By: Lee Yuen-Rapati
Watches and complexity are synonymous. Beyond the fact that mechanical watches are a complex assembly of intricate parts, numerous watches rely on this very aspect as an attractive quality from skeleton-ized pieces and chronographs, all the way up to that elite class known as the super-complication. Watches and minimalism are an exception. Some people decry a watch with a tourbillon hidden beneath its dial while others laud watchmakers like Ludwig Oechslin for creating a moon phase module accurate to well over 3 millennia using only five parts (hidden tourbillons and Ochs Und Junior watches should both be held in high regard in my opinion). The Movado Museum watch is heralded as a genius execution of minimalism whereas a wave of micro brand watches try (and often fail) to capture your attention with a detail-less dial. While a lot of the discussion around minimalist watches comes down to personal taste, I believe that there are many aesthetic decisions that watchmakers and designers can make to ensure their pieces appear simple, but are not simply lacking complexity.
Minimalism can be expressed in many forms, however it is often a rigorous essay to draw someone’s attention through simplicity and ample space. Details should be kept at a minimum, but not at the cost of inducing boredom.
At first glance, the watch drawn for this article may not reflect the characteristics of minimalism. It has twice as many hands as is necessary for telling the time, it has a subsidiary dial and even has a complication. My goal for this watch was not to create the most minimalist of designs, but to show how a refinement of detail can lead to minimalism. Rather than focusing on removing elements, I concentrated on how to subtly present a core set of criteria.
Starting with the overall size, I envision this watch would be in the 36mm to 38mm zone. It is neither a sports nor tool watch so there is no need to go beyond that measurement (sorry big-wristed geeks). A smaller case also allows for a larger diameter crown in relation, which is a feature more akin to vintage watches and one I find very attractive. The case has a flat bezel and slightly tapered high-polish lugs that curve down at their ends. With a smaller overall diameter, a larger bezel and heftier lugs can add a significant visual presence that grounds the watch on the wrist. Many minimalist watches opt for the slimmest bezel and lugs possible which can give the effect that the dial is floating above the wrist. Both the crystal and the dial have a gentle dome and the hour, minute and power reserve hands would slope with that dome. The matching slopes take away a distracting instance where two elements could be different. The capped hands are the most complex part of the dial, and this was a decision made to combat the bane of minimalism: the risk of being boring. Quite soon into the drawing, the minute and hour hands changed from needle hands to their current forms. The power reserve and seconds hands are not parallel needle hands, but rather taper from base to tip.
Photo Credit: Phillips Watches
Across the dial are markers for the hours, power reserve and five second increments. I decided not to put a dot or shorter marker at 3 o’clock as it looked out of place and added avoidable complexity to the dial. There is a dot at 8 o’clock since it is harder to tell where 8 falls between 7 and 9 as opposed to 3 in relation to 2 and 4. The hour markers are not simple (read: potentially boring) lines; they have small serifs on either end which is a subtle but important distinction I wanted to make. The serifs are actually a reference vintage watch text. Look closely and you can see that a lot of vintage dial text will flare towards the stroke ends of the letters, a good example is the Zenith El Primero A3818 (this typographic style has also been replicated by Nomos). The 12 o’clock marker is unified in form, but stands alone in bright red. Singling out one element from its familiars is a good strategy to create emphasis without adding too much complexity.
Minimalism comes from refinement. It is always a challenge to refine a design, but a necessary one in order to achieve success. The refinements on this design predominantly involve alignment and sizing. Each element has been refined to a simple and slim form which adds to the negative space. Linear details have been repeated, and most importantly there is a relationship established between the elements and their placement. The inner and outer endings of the hour markers are matched by the ends of the minute and hour hands. The outer circumference implied by the markers is also shown in the outer edge of the power reserve indication. The power reserve hand does fall short of that outer edge, as this hand is intended to have a shorter reach than the minute hand. Shortening the outer edge of the indicator to match the hand seemed odd in relation to the hour markers; this was one relationship I wanted to avoid. The signature, power reserve indicator, and subseconds dial all call for alignment to cement their place on the dial. They are aligned between the hour markers of 11–1, 2–4, and 7–9 respectively. It is not a symmetrical layout, but as I have said before, there is power in asymmetry.
Upon reflection this watch may seem numerous in its elements, but it is the refined relationships between those elements that contributes to a sense of minimalism.