Close your eyes and think of a watch.
Most people picture a round shape, perhaps with sloping lugs that hold a bracelet or strap. That circular silhouette is wristwatch design’s dominant form, and has been since World War I, when soldiers first soldered wire loops to their pocket watches so they could wear them on their wrists.
There is little doubt that the result of such an unscientific exercise also is aided by Rolex’s grip on the market. Sales of its round watches account for one in every four dollars spent on luxury timepieces, according to Morgan Stanley’s most recent annual industry review.
But beyond the familiar shape of a curvilinear watch is the rectangular form, itself a storied shape and one that is enjoying a significant renaissance. So if your imagination pictured the right angles of Cartier’s Tank, the 1917 watch inspired by tank treads, or Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Reverso, created for polo enthusiasts and now in its 90th year — you are ahead of the curve, so to speak.
“Rectangular watches are more exclusive and rare,” Lionel Favre, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s product design director, wrote in an email. “And the proportions of the Reverso case reflect the golden ratio,” which is visually pleasing to most people.
This year, Cartier is leading the rectangular line with the reborn Tank Must. Once a 1970s vermeil creation intended to revitalize and globalize Cartier’s watch sales, it has become a colorful entry point to the Tank collection, starting at $2,610, with a quartz movement. The new models include green, blue and burgundy dials and the SolarBeat, a version powered by the sunlight that reaches through the Roman numerals on its dial to recharge the solar cells inside.
Jaeger-LeCoultre is promoting the visual merits of the form, too, using Reverso’s anniversary to offer a host of new models, including the Reverso Hybris Mechanica, with what the brand called its record-setting four dials; the Tribute Monoface Small Seconds, a time-only design; and the 10-piece limited-edition Reverso Tribute Enamel Hokusai “Kirifuri Waterfall.” “Rectangular dials, unlike round dials, are the perfect canvas for respecting the initial proportions of an artwork,” Mr. Favre wrote.
Interest in rectangular luxury watches may have been heightened by the success of the watch that has brought the shape into the mainstream. By outselling the entire Swiss watch industry by a factor of almost three to one in 2020, the Apple Watch has made four-sided watches almost ubiquitous.
Yet the rectangle can be a kingmaker in the more traditional world of Swiss watchmaking, too.
Hermès says its longtime best seller is the Cape Cod, a watch with a square dial set in a rectangular case designed by Henri d’Origny in the early 1990s, when he was asked to design a square watch. “But he preferred the rectangle,” said Philippe Delhotal, the artistic director of Hermès Horloger. “His bold thinking inspired him to combine shapes: a square inside a rectangle, and the iconic ‘anchor chain’ motif, spliced in two.”
The Cape Cod’s success is an even greater indication of the form’s popularity than it might appear. In 2020, the Hermès watch division was one of the few in Switzerland to report year-over-year growth, while in its most recent half-year report, published in June, it declared a turnover of 159 million euros ($184 million), an increase of 121 percent over 2020 and 80 percent over 2019.
While much of that growth will be from sales of the Cape Cod, the Hermès report singled out sales of its new H08 sports watch, itself a softened rectangle.
Patek Philippe does not declare its revenue, but it continues to have faith in its rectangular Twenty-4 women’s bracelet watch, despite the recent introduction of a circular design carrying the same name. Patek, as much as any Swiss brand, has experience with the straight-line shape, having worked with it for more than a century, capitalizing on Art Deco influences to create collectible pieces such as the Ref. 1450, a 1940s piece that got its nickname, Top Hat, because of its visual similarity to one.
In Germany, A. Lange & Söhne recently introduced the rectangular Cabaret Tourbillon Handwerkskunst, a high-end model limited to 30 pieces that features a filigreed tourbillon weighing just a quarter of a gram (it would take 125 to weigh one ounce).
“Rectangular watches have a small but loyal following,” Anthony de Haas, A. Lange & Söhne’s director of product development, wrote in an email. “Our new watch highlights the importance we attach to this particular shape.”
Even brands that primarily show other shapes have their variations. Longines, for example, has just one rectangular watch, the 1920s Art Deco classic Dolce Vita, but it returns to the model frequently as in the colorful styles this year, available only online. “A rectangular design has such a strong identity,” Matthias Breschan, the Longines president, wrote in an email. “That makes shaped watches an ideal pick for people who want to stand out.”
And at Baume & Mercier, the brand continues to push its Hampton family, this year offering a casual women’s piece that combines a green dial and a black canvas strap.
An oblong watch is not the sole preserve of large watchmaking names — smaller, younger companies are in on the quadrilateral act, too. The line leaders in the French company March LA.B’s collection are the AM2 and the Mansart, watches with novel geometry evolved from a stretched shape with four right angles, while the revitalized Gerald Charles brand’s take on the form is the Maestro, a rippled rectangle that the brand said was first imagined by the watch design master Gerald Genta in 2006.
And in August, the British micro-brand Fears, which was revived in 2016, celebrated its 175th anniversary with a rectangular duo, both called Archival 1930 and both powered by vintage movements found in old stock and rebuilt, with new mainsprings, for use.
“Rectangular watches immediately bring the Art Deco period of the 1920s and 1930s to mind, a time of fresh modernity after the horrors of the First World War,” said Fears’s managing director, Nicholas Bowman-Scargill.
The model felt particularly compelling, he said, “as the world emerges from a recent period of horror and uncertainty.”
The rectangular form may be overshadowed by its round cousin, but it does have a life of its own.
Close your eyes again, and you might even see it.