Classic minimalism

The Max Bill heritage in fine watches

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14 November 2013


The super-thin lettering of the new iOS 7 operating system for iPhone and iPad caused some consternation when it first appeared, but it marks a renewed interest for slim, elegant lettering. Something similar is happening in watches, with a number of new releases sharing this sort of aesthetic.

NOMOS Lux Weissgold hell raeumlich 02The Lux, by Glashütte brand Nomos, has an incredibly uncluttered dial within a tonneau case in white gold. The dial is in two versions, white, and light blue and white, named Weissgold Hell and Weissgold respectively. It is very slim at just 8.95 millimetres, with a Horween Shell Cordovan black leather strap on wire lugs. It becomes a superb dress watch, though the view through the sapphire caseback is more colourful, with some of the 23 rubies, the balance wheel and the swan-neck adjustment in full view.

max bill by Junghans Automatic 0273500.00But the origin of pure simplicity in watches must be Junghans, another German brand, for whom the Bauhaus designer Max Bill created some memorable designs that still look modern today. Dating back to around 1962, they are still made by Junghans, with models that include the Max Bill Chronoscope, the Max Bill Automatic, and the Max Bill Ladies. They are all masterpiece of minimalism, with variations in case material and strap.

Many other brands make watches sharing this sort of sophisticated minimalism. The Master Ultra Thin 41 by Jaeger-LeCoultre is a model introduced in 2013 that takes its place amongst the brand’s ultra-thin models, with a 7.4-millimetre case and the simplicity of dauphine hour and minute hands.

The Patrimony Contemporaine Ultra-Thin Calibre 1731 by Vacheron Constantin reflects the same sort of minimalist design, with baton hour markers except for the slim arrow-heads at the quarter-hour marks, and small seconds at 8 o'clock. A glimpse through the transparent caseback reveals much more complication: this is the thinnest minute repeater watch on the market, at just 8.09 millimetres, superbly engineered from both horological and audio points of view. Each watch is assembled by a single watchmaker, who has to have at least 15 years' experience before working on this piece. Each piece takes from 3 to 6 months to assemble and adjust, using over 1,200 tools, many of which made by the watchmaker himself.

Calatrava by Patek Philippe is one of the brand's most iconic creations, dating back to 1932. The Ref. 5227 edition presented at Baselworld in 2013 has a sapphire caseback, protected by a dust cover. The decoration is limited to graceful profiles on the lugs. The watch has an automatic movement, and it is rated to 30 metres water resistance. In true Bauhaus style, the Patek Philippe designers found a method of attaching the dust cover using an invisible hinge.

Piaget's minimalism can be appreciated in the side view of its Altiplano as well as from the dial: the Altiplano presented in 2013 is the thinnest automatic watch, fitted with the thinnest automatic calibre ever made, at 2.35 millimetres, in a case that is just 6.36 millimetres thick. The Calibre 1205P movement drives an off-centred small seconds subdial, and the date. Perfect discretion.

Parmigiani Fleurier's version of Bauhaus minimalism, the Tonda 1950, is a little more complex than Max Bill's design, with the characteristic lugs incorporating Fibonacci spiral geometry and the delta hands that Michel Parmigiani has always loved for his watches.

The Saxonia Thin by A. Lange & Söhne is a beautiful watch, the maison's thinnest, a hand-wound piece 5.9 millimetres thick, with just hours and minutes, and a sapphire caseback that reveals the balance wheel and a lot of beautiful finish.

There are others, of course, but ultimately it’s a matter of taste of whether you prefer Max Bill’s unmistakable combination of legibility and minimalism, or one of the other watches in which ‘less is more.’ One thing is sure: you’ll be able to leave your watch to your children and grandchildren in the certainty that it will never go out of fashion.

Further information:
Max Bill was born in Winterthur, Switzerland, in 1908, and studied at the Bauhaus in Dessau, with teachers including Kandinsky and Klee. His design was underscored by his conviction that objects should be easily understood by the senses, as demonstrated not only by his watches for Junghans, but also his architecture, sculpture and painting.