You have to feel sorry for the folk responsible for coming up with new watch designs. Well, a bit sorry. In a world saturated with timepieces they're tasked with producing something beguiling enough to tempt us to buy yet another watch, but familiar enough that we're not frightened off the prospect.
It's a fine balancing act that in recent times has seen many designers seek refuge in drawings from the attic, producing spanking new wrist-wonders redolent with flavours from the past. Domed crystals rather than flat, cream-hued lume rather than green, dial markings that suggest the 1940s and earlier – barely a brand be it Montblanc, Panerai, Tag or Longines hasn't succumbed to the lure of yesteryear.
You could argue the result is the best of both worlds, satisfyingly retro looks with modern internals, but what if you don't want to wear the past on your wrist?
A classic genre
Nailing an appropriate classic is easy – such watches define themselves by their restrained appearance, each one as safe as another even if some are undeniably more charismatic (Patek Philippe for example). In a similarly impressive vein Jaeger LeCoultre and IWC have plenty to offer while in the middle ground are numerous offerings from Cartier and Montblanc.
Edging to the more noticeable you'll find Omega then Hublot and Panerai and finally, fodder for the brave from Franck Muller and Richard Mille. (Or for the really brave something from MB&F or Urwerk.) As for Rolex, the truth is they're in a category of their own.
While Muller and Mille pioneered massive cushion-shaped timepieces – that despite current trends show no sign of falling from favour with enthusiasts – it was a look established two decades back, raising the question of what is next in watch design, aside from more of the same?
The first of the year's watch fairs, Geneva's Salon Internationale de Haute Horlogerie in January might have provided a clue. We're not talking about adventurous designs you might baulk at strapping on, for example HYT's nonetheless wonderful H20 machine that debuted at SIHH, but an altogether sleeker offering from a brand you've probably never heard of, Ressence.
Where the HYT is an outrageous glass puck that sits on the wrist like a giant naval compass, the Ressence Type 2 e-Crown Concept is a skin-hugging limpet that oozes sea-creature intelligence not only in its appearance but in its operation.
Ressence is the brainchild of Belgian industrial designer Benoit Mintiens who burst onto the horological scene only half a dozen years back with a timepiece, the Ressence Type 1. No hands overlap thanks to the employment of a system of revolving discs making up the dial and sub-dials.
Filling a creative gap
Mintiens, who among other things has designed first-class cabins for Air France, was said to have been spurred into action after visiting a watch fair and finding what he called "a lack of creativity … brands just selling brands."
His deconstruction of the usual timepiece resulted in anything but. Radical, it was also good looking – and dare we say expensive at around the $30,000 mark.
If those good looks suggested a genuine way forward for the watch, one that captured clarity rather than promoted complexity, the e-Crown Concept takes things even further into futuristic land without being cute or silly.
Its workings are resolutely contemporary, employing traditional cogs to do the heavy lifting.
Powered by a kinetic generator supplemented by 'photo-voltaic' cells, you activate the e-Crown by double-tapping the glass of the watch, after which it registers the time you've set manually via a key on the case-back, then monitors the time and adjusts it during the day. Multiple time zones can be displayed and an App will link the watch to your phone. Yes, genius.
The e-Crown Concept isn't destined to remain a concept for long, production being imminent we're told, although no word on price. As a pointer to the future it might be priceless.