Many of the luxury watch brands that we know and love today are named after people.
There’s Patek Philippe (Antoni Patek and later Adrien Philippe), Audemars Piguet (Jules Louis Audemars and Edward Auguste Piguet), Breguet (Abraham-Louis Breguet), Cartier (Louis-François Cartier), Panerai (Giovanni Panerai), and so many other luxury watch brands.
However, in modern watchmaking, it is not common practice for big brands to give credit to a specific person (or persons) for a particular watch design. Instead, official marketing materials tend to use general and anonymous terms such as “master watchmakers,” “master jewelers,” “expert artisans,” and “skilled craftsmen.” Yet, there are a handful of watch designers whose names do have recognition due to their important creations.
The most famous of all modern watch designers, Gerald Genta, passed away in 2011 but many of his creations still dominate the high-end watch space today. Not only did Genta design the Royal Oak for Audemars Piguet in 1972, but he also created the Nautilus for Patek Philippe in 1976. With their integrated bracelets, stainless steel construction, and boldly shaped cases, the Royal Oak and the Nautilus were seminal in the creation and evolution of the high-end sports watch category.
Aside from the Nautilus and the Royal Oak, Genta was also responsible for the re-design of the IWC Ingenieur SL watch in the 1970s, the formation of the Bulgari BVLGARI-BVLGARI watch collection also in the 1970s, and the development of the modern Pasha de Cartier watch in the 1980s. Back in the 1960s, Genta even designed the Octo case silhouette that Bulgari is now heavily using in their modern watches.
While the Vacheron Constantin 222 from 1977 may be similar in style to Genta’s Royal Oak and Nautilus, it was in fact designed by Jorg Hysek. The 222 is a particularly important watch in Vacheron Constantin’s history as it laid the groundwork for today’s Overseas collection of high-end sports watches.
In addition to his work for Vacheron, Hysek also designed the Breguet Marine watch, which is one of the brand’s sportier offerings inspired by Breguet’s history with the French Navy. In the 1990s, TAG Heuer hired Hysek to develop an entirely new watch collection for the modern consumer and the collaboration gave way to the highly successful and futuristic Kirium sports watch line.
In the late 1980s, young freelance watch designer Emmanuel Gueit would embark on a project that would prove to a big one—the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore. Originally conceived as a special 20th-anniversary edition of the original Royal Oak, the 1993 debut of the Offshore marked the beginning of what would eventually be a standalone collection for Audemars Piguet.
Gueit also worked with Rolex to design the revamped Cellini collection of watches introduced in 2014.
These days, Gueit is working to bring back Ikepod—a fan-favorite brand of the 1990s originally designed by famed industrial designer Marc Newson.
One of our favorite watch designers like Eric Giroud, has collected a number of awards during his career as a watch designer including Best Watch Design at the 2009 Geneva Watchmaking Grand Prix for the Harry Winston Opus 9.
Giroud is best known, however, for his incredible work with independent watch company MB&F. At MB&F, Giroud and Max Büsser have put forth some of the most exciting creations in modern-day horology that blend science fiction with traditional watchmaking techniques. Some notable ones include Legacy Machine Perpetual, HM6 Space Pirate, and Thunderbolt N°4.
Although the names of watch designers are often overshadowed by the brand names they work for, some, like the four we’ve outlined above, stand out for their influential designs that continue to shape luxury watches today.
Taro Tanaka is the single person who can be credited most for creating the overall design language of the greater Seiko brand. The aesthetic code that he first established in the early 1960s can be directly seen in numerous contemporary Grand Seiko watches, and his approach to timepiece design serves as the foundation for countless models that have been produced by both Seiko and Grand Seiko over the course of nearly half a century.
Seiko had been producing timepieces for the Japanese domestic market since 1913 and by the 1950s, it was easily the largest domestic brand by volume. With that in mind, international sales were significantly lagging, and this was largely due to the fact that Seiko really had not put much of an effort into design. For example, Seiko didn’t even have a design department until 1956 and even then, the department was only responsible for dials. However, that all changed in 1959, when Seiko hired Taro Tanaka – a recent design graduate and the first actual trained designer at the brand.
Guided by Tanaka, Seiko’s design department expanded to have a hand in the brand’s entire aesthetic process. In his opinion, the main reason why Seiko’s international sales were lagging – particularly when it came to its luxury-oriented Grand Seiko and King Seiko collections – was that the brand didn’t have a design identity that separated it from its European counterparts. Therefore, Taro Tanaka set out to create one for the brand.
In 1962, Tanaka developed what he called the “Grammar of Design” – a series of aesthetic rules that are partially inspired by the principles of gem-cutting and origami (the Japanese art of paper folding). The results are an elegant yet angular aesthetic that features large flat surfaces that are polished to a perfect distortion-free shine. Combined with the brand’s legendary Zaratsu polishing, Taro Tanaka’s approach to design allows Grand Seiko watches to sparkle like gemstones in the light, and the design language he established is widely considered to be the single feature most responsible for Seiko’s international success.