wiss watchmakers are often eager to stress that they are masters of their craft, down to the smallest details. Every micro-element, they argue, takes its rightful place in a watch’s composition. This is certainly true in terms of mechanics. But there remains an elephant in the room: typography.
Be it numbers (for hours and dates) or letters (for the brand’s logo, the name of the model or the ‘Swiss made’ notice), typographical characters play a central role in a watch’s identity. They can evoke classicism and tradition, as well as strength, precision and technique.
“A mere glance at contemporary watchmaking production is enough to see that most manufacturers’ typographical choices lack professionalism and originality,”
Each typographic font has its own set of connotations. In Swiss watchmaking, however, characters are often selected and implemented without any real process of reflection. “A mere glance at contemporary watchmaking production is enough to see that most manufacturers’ typographical choices lack professionalism and originality,” says designer Vincent Sauvaire, who wrote a thesis on the subject during his studies at the Ecole cantonale d’art de Lausanne (ECAL).
A “cosmic vacuum”
Independent watch designer Eric Giroud, who works with several manufacturers, is just as harsh in his criticism. “The use of typography in Swiss watchmaking is what I call a cosmic vacuum,” he claims, “which is surprising. I’m an architect by training, so I strive to be rigorous in my approach to these issues; but I can’t help but notice a serious lack of awareness on the part of watchmaking brands, whose managers often have very little grasp of the importance of typography.”
“Typographical errors are not limited to dials. They are often found on movements too.” Eric Giroud, independent watch designer
Watchmakers sometimes choose logos based solely on their personal tastes. Rather than focusing on the essential and scaling down their artistic use of characters, they instead opt for a combination of fonts, giving free rein to their fantasies. The result? Noticeable inconsistencies on numerous pieces, even among those produced by the most reputable manufacturers. For a long time, the Audemars Piguet logo, for instance, displayed two incompatible types of serif (though this has recently been corrected). And on one Vacheron Constantin dial, the days of the week were bizarrely printed in different typefaces. Even Rolex, a watchmaking giant considered to be one of the most reliable in terms of typography, is sometimes guilty of this. Its site, for example, presents a dial for its Explorer model with irregular spacing between the letters L and O.
- A stamp issued for the anniversary of the CFF railway clock, an icon of Swiss design.
An overuse of arial?
Among the majority of manufacturers, this constitutes “a true display of clumsiness”, states Eric Giroud. “And typographical errors are not limited to dials. They are often found on movements, where engravings might indicate the number of rubies for example. Engineers add a large amount of gibberish without a thought for typography, using Arial left, right and centre.” (Arial is generally considered to be a cheap copy of the famous Helvetica font — Ed.)
This problem often originates in the creative process. “When we receive a brief for a new watch, typography is often entirely overlooked,” says designer Antoine Tschumi, whose agency Neodesis works with several watchmaking houses. “The brief is sometimes even reduced to a discussion in a cafe!” But what exactly is behind such carelessness? Has the near-obsessive attention to detail that forms the basis of this industry’s reputation faded amidst the euphoria of years of growth? “It’s possible,” answers Eric Giroud. “Brands have successfully marketed and sold their models without troubling themselves too much with typographical research.”
The issue is also a cultural one. “Graphic design skills are undervalued in watchmaking, unfortunately,” adds his colleague Tschumi. “Budgeting is clearly a dominant issue: to create a mid-range watch, for example, designers are generally given a total of 100-200 hours. More time would certainly be needed in order to produce high-quality typographical work.”
An ace up the sleeve
Watch designers still need to be trained in typography. “The watchmaking stream at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts in Neuchâtel doesn’t include a single typography course,” laments Tschumi. “Their training is clearly not practical enough.” The same is true of the new chair in watch design at the School of Art and Design (Haute école d’art et de design, or HEAD) in Geneva, which also doesn’t offer typography courses.
“We must also not forget that the concept of Swiss graphic arts is relatively recent, dating back to the 1940s at the very earliest,”
This lack of interest is all the more surprising given the Swiss watchmaking industry’s real potential in terms of attracting customers interested in the beauty of numerical figures. After all, the nation is considered the cradle of modern typography. Professionals admire the renowned ‘Swiss style’, which dominated the global graphic arts industry for several decades and whose influence has spread throughout the world, from the minimalism of Apple products to signage on the New York subway. Yet Swiss watch brands have not sought, or have perhaps failed, to capitalise on this reputation, save for some exceptions such as Mondaine and its revival of the rail dial, or Ventura which requested a dial from Adrian Frutiger.
“We must also not forget that the concept of Swiss graphic arts is relatively recent, dating back to the 1940s at the very earliest,” as the typography professor François Rappo reminds us. Major watch manufacturers, in contrast, draw on a far older tradition. “Their DNA is stronger than that of Swiss graphic arts,” he adds, referring to the creations of Patek Philippe and Breguet.
- A great exemple of Swiss Style in Europa Star in 1961. The collaboration between Max Bill and German brand Junghans remains unchallenged to this day in terms of style and typography.
A german sensitivity
Over the past few decades, German brands such as Junghans (with its dial designed by Max Bill in 1961) and Nomos Glashütte have successfully positioned themselves within the contemporary rigour segment of the market. “These brands have been particularly clever in their decision to work with designers trained in typography,” explains the watch industry journalist Timm Delfs, co-author of a book on watch design (On Time, Museum für Gestaltung, Zurich).
Will Swiss brands follow suit? Vincent Sauvaire believes so. “It was my fascination with international typographical style, and particularly Josef Müller-Brockmann’s work on the grid system, that led me to come to study graphic arts and typography in Switzerland,” he says. “And since I was surprised by the extent of work that remained to be done in this area within the watchmaking industry, I decided to start offering my services to the major brands.” Indeed, the endeavour has proven a success, and Sauvaire has had the opportunity to collaborate with several companies based in Switzerland, including Vacheron Constantin and La Montre Hermès.