Inspiration can strike at any time and under any circumstances. As the origin story goes, Sir Isaac Newton was sitting below an apple tree when a falling apple inspired his thoughts on the Universal Law of Gravitation. Who would have thought that an apple could have such a profound effect on the order of our universe?
What then is the greatest inspiration to watch design, as we know it today? Similar to Newton’s apple, watch design has its own unique source of historical inspiration.
In 1970 Audemars Piguet enlisted Swiss born watch designer Charles Gerald Genta to design their latest watch. Audemars Piguet Managing Director George Golay was specific when he described what they were looking for.
“Mr. Genta, “ he said, “I need a steel sport watch that has never been done before: I want it to be something totally new and waterproof.”
A mandate to design something that has “never been done before” is hard enough, but Golay made it even harder when he told Genta he needed draft sketches submitted the next day. Genta was equal to the task. He already had two notable watch designs to his name: the Omega Constellation in 1959 and the Patek Phillippe Golden Ellipse in 1968.
He found all the inspiration he needed in the design of British Royal Navy Battleships… specifically the porthole. Audemars Piguet enthusiastically approved the octagonal porthole inspired design.
The new watch was shown in 1972 and dubbed the “Royal Oak” after the Revenge-Class battleship. In the early 70’s the octagonal design with exposed screws and the use of stainless steel in a luxury watch was consider a risk. That risk paid off with what is now considered a watch Icon.
Not long after Genta’s success with the Royal Oak, another giant in watches came knocking at his door. This time it was Horology Super Power: Patek Philippe.
Patek was looking for a casually elegant sports watch for men. This time instead of Battleships, Genta found his inspiration in the portholes of common maritime vessels.
Since portholes on most maritime vessels are made to open and close, Genta went a step further and also used the porthole hinges as inspiration. These “ears” functionally attached the 2 pieces of the semi-circular watch case, while aesthetically resembling the hinges on a porthole.
The semi-circular case design was introduced in 1976 and was given a maritime inspired name… the Nautilus. Similar to Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak, the Nautilus was a risk for Patek Philippe.
Many purists at the time were turned off by what they considered to be a departure from classic Patek. That departure paid off and the Nautilus earned its position as one of the most sought after sport watches.
In 1980 a brand emerged that bet everything on the porthole.
In 1976 Carlo Crocco left his position at the Binda Group (known at the time for its Breil watches and owned by his uncle) to start his own watch company. Crocco knew what he wanted his new company to be and would go to great lengths to get it there. He wanted a porthole inspired watch with a rubber strap.
Rubber at this point had not been used as a watchstrap and was not considered a luxury material. It took Croco years and millions of dollars to find the right rubber. He wanted a strap that was comfortable, strong and not prone to cracking. To achieve this, steel had to be chemically fused with rubber and mixed with vanilla to eliminate what he considered to be a rubber smell.
The case design was pure porthole. Croco named his new watch brand after the French word for porthole… Hublot. In 1980 a Hublot was a black rubber strap, a black dial and a round porthole inspired case. Pure and simple.
The Hublot, Royal Oak and Nautilus are all still relevant designs today and will continue to be. Every year new models are introduced that are inspired by the originals but updated to identify with today’s market. For example, are now available with chronographs and in various sizes.
Every serious collector should own at least one version of each of these iconic porthole inspired models.
- Hublot Big Bang Evolution– 301.SX.1170.RX
- Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Dual Time Power Reserve– 26120st.oo.1220st.01
- Patek Phillipe Nautilus– 5712/1A-001