Pity the watch designer. Theirs is the job not simply of penning designs that will enthuse an audience sufficiently for them to part with their cash, but also of predicting the future. Which makes you wonder when the current wave of gradient dials was dreamed up, and how long it might last.
The typical cycle for watch development is at least 12 months, often longer, once manufacturing and commercial considerations have been taken into account. On top of that, there’s a watch’s shelf-life to accommodate – we’re talking years rather than seasons. So no quick-fix answers for soothsaying watch designers.
Of course, in watches trends are less passing than they are in fashion. Colours, fabrics and cuts come and go in double-quick time on the catwalk, but in watch design certain tropes endure – round cases, chronographs, diver’s watches and so on. Not to forget the fundamental analogue theory of showing the time via a pair of central hands, one big, one small.
But if there’s one part of a watch that is susceptible to the whims of fashion and to the loaded word ‘trend’, it’s the dial. The dial can be chopped and changed pretty easily. Visually, it’s usually responsible for more than half a watch’s real estate. So it provides a handy canvas for designers to adapt a watch without compromising the overall integrity of its design.
Historically, watch companies have relied first on black and white dial variations, particularly in men’s watches where legibility has always been a priority, while experimenting more with colour and material in women’s watches, which are by and large more decorative.
In recent years, blue has come to sit in close proximity to black and white, although given the legion watches made from the 1950s onwards with dials in various shades of azure, these are hardly novel. Similarly, none of grey, green, red, burgundy, brown, champagne and a rainbow of other colours are new per se. But they are enjoying a renaissance that runs in parallel with both the watch industry’s ever-growing confidence and the consumer’s increasing appetite for novelty and variety.
Much more recently, these revivals have been followed by the resurgence of the gradient dial, one where the hue shifts across a spectrum, typically from a dark outer edge to a lighter centre. Gradient is a catch-all term and covers a number of others, including ‘fumé’ (meaning smoked), ‘dégradé’ (faded) and ‘vignette’. Whatever the term used, it’s generally agreed that a gradient dial gives a watch a mid-century edge and a smokey-eyed sophistication.
But why are gradient dials suddenly popular again?
As is always the case in watches, the trend has been gathering pace for some time. H Moser & Cie (who will be attending Dubai Watch Week in November – chief executive Edouard Meylan will be taking part in a Horology Forum panel) made the fumé dial its signature some years ago. The Swiss independent says there are more than 200 steps involved in making each one, a labour of love that delivers inky dials you can lose yourself in.
Girard-Perregaux has been using the simplicity of its 1966 line’s form as a palette for dials with this gradient effect with considerable aesthetic success, while Glashütte Original’s Sixties collection is home to a pair of eye-catching models with textured green or fiery orange dégradé dials that have injected some vim into the German company’s rather staid inventory.
Rolex, which makes its own dials, has dabbled in vignette dials since at least the 1960s, and introduced versions of the new Day-Date 36 this year with green or blue ‘ombré’ dials, a finish similar to the horizontal gradient of the famous Deepsea with a ‘D-blue dial’ introduced five years ago.
Sartorially, the movement couldn’t be timed better, sitting comfortably with the current menswear trend for working with textures and playing with softer, muted colours. From Cartier’s smokey blue gradient dial Santos launched in Geneva in January to Hamilton’s collection of entry-level American Classic Intra-Matic models, there are options across the mechanical watch spectrum.
It’s even visible in collaborations. When Oris partnered with sister magazines The Rake and Revolution on a limited edition back in the spring, it chose a gradient dial that moved from honey to orange to what the titles lustily called a ‘deeper Rembrandt ochre’ at the outer edge.
Popular then, but what’s curious is that there’s little out there tracing the heritage of gradient dials. The gist is that they first came into view in the 1960s, a rich decade for the industry that afforded it the means to experiment and develop new manufacturing techniques. It’s been used sparingly over time and yet a gradient dial has a timeless look about it that fits with the contemporary bias for watches promising longevity beyond our unstable times. But watch designers, we’ll leave it to you to give us fair notice of when those times might pass…