Thirty years ago there were no creative directors. Watch companies made movements and what mattered was accuracy – that’s why people bought a watch from one company rather than another. Then along came the “quartz revolution” and it all changed. Keeping good time became easy. And the traditional, mechanical-watch industry went into decline.
Today, watches are sold on a combination of style and image. Every firm wants to be Rolex, with its instantly recognisable Oyster case, or Audemars Piguet with its Royal Oak. That has made designers even more important.
Sitting above the designers is the creative director who acts as an interpreter between the chief executive and the designers. They mine the brand’s archive on behalf of the designers of individual products. The best description of their role was the occasion in 1975 when Gianni Bulgari showed Swiss designer Gérald Genta some of the jewellery Bulgari was making from Roman coins and asked him to design a watch using this as inspiration. Genta kept the drum shape of the coin with its flat sides, but he took the text from the sides of the coin and engraved the wide, flat bezel with the word BVLGARI twice in a font derived from Roman inscriptions. Forty years on, the BVLGARI BVLGARI watch is still in production.
Sandrine Stern, creative director of Patek Philippe
Sandrine Stern’s first love was jewellery. As a child she often watched her father at work as head of a small team of craftsmen who made jewelled watch-cases in one of the many small firms that fed the Swiss watch industry at the time. She remembers being entranced by the skills of the team of jewellers at her father’s atelier. But she also met many of the watchmakers that his business served.
By the time Stern came to look for a job, traditional watchmaking was in decline because of quartz, particularly in the Swiss industry, which largely continued to make mechanical timepieces.
Stern loved the craft and was undeterred. She trained as an executive secretary and joined the advertising department of Patek Philippe, which was already a well-known watchmaker. There she met Thierry, scion of the family that had owned the firm since the 1930s, whom she later married. Stern became head of the jewellery department in 2007, where the skills she learned from her father were once again put to use. Three years later she was named as Patek’s creative director.
Stern is responsible for up to 20 new wristwatches, pieces of jewellery, table clocks and pocket watches each year. In addition to the new products, Stern and her team constantly make minor design changes to existing models, such as introducing new hands and bracelets or fresh dial colours. She works closely on small aesthetic details with those who make the movements, such as the placement of subsidiary dials, the position of a moonphase or where to put the date window.
When I meet Stern at the company’s head office in Geneva, she is wearing a simple dress with bright, embroidered flowers and a multitude of bracelets and bangles; as they move a small tattoo peeks out discreetly between them. Her choice of watch is a Patek Philippe 4947 (above) in white gold.
The timepiece reflects both her current position and where she has come from, she says. It is a white-gold watch with an annual calendar and the bezel, the thin band of metal that encircles the dial and holds the glass in place, is set with diamonds. Its dial is stone-grey, a colour that is not currently available in Patek’s catalogue – a true limited edition.
Zaim Kamal, creative director of Montblanc
Montblanc’s creative director Zaim Kamal was born in Pakistan and educated in Germany, Switzerland and Britain. He remembers his grandfather’s slim Piaget wristwatch and loved the weekly ritual of winding it when he was a teenager. He studied at St Martin’s School of Fashion and worked with Vivienne Westwood, a British fashion designer, who helped him to hone his elegant monochromatic look. There, Kamal concentrated on designing a broad range of ladies’ accessories, including scarves, shoes and handbags.
After he joined Montblanc in 2013, he became inspired by the legacy of the company’s famous, early Montblanc pens. He used the coiled serpent that acted as a pocket clip on the pens as an integral part of his designs: it features in the limited edition Villeret Tourbillon Bi-Cylindrique 110 Years Anniversary watch for men and the Bohème ExoTourbillon Slim 110 Years Anniversary for women. Because he was not a watch designer by training, he looked at the design of a movement in a different way. He used the serpent on a new pen range too, circling the barrel, and on a range of leather satchels. Kamal even has a tattoo of the snake coiled around his ring finger.
He is most proud of designing the Montblanc 1858 Monopusher Chronograph Limited Edition 100 with smoke green dial (above), he says, which is built by the Minerva, the facility at Villeret where the company produces its handmade watches.
Fabrizio Buonamassa, creative director of Bulgari
Italian designer Fabrizio Buonamassa began drawing watches as a child, around the same time he started sketching cars. These twin loves have propelled his career. He trained as an industrial designer, and when he was designing cars for Fiat, Buonamassa sent some of his watch sketches to Paolo Bulgari, great-grandson of the firm’s eponymous founder. Bulgari later asked him to join the firm.
Buonamassa continues to see the connection between cars and watches. Both are mechanical. Both perform a utilitarian function. But they are also defined by their exterior style and role as social signifiers. Since 2001 Buonamassa’s principal responsibilities have been to oversee the Bulgari watches – the Serpenti, Lucea, Octo and BVLGARI BVLGARI lines, as well as the high jewellery. He also has a stake in designing the company’s sunglasses, leather goods and pens.
Asked about his favourite piece, Buonamassa initially mentions the Bulgari Octo Finissimo Automatic Minute Repeater whose design he oversaw and which won men’s watch prize at the 2017 world championship of watchmaking, the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève. But then he plumps for BVLGARI BVLGARI (above) the firm’s first mass-produced watch. It’s the watch, he says, that best represents the soul of the brand. Ironically, it’s the one Bulgari timepiece he had no part in designing.