Feature: The Greatest Watch Designers You’ve Never Heard Of
Most of us would struggle to name any watch designer besides the legendary Gerald Genta. He was the man behind Patek Philippe’s Nautilus, Audemars Piguet's Royal Oak and IWC’s Ingenieur, among countless others, and is said to have designed over 100,000 timepieces during his career, leaving around 3,000 sketches and paintings to his wife when he died in 2011. A hundred of them went on sale earlier this year at the ‘Gerald Genta: Icon of Time’ auction.
Genta’s fame was well-earned and the industry will probably never again see the likes of such a talent. A prolific freelance hustler, he played a pivotal role in the history of a handful of top Swiss brands, often supplying designs to several at a time. He even managed to launch two watch brands of his own.
Yes, we get it, Genta was a bonafide legend, but what about the other designers?
But a number of other watch designers have also made their mark on the industry since Genta’s heyday, and it’s possible you’ve never heard of any of them.
That’s understandable. Unlike the Ferrari-driving, flamboyant, outspoken Genta, watch designers tend to be reclusive artist types who’d rather be locked away in their studios with their imagination for company than hob-nob with the press under the bright lights of Watches & Wonders.
Here we take a look at some of our favourites and their most notable creations.
You may even have owned one or two yourself over the years...
Standing On The Shoulders Of Genta
If anyone were to stand beside Gerald Genta in the pantheon of great watch designers, it’s Jorg Hysek. Born in East Berlin in 1954, Hysek fled the city with his family shortly before the construction of the wall in 1961 and settled in Geneva—spiritual home of watchmaking.
His education primed him for a successful horological career, moving from a micromechanics course in Biel, Switzerland, to stints at art schools in Germany and London.
The free-spirited Jorg Hysek is the man behind a number of distinctive designs for luxury watch brands
Returning to Switzerland in the middle of the burgeoning quartz crisis, Hysek joined the design department of Rolex before setting up his own company in his twenties.
His first client was Vacheron Constantin for whom he designed an award-winning pocket watch and the now highly collectible 222 model that was a precursor of the Overseas—often erroneously credited to Gerald Genta due to its Genta-esque looks.
Hysek eventually forged his own style and became an integral part of TAG Heuer’s success in the 1990s, creating the now discontinued Kirium range with its integrated bracelets and sporty looks (widely available on the pre-owned market).
Hysek conceived the futuristic Kirium range, launched by TAG Heuer in the 1990s
As well as countless watches, Hysek has designed a number of luxury writing instruments and, just as Genta did in his later years, has recently returned to the painting and sculpture that he studied at art school, exhibiting his work (see below) around the world.
Hysek's horological background influences his paintings, which he now exhibits globally
The Royal Oak ‘Killer’
When Audemars Piguet decided to freshen up the Royal Oak on its twentieth anniversary and give it some extra muscle, they turned to the 22-year-old Swiss designer Emmanuel Gueit.
Far from being intimidated by the monumental task of improving on what some consider horological perfection, Gueit said he was “young, and didn’t really care about taking risks.”
He approached the project with gusto, beefing up the case considerably, adding a crown guard and introducing integrated sporty rubber straps rather than the distinctive Royal Oak bracelet.
Emmanuel Gueit's Offshore design paved the way for the trend in big cases
Unfortunately for Gueit, Gerald Genta hated it, storming into the AP pavilion at 1993’s Basel World shouting, “You killed my baby!” The outburst was even reported by Swiss TV News channels.
Having been berated by a legend in public, you’d think Gueit might have retired on the spot and fled the country in shame. However he seems to have had the last laugh, watching various other top brands adopt oversized cases and going on to work for Piaget and Rolex, helping to breathe new life into the latter’s Cellini collection.
The AP Royal Oak Offshore was publicly derided by an enraged Genta
The Offshore line remains as popular as ever and AP has upped the ante further in the last twenty years by bringing out its futuristic Concept watches. We wonder what Genta—who upset a few people himself by making luxury Mickey Mouse watches—would have made of the Concept Black Panther Flying Tourbillon.
The Godfather Of Grand Seiko
In 1959 Seiko took a long, hard look at itself and decided its watches lacked a common identity. There was little to distinguish them from the standard designs coming out of Switzerland. Japan was a country that had always boasted its own distinctive aesthetic, be it in architecture, furniture or clothing. So why was it making watches that looked so prosaic?
To fix this Seiko hired its first ever formally trained designer, Taro Tanaka, a fresh-faced design graduate who would prove vital in Seiko’s—and by extension Grand Seiko’s—global success.
Taro Tanaka of Seiko
Over the next few years Tanaka devised a design philosophy he called ‘the Grammar of Design’, a series of rules that were to be followed religiously to ensure Seiko consistently stood out in the market, retained the highest possible production quality and were immediately recognisable as a Seiko watch.
From these rules came the attributes that are now synonymous with Grand Seiko, including mirror-finishing (aka Zaratsu polishing) and multifaceted, sharp-edged cases, hands and markers designed to maximise interaction with light in the manner of finely cut gemstones.
It’s also been pointed out by more than a few people that the watches are also suggestive of origami, the ancient Japanese art of paper-folding.
Tanako’s Grammar of Design rules initially applied to premium models like Grand Seiko and King Seiko before trickling down to standard Seiko models like the Seiko 5 and the ‘Pogue’, the first automatic chronograph in space and now a firm cult favourite among Seiko collectors.
These days Tanaka’s philosophy is being faithfully upheld by Nobuhiro Kosugi, Grand Seiko’s current designer who says he is committed to “adding new interpretations of the traditions while at the same time maintaining them.”
TAG Heuer’s Innovation King
If TAG Heuer is to live up to the first part of its name (TAG being an abbreviation of ‘Techniques d’Avant Garde’) then experimentation is paramount.
Models like the Carrera Microgirder—a chronograph capable of measuring 1/2000th of a second—and the incredible Monaco V4 with its belt-driven transmission have ensured this legendary brand remains at the vanguard of innovation, despite being known as one of the more affordable luxury watchmakers.
This puts TAG Heuer in something of a unique position in the industry.
The technically accomplished Carrera Microgirder is one of Christoph Behling's designs
As for the person behind these ground-breaking models, that’s Christoph Behling, a German national who is TAG Heuer’s lead designer while also running his own product-based design studio in London.
Behling’s collaboration with TAG Heuer began with their eyewear collection (now discontinued) before moving onto watches. As well as the above models, he’s also worked on the ladies’ Diamond Fiction concept model and the sporty Aquaracer series.
He’s said that his role at the company is to “internalise Jack Heuer’s spirit and then draw upon that legacy to make what he would make if he were alive today.”
In watches he’s clearly found his forte, having also worked with another LVMH-owned watch brand, Zenith, whose Defy collection he has helped refine and modernise for the 21st century.