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A brief history of watch designers (which remains to be written)

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November 2022


A brief history of watch designers (which remains to be written)

The anniversary of the Royal Oak was the opportunity to celebrate Gérald Genta, not only for the creations he developed for numerous watchmakers but also for his status as the first watch designer. Before him, the profession had lain rather in the shadows and his predecessors had remained largely anonymous in watchmaking history. The Europa Star archives enable us to shed some light on the early days of watch design.

T

he anniversary of the Royal Oak was the opportunity to celebrate Gérald Genta, not only for the creations he developed for numerous watchmakers but also for his status as the first watch designer.

Before him, the profession had lain rather in the shadows and his predecessors had remained largely anonymous in watchmaking history. The Europa Star archives enable us to shed some light on the early days of watch design.

Genta’s success is certainly the fruit of his own genius, but we also have to emphasise the context of the time, which gave him the opportunities to show off his talent.

Gérald Genta, surely the best-known designer in watchmaking history, and his tussles with the Montres & Bijoux trade show in 1984
Gérald Genta, surely the best-known designer in watchmaking history, and his tussles with the Montres & Bijoux trade show in 1984
©Archives Europa Star

The Swiss watch industry underwent a profound transformation in the 1960s and 1970s, that was not only due to the advent of the quartz watch. New business models based on marketing projects were emerging, primarily in Geneva.

The brand and the product were at the heart of this renaissance. Businesses needed watches with a strong identity to stand out in an increasingly competitive market. The watch designers emerged as the creators of iconic products.

In the 1960s and 70s, Swiss businesses needed watches with a strong identity to stand out in an increasingly competitive marketplace. This was when the watch designers came into their own.

The winners of a watch and jewellery design competition presented in Europa Star in 1967: among them we can spot some names that became well-known in the industry, such as Jean-Claude Gueit and Gérald Genta, with original creations such as the handbag watch.
The winners of a watch and jewellery design competition presented in Europa Star in 1967: among them we can spot some names that became well-known in the industry, such as Jean-Claude Gueit and Gérald Genta, with original creations such as the handbag watch.
©Archives Europa Star

Up to World War II, watchmakers focused on the productive and technological aspects. What counted was not so much the design of the watches, but how accurate they were; it was on this that the brand’s reputation and the company’s competitiveness were built.

The exportation of uncased movements, encased by local partners all over the world, was widespread practice (over 30% of the volume of watch exports in the 1930s). Omega was firstly the name of a movement before becoming that of a brand, then a company. Designing watches was the job of independent case, bracelet and dial makers.

The internalisation of design activities by watchmakers occurred during the course of the 1940s and 50s, when they launched new collections based on the creation of iconic products and global brands. Internal control over the design of these watches became important for the creation of a strong visual and emotional identity. This was the case, for example, of the Datejust by Rolex (1945), the Seamaster by Omega (1948) and the Flagship by Longines (1957).

Ad for the Omega Seamaster, 1951
Ad for the Omega Seamaster, 1951
©Archives Europa Star

Ad for the Flagship by Longines, 1967
Ad for the Flagship by Longines, 1967
©Archives Europa Star

Omega was one of the first companies to set up a department dedicated to designing its collections, the Service des Créations (1940). It was placed in the hands of René Bannwart, a young designer born in Zurich in 1915 who had begun his career with Patek, Philippe & Cie in 1933. He oversaw the launch of several collections, including the Seamaster and the Constellation.

In 1955, Bannwart left Omega to take up the reins of a family watchmaking workshop in La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1924. Renamed Corum, that company was hugely successful (five employees in 1955, 90 by 1992), thanks in particular to the launch of watches with innovative designs, the most famous incontestably being the Golden Bridge.

Omega was one of the first companies to set up a department dedicated to designing its collections, the Service des Créations (1940). It was placed in the hands of René Bannwart, who launched the Corum brand fifteen years later.

Interview with René Bannwart, the founder of Corum, published in Europa Star in 1963. He began his career in Omega's first design unit in 1940.
Interview with René Bannwart, the founder of Corum, published in Europa Star in 1963. He began his career in Omega’s first design unit in 1940.
©Archives Europa Star

A brief history of watch designers (which remains to be written)
©Archives Europa Star

The launch of the Golden Bridge by Corum, with its revolutionary design and movement, in Europa Star in 1979
The launch of the Golden Bridge by Corum, with its revolutionary design and movement, in Europa Star in 1979
©Archives Europa Star

Like Omega, the other Swiss watchmakers also set up design departments and recruited their own designers. This was how, in 1955, Patek, Philippe & Cie entrusted the development of its new products to Gilbert Albert.

He played a notable role in the creation of jewel watches. When he left in 1962, he set up as an independent jewellery designer in the city of Geneva and soon became a worldwide celebrity.

Gilbert Albert, winner of the City of Geneva design award with Patek Philippe in 1960
Gilbert Albert, winner of the City of Geneva design award with Patek Philippe in 1960
©Archives Europa Star

Adept at both watchmaking and jewellery-making, the designer also won the Diamond International Awards.
Adept at both watchmaking and jewellery-making, the designer also won the Diamond International Awards.
©Archives Europa Star

Gilbert Albert subsequently launched his own brand. Ad, 1982
Gilbert Albert subsequently launched his own brand. Ad, 1982
©Archives Europa Star

Similarly, Universal Genève recruited Raoul Haas in the early 1960s to manage their design department. He was also a designer specialising in jewellery, who would go on to work for Patek, Philippe & Cie, as well as the Swiss subsidiary of Bulova.

When Piaget decided to enter the jewellery watch market, it collaborated initially with Jean-Claude Gueit, who worked in the jewellery workshop of Ponti & Genari (P&G). He took charge of the design department of Piaget when the latter acquired P&G in 1967.

As for the Neuchâtel-based watchmaker Ernest Borel, it recruited Henri DuPasquier, who in the mid-1960s created models with a strong visual identity to set the brand apart from its rivals.

Interview with Raoul Haas, director of the Design department of Universal Genève, 1963
Interview with Raoul Haas, director of the Design department of Universal Genève, 1963
©Archives Europa Star

Henri DuPasquier, designer for the Ernest Borel brand, 1965, in Europa Star
Henri DuPasquier, designer for the Ernest Borel brand, 1965, in Europa Star
©Archives Europa Star

Jean-Claude Gueit was an important figure in design at Piaget. Here, a diamond-set wristwatch from 1969 (3).
Jean-Claude Gueit was an important figure in design at Piaget. Here, a diamond-set wristwatch from 1969 (3).
©Archives Europa Star

The history of watch design is yet to be written. But the Europa Star archives already enable us to identify certain facts: the importance of the special collections of the watchmaking manufactures, the creation of jewellery watches and the importance of the Geneva School of Arts and Crafts (since 1952 the School of Decorative Arts, or EAD) as a place of training.

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