The Son Of The Sheik'.

Over the past 101 years, it has become one of the quintessential dress watches: unobtrusive, discreet, stunning. Over the years, Cartier has introduced many design variations of the Tank—like the Cintrée or the Américaine—as well as experimented with handwound, automatic, quartz, and, in 2021, solar movements. Through it all, the Tank remains, with its unique unisex appeal, “the watch to wear”, as Andy Warhol once said, though he never set the time on it. Silent movies star Rudolph Valentino insisted on wearing one in the 1926 blockbuster The Son of the Sheik and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s 1963 Tank was sold for $379,500 at a 2017 Christie’s auction. The buyer? Kim Kardashian.

Also Read: A Rolex, a Seiko and watches as a value proposition

Take a left turn from luxury to affordable dress watches, and there’s another design icon to meet, the Junghans Max Bill. If the Tank was a quintessential Art Deco watch, the Max Bill is designed according to the principles of the Bauhaus School. The radically modernist school of design, started by the German architect Walter Gropius in 1919, produced generations of graduates that would go on to revolutionise fields as varied as architecture, industrial design, even typography through the 20th century. So obviously, watch design couldn’t remain untouched.

There are illustrious Swiss watches like the Patek Philippe Calatrava (first introduced in 1932) that were influenced by Bauhaus, specifically the school’s key idea that form should follow function. However, the true inheritors of Bauhaus are German watchmakers like Junghans, Nomos, Braun, Laco, Stowa and MeisterSinger, to mention a few. While for some brands like Nomos, almost every line meets the Bauhaus criteria, for others, like Junghans, it is only really one iconic line that typifies Bauhaus principles.

The Junghans Max Bill (see image above) was first produced in 1961, designed by the Swiss designer and Bauhaus School graduate Max Bill. His connection with the watchmaker began in 1957 when he designed wall clocks for Junghans. In the past 50 years, the basic design of the Junghans Max Bill hasn’t changed a jot. A monochrome, usually stark white, dial; a minimal bezel that accentuates the dial; sleek and minimalist dial furniture that’s legible and utilitarian; and an accessible price. The Bauhaus movement wasn’t just design for design’s sake, but was profoundly idealist, picturing a harmonious society united by beautiful but unostentatious design; one that didn’t celebrate class disparities but broke them.

To hold a Junghans Max Bill—whether the one with angular lines for indices, or the one with the playful san-serif Arabic numerals, or the Max Bill Chronograph with its beautifully proportioned sub dials—is to enter a realm of beatitude. And so, we circle back to where we began. A watch attracts us by the way it looks, and with the story behind why it looks the way it does. And sometimes, as the Tank and the Max Bill remind us, the watch on our wrist isn’t just a timepiece, but a work of art.

Handwound is a fortnightly column on watches and watchmaking.

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