You don’t usually see a lot of Art Deco elements in modern interiors, right? The same pretty much goes to contemporary art. However, the watch design codes born in that period are alive and well a century later. And after a second thought, the longevity of this aesthetics in haute horlogerie appears to be very logical.
Expensive materials, exquisite craftsmanship, exotic themes, and an accent on being modern status symbol – nearly all essential Art Deco commandments can be found in todays watch industry. Just check out some press-releases from any luxury brand. In a sense, luxury watches and fundamental principles of Art Deco is a match made in heaven. And while this aesthetics are not even close to dominating the market like the steel sporty pieces, they still have their own niche. We’re not trying to say that any watch combining a yellow gold case with a black dial, automatically gets its share of Art Deco vibe, however, the list of design elements that can give some clues does exist. After a hundred years, we’ve just lost the habit of noticing them.
Originally, the style was established at the era of technological breakthrough, with motorcars, skyscrapers, and aviation suddenly becoming a natural part of life. And the art in general reflected it with step-like zigzaging shapes, contrasting colours, outlines, and in watchmaking – rectangular cases. It was the dawning of a new age: the moment when pocket watches were literary smitten away by the wristwatches. Born after the First World War and named after its main technological novelty, Cartier Tank literary resembled the shapes of a heavy combat vehicle. In combination with a bracelet, distinctly repeating the tracklayer structure, the product looked ultramodern. This was unimaginable some 10 years ago. According to legend, the first exemplar was presented to the legendary American general John Joseph Pershing himself.
Oddly enough, the Tank was powered by a movement from the French company Jaeger, working in close collaboration with LeCoultre & Cie. About 15 years later these two will produce arguably the most famous watch of the era – the Reverso, featuring a rotating case. Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, Girard-Perregaux, Piaget – almost any serious Swiss manufacturer had their take on non-round cases and dials. As a result, the tonneau and cushion shapes came into use. After the World War II the trend vanished only to have a glorious comeback five decades and one quartz crisis later.
1990-s were marked by the revival of the Reverso line by Jaeger-LeCoultre, the launch of a Gondolo line by Patek Philippe, and by quite a number of elegant non-circular collections from other top brands. Their evolution up to our day looks pretty similar: after reviving the old-timers, the watchmakers began integrating prestigious complications into them. And now a typical Art Deco-ish collection features almost anything from three-handers to perpetual calendars, chronographs, and tourbillons. Having inherited the playful look of its century-old predecessor, the Vacheron Constantin Historiques American 21 seems very original: whole indication is significantly shifted clockwise. Back in the day, the idea was to create a perfect watch for drivers, so the dial comes into traditional position when your hand lies on the steering wheel.
Girard-Perregaux Vintage 1945 series is full of classical pieces combining pure minimalism of a rectangular dial with the sun-rays indices and bold outlines. And they harmoniously sit next to their skeletonized siblings oozing modernity, despite the same rectangular case. The Art Deco DNA is also quite strong in Black Tie collection by Piaget. Starting from the Vintage Inspiration – featuring a stepped bezel, a black dial and an overall shape balancing on the edge of a square and a circle – and ending with the Emperador line with its guilloched sunray patterns and some aggressive triangular elements.
One thing is for sure, the majority of watches, inheriting the Art Deco aesthetics more or less falls into the dress category. Modernism, cubism and constructivism with all their passion in glorifying forms and speeds of a technological age, now seem but a graceful memory of the naive and beautiful era. Born as daring and aggressive, its DNA have long became the gold standard of elegance and class, especially when put against some modern mechanical avant-garde in 50 mm cases.