Watch the numbers

For things that can cost so much money, you wouldn’t think anyone would want to cut corners…

The case for better watch typographyHODINKEE
[O]nly a small and decreasing number of watchmakers go to the trouble of creating custom lettering for their dials. More often, watch brands use off-the-rack fonts that are squished and squeezed onto the dial’s limited real estate. Patek Philippe, for example, has used ITC American Typewriter and Arial on its high-end watches. French brand Bell & Ross deploys the playful 1980 typeface Isonorm for the numerals on many of its timepieces. Rolex uses a slightly modified version of Garamond for its logo. And Audemars Piguet has replaced the custom lettering on its watches with a stretched version of Times Roman.

That watchmakers use typefaces originally created for word processing, signage, and newspapers highlights a central paradox of watch design: These tiny machines hide their most elegant solutions under layers of complexity, while one of the most visible components – typography – is often an afterthought.

Of course, it’s not all like that.

Our favourite uses of typography in watchesA Collected Man
Good typography should be almost unnoticeable. Blending seamlessly into the rest of the design, it should tell you everything you need to know, without you being aware of it. Despite the many restrictions that are applied to dial layout, the creativity that can be seen in typography across horology is quite staggering. To put it simply, typography is the art and technique of arranging type to make written language legible and appealing when displayed. As the dial is the main point of interaction with a watch, it is arguably one of its most important parts, and certainly one that can produce the most emotion. This is why typeface can play such a vital, yet subtle, role in how we experience and feel about a certain piece.

A rather unexpected instance of a brand using a completely different typeface for just one model is the Patek Philippe 5212A weekly calendar. Perhaps designed to reflect the singularity of the rarely seen complication, this reference was printed with a handwritten typeface that, when studied, almost looks shaky. While this could appear like a mistake at first, it was revealed that the typeface was in fact chosen by their design team to “recall an epoch in the not too distant past when notes were still written by hand in paper diaries.”

Here’s more on that “handwritten” watch.

Complications Ref. 5212A-001 Stainless SteelPatek Philippe
Patek Philippe introduces a new complication to its calendar watches: the weekly calendar, a semi-integrated mechanism displaying the current week number, in addition to the day and date. A particularly useful feature for the modern businessman.

I love that, “the modern businessman” indeed. Like this one, you mean? But anyway, it’s not occurred to me until now that, for these watchmakers, typography is more numerical than alphabetical.

Breguet numeralsBreguet
Some Breguet watches display the distinctive numerals that A.- L. Breguet designed. Although he himself was no calligraphist, Breguet’s Arabic numerals show his flair for combining function with elegance. Still used today, particularly on watches with enamel dials, Breguet numerals first appeared before the French Revolution when they shared the dial with tiny stars to mark the minutes and stylised fleur-de-lys at five-minute intervals. By 1790 they had assumed their definitive form.

You can see these Breguet numerals on the Dubuis watch above, as well as the Patek Philippe in the header image. But manufacturing limitations also play their part in watch typography. Have a look at these 4s.

Decimal fontsFonts by Hoefler&Co.
Watch lettering is printed through tampography, a technique in which ink is transferred first from an engraved plate to a spongy, dumpling-shaped silicone pad, and from there onto the convex dial of a watch. To reproduce clearly, a letterform needs to overcome the natural tendencies of liquid ink or enamel held in suspension: tiny serifs at the ends of strokes can create a larger coastline, to help prevent liquid from withdrawing due to surface tension; wide apexes on characters like 4 and A eliminate the acute angles where liquid tends to pool.

Hence that flat top 4. I hadn’t noticed them before, but they’re everywhere.

Author: Terry Madeley

Works with student data and enjoys reading about art, data, education and technology.

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