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Hip to be Square: What’s in a Shape?
Hip to be Square: What’s in a Shape?
Words Lance Branquinho
April 3. 2018

Some like them round, some prefer angles and others don’t conformity. A look at the cases and faces that define our timepieces.

Features
Words Lance Branquinho
April 3, 2018

Spherical perfection. The circle has fascinated us for millennia, it’s properties and appearance so unique early geometers believed there must be divinity to it. Arabian astronomers recognised its importance and once we realise how handy the round shape was when removed from the realm of ideas and applied to the world of working, human evolution accelerated on a development curve powered by the wheel. 

Watchmaking has a strange relationship with circular shapes. The intricate mechanics that power our most cherished timepieces rely on gearing driven by circles, but the current dominance of round wristwatch faces is a distinctly post-Second World War phenomenon. During that conflict pilot and diving watches were required to be robust and functional, and with available technology it was nearly impossible to create a square rubber seal that would repel moisture. As the heritage of aviation and diving watches from the war drove the marketing and design strategies for most watchmakers throughout the 1960s, it was obvious that the round face would predominate. 

In the beginning, we were much more taken with wearing a diversity of shapes on our wrist. Cartier’s Tank is an excellent example that all was not round when time was to be found a century ago. Although its elegant rectangular aesthetic isn’t what you’d immediately associate with a timepiece tracing military heritage, the name gives away much of its purpose in origin. Prototyped in 1917, its inspiration was drawn from the first battle tanks, which entered service in France during the First World War. Louis Cartier copied the side profile of these rectangular armoured vehicles and after presenting the first example to American General John Pershing, the Tank has become one of the most coveted (and copied) wristwatches in history. Celebrated wearers included Jackie Kennedy and Princess Diana. 

A signed Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Cartier Tank model next to an original painting by the former US First Lady are displayed at Christie’s in New York last June ahead of the Rare Watches and American Icons New York sale.
A signed Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Cartier Tank model next to an original painting by the former US First Lady are displayed at Christie’s in New York last June ahead of the Rare Watches and American Icons New York sale.

During the two interwar decades, Art Deco dominated global industrial design and when the timepieces moved from being a pocket ornament to being strapped on an owner’s wrist, it didn’t take long for aesthetics to evolve away from organic shapes. As Picasso and the Cubist masters came to dominate European art in the late 1920s, it was to be expected that watchmakers would fall under their influence. Geometric shapes were the pillars of cubist design and rectangular faces became popular amongst consumers.

As the horological industry matured and evolved during the last half of the 20th century, the traditional round face came to dominance, accounting for nearly 80 per cent of overall sales. The balance of perception between round and rectangular was perhaps done no favour by the confusingly brilliant Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali. An arch eccentric, the melting timepieces in Dali’s signature painting The Persistence of Memory legitimised the unusual Cartier Crash watches. Independent of Dali’s doing, the Crash was allegedly inspired by a Cartier Baignoire Allongé retrieved from a car wreck, badly burnt and distorted. It was originally launched in 1967 and remains in production today. With a face asymmetrical distorted, the Crash watches are a statement like no other.

While women buyers have always supported the classic rectangular shape, men have been less given to stray away from the safety of a sphere. Film and cultural icon Steve McQueen altered perceptions when he selected the daring TAG Heuer Monaco as his personal watch of distinction during the filming of Le Mans in 1970. Despite the daring Crash and McQueen’s cult of personality haloing the Monaco, rectangular horology has always been an outlier’s pursuit.

Patek Philippe’s rose-gold Aquanaut with a brown dial and strap angles into a classic gold Cartier Tank. A Breitling ‘Bentley’ chronograph bears a distinctive bezel and band, as does the Montblanc dive watch. For her, Rolex is second to none.
Patek Philippe’s rose-gold Aquanaut with a brown dial and strap angles into a classic gold Cartier Tank. A Breitling ‘Bentley’ chronograph bears a distinctive bezel and band, as does the Montblanc dive watch. For her, Rolex is second to none.
Although its elegant rectangular aesthetic isn’t what you’d immediately associate with a timepiece tracing military heritage, the name of the Cartier Tank gives away much of its purpose in origin.

Why is it that we default to a round instead of square face? The buying psychology behind this preference might be seeded in our formative years. When we learn to tell time, as children, the most elementary of watches, or clocks, are never square or rectangular. Our entire apprenticeship with time is served under the tutoring of a round-faced timepiece. The clinical insight is that we associate authoritative timekeeping with a round face as children, and this bias guides our decision making as adults. 

Can it possibly change? Will rectangular faces, so desired a hundred years ago, return as the statement of wristwatch chic? The possibility in 2018 is better than ever before and the catalyst comes from a disrupting movement in the timepiece industry: smart wearables. When Apple introduced its smartwatch, the square face was reborn with a digital edge and desirability that conventional electronic watches had never provided before.

Apple could easily have made its wearable with a round face, the screen-to-shape ratio wouldn’t have effected legibility or function, but it chose to make its smartwatch angular, to differentiate it from traditional analogue rivals, which are mostly round. Apple’s inarguable brand identity and popularity among early adopters has made it a force to be reckoned with within the world of horology. As more influencers and celebrities expanded their Apple ecosystem with the brand’s latest product, subconscious acceptance for something unconventional, with a rectangular face, has increased too. 

A statement made by what is worn on your wrist should never entail an element of compromise — but there are watches that combine elements of round and angular in their design. This blended aesthetic features a round face within a rectangular case and there are some striking examples in the current market. Bell&Ross fabricate the BR-X1 White Hawk for those who wish to go both round and square, with a dedicated military aviation appearance.

Functionally there is no difference in the best-engineered square or round watches. Advances in dust- and water-sealing techniques and superior materials ensure that a rectangular shape is every bit as hermetically sealed as a round case. Relating to form, rectangular and square faces do offer the wearer a mark of distinction, due to their rarity in the market. 

For collectors a quiver of timepieces should certainly include something with a face that has some edge. If you forego the tradition of a telling time from a circular shape, you’ll certainly be that much more of an individualist. 

Lance Branquinho
4 Articles | View All
 

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