By: Lee Yuen-Rapati
What is the purpose of a date window? If reading comments from years worth of watch articles has taught me anything, the purpose of a date window is to ruin a watch. Whether they are messing up the symmetry of a design, showing up on dress watches or clashing with dial colors, people love to hate date windows. In the infancy of my watch obsession, I was a date-hater. I bashed those little white rectangles whenever I saw them, no matter where they were on a dial. It was an easy criticism that let me feel like I knew something more about watches. No true watch lover would allow such a compromising, plebeian feature near their wrist. The truth is, there are plenty of watches that exist where a date window is not just a useful complication, but an interesting and engaging design element.
There are numerous ways to indicate the date on a watch, but generally there is either a window that displays digits or a hand that points to digits. There are extreme versions of these indications like the Urwerk UR-1001 or the Zenith El Primero Lightweight, but most watches will try to make reading the date as straight forward as possible. For this article, I want to focus solely on date windows, looking at various design possibilities and features.
ANYTHING BUT DEFAULT
A date window should never feel like a default feature. A dial should never have a hole cut in it simply because the underlying movement comes with a date wheel. The best date windows feel like they belong with their watch because thought has been put in to including them as a necessary part of the design. Dial markings are moved to accommodate, sometimes even extra mechanics are introduced simply to make sure the date window belongs on the dial just as much as the hour and minute hands.
The paragons of good date window design are the Rolex Datejust and the A. Lange & Söhne Lange 1. Both of these watches have customized displays for the date and they don’t shy away from the prominence of these complications. Obviously not every watch can include a magnifier or big-date complication but there is something to be said about the sheer size of the date indications on these two watches.
The choice of the size of a date display is the first step towards success or failure. I believe it is also the most important feature to get right, and often it is the case of bigger being better. Sure a large date window can be ruined by bad typography (more on that later) but a small window will be more difficult to read and more easily lost on a dial. Of course the size of a date window is reliant on the size of the date wheel underneath, but any watch with a magnifier on its crystal is proof you can get around having a small date window.
The size of a date window should also relate to the size of a watch. Modern watches can afford a larger window thanks to their larger case diameter, but a small window might look right at home on a vintage 34mm watch. Two modern manufacturers who know the value of a larger date window are Nomos and H. Moser & Cie. Both have specialized designs to incorporate a larger date wheel within a modern sized watch.
MYTH OF THE BIG DATE
PLACEMENT AND FORM
The placement of a date window is perhaps just as important as its size, while the form of the aperture is a great way to combat any semblance of default design. Apart from big date watches, the placement of a date window is relegated to the outer part of the dial. Watches using base movements from ETA (or Seiko or Miyota etc.) are entirely reliant on the diameter of the date wheel. A default date wheel on an ETA 2824-2 will have a diameter around 25mm which will often result in an awkward placement on a 42mm watch.
If Longines had opted for a movement with a date wheel that went around the movement like what Nomos does, they could have a larger date window that sat further to the extremity of the dial, and not cut into both the subseconds dial and the six o’clock marker. Obstructing or cutting into dial elements isn’t always a bad thing as it can help to break up a more boring or stagnant design, however the Longines Heritage Military Watch simply interrupts a homogeneous design with its date window.
The form that a date window takes depends mostly on its placement within the dial. Most common date windows are rectangular, however there are a plethora of shapes available to the designer that can be used instead. One such shape is the trapezoid, appearing on numerous Nomos watches as well as vintage pieces like the Universal Genève Polerouter. The tapered edges of a trapezoid bring far more dynamism to a dial than a stoic rectangle. Certain watches like the IWC Da Vinci Automatic 36 use a round date window while many of Parmigiani Fleurier’s watches feature a curved aperture that displays three days.
TYPOGRAPHY AND COLOR
Most design is only as good as its typography, and watches are no exception. As mentioned earlier, bad or inappropriate typography can ruin a date window, no matter how large it is. The default sans-serif type displayed on an ETA date wheel looks terribly out of place on a dress watch, just like A. Lange & Söhne’s modified use of Monotype’s Engravers typeface probably wouldn’t work on a dive watch. Properly modified, or custom type is the best way to make the details in a date window belong with the rest of the watch. Lange and Nomos are the leaders in this area and a lot of other companies could learn from them.
It is generally good practice to match the color of a date wheel to the color of the dial, however there are some exceptions. The contrasting white of the date wheel in the Tudor Pelagos balances out its white markers, and there are some fantastic examples of vintage watches with light dials and dark date wheels.
DESIGNING A DATE WINDOW
This wouldn’t be a One Hour Watch article without a watch drawing. The criteria and watches I listed are examples that I follow whenever I include a date window in a watch design. Everything on this design started from the idea of a thoughtful date window.
The watch features a big date display in a single large aperture. I applied large bevels to the edges of the aperture to make it appear even bigger. These bevels are repeated in the subseconds dial, and outer case. The minute track is raised above the base dial giving more areas for light to bounce off of. I ended up drawing the date window a bit too close to the edge of the dial as it butts up against the 4 o’clock dot and interacts poorly with minute track. I wanted to feature a design that had overlapping elements, but in the frenzy of putting in details, the date window is slightly misplaced.
In terms of typography, the watch uses a condensed sans serif face that is not dissimilar to the date wheels on some Nomos watches. Gel pens are not the best tool to show nuanced letter forms so I’ve drawn a quick enlarged version. The numerals in the date window are slightly wider than the 12 o’clock marker, this was a conscious decision since the date numerals would be smaller. Very small type is usually more legible if it is slightly wider.
My goal for this article was to show the potential for date windows. They aren’t always a detriment to a watch, and there are plenty of great examples of well designed date windows. Date indications are extremely useful, speaking as someone who is constantly forgetting the date, they give me just another excuse to look at my watch. Instead of decrying the entire boatload of date windowed watches that are sure to be released in the near future, I hope that you will now be able to pick the good ones from the bad ones.