BY BENJAMIN TEISSEIRE
Every luxury brand dreams of creating an icon. A product that instantly becomes a reference, an object of uncontrollable desire. A model that, once anchored in the public’s subconscious, does not need selling anymore. A pure ‘Veblen’ good, which becomes even more desirable even as its price rises.
Every top brand has a recognisable design and a style embodied by one iconic model, sometimes several. The style created is identifiable in all its work. CHANEL is a perfect example of what iconic models are: the 2.55, the Camelia, the black and white contrast; Porsche also with its endlessly evolving but never fundamentally changing 911. This is what being iconic is truly about.
Even though many brands loosely use the word ‘iconic’ for their products, very few actually fit the true definition. Examples like the Kelly bag from Hermès, or Yves Saint-Laurent’s woman tuxedo epitomise the meaning but most of the time the term is just a marketing gimmick. It takes time to become an icon! You do not declare yourself an icon! Just like you do not claim you are a luxury brand as many brands do nowadays.
Watchmaking is no exception. There are dozens of brands who shout about their so-called icons…and there are the ones who really are and do not need to. To build an icon you have to start with a strong differentiation, often achieved through innovation, but not always. The brand has to invent a model with a strong personality, whether it be through the design, the material or more subtly through its distinctive style. The iconic models of today all started with a disruption at the time of their birth.
The Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso, which dates back to 1931, was one of the first rectangular wristwatches and was reversible. Its original patent describes it as a “wristwatch which can slide on its base and flip over on itself”. This was a feature never created before that was developed for one of their clients who wanted to keep his watch on his wrist while playing polo without risking damaging his watch.
Rolex’s Oyster in 1926, was the first waterproof wristwatch, followed in 1931 by the first automatic movement, the world famous ‘Perpetual’. These are well-known and very representative examples.
Let us see how some others, among the most iconic timepieces, were born and how new ones might be in the making.
One of the greatest examples is without doubt Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak. It revolutionised the watchmaking industry in many ways and created a totally new category on its own: the ultra-luxury sports watch. Moreover, it all happened in the middle of the Quartz Crisis, the greatest the industry has faced. Everyone was scrambling to lower their costs and prices to compete with this new technology.
The Piguet family did the exact opposite and it is indeed astounding to see that, still to this day, this category that they invented remains one of the most creative and successful.
It all started with bold and creative minds. First that of the Audemars Piguet family who understood they needed a complete disruption of the industry to escape the crisis and build new grounds for the future if they were to survive. They called on another great creative mind of the time: Gerald Genta, watch designer extraordinaire, having already created successful watches as the Constellation for Omega or the Golden Ellipse for Patek Philippe.
The design was revolutionary. As Gerald Genta explained, it was inspired by a traditional diver’s helmet. The octagonal bezel with visible golden hexagonal screws immediately stood apart from any other watch design. The blue petite tapisserie decoration of the dial was also completely new and recognisable. The stainless steel material had never been used for such a high priced sports watch: it was more expensive than a gold Patek Calatrava, it was ten times the price of a Rolex Submariner! Finally the extremely complex integrated stainless steel bracelet that provides an incredibly comfortable fit on the wrist was unheard of. All these elements became trademarks of the brand.
The final touch almost instantly propelling the new watch into iconic territory was the name and the story behind it. As the design was inspired from the old brass diver’s helmet Audemars choose a marine related name: that of a series of 8 vessels from the British Royal Navy. But the origin runs even deeper.
The Royal Oak is actually the name of the centuries old hollowed oak tree in which the King Charles II of England hid to escape the supporters of the Parliament during the English Civil War in 1651. A tall tale adding a historical dimension to the creation. History was in the making. Of course, as it is often the case with disruptive products, criticism were numerous and fierce. But very quickly collectors also acknowledged the intrinsic horological qualities of the Royal Oak and it became highly sought after… and has kept that incredible appeal ever since.
The great opportunity once a brand possesses such a distinctive product with such iconic aura is that you can celebrate it and renew it at leisure. It acts as a harbour of peace – for the lucky brand who have one (or more) – to which one can always go back especially in rough weathers. It can be rejuvenated, upgraded, while retaining that magical, timeless, never-ending attraction. All the declinations Audemars Piguet came up with since its original launch exemplify this.
Introducing new complications, new precious materials, new presents an opportunity for new customers to discover the famous model or to extend their existing collection. Keeping the production low, some series being drastically limited, guarantees the attractiveness remains high.
Audemars Piguet has always kept this in mind and this can also explain why they are among the most successful brand even in the rough seas that the watchmaking industry has been going through this past two years. Their latest creations unveiled in January 2017 confirm the trend. Audemars launched a mesmerising Royal Oak perpetual calendar with a useful week number indicator all dressed up in black.
A beautiful Royal Oak chronograph in steel with their trademark tapisserie dial, in an elegant grey colour enhanced with blue sub-dials, enriched their current collection.
A brand new declination of their signature brushed bracelet finishing further increased the appeal of this iconic model with a ‘frosted’ finish obtained by a high frequency micro-hammering. The light glitters on the wrist making it a very feminine addition to the line. Finally, Audemars Piguet offers a very limited series of a skeletonised Royal Oak Tourbillon. Only 50 lucky watch collectors and Royal Oak lovers will be able to admire both the outer and inner wonders of this new gem.
The same principles apply with Cartier who is one of the rare watch brands who can pride herself of having created several icons. Cartier is known to be above all a jeweller, the ‘Jeweller of Kings’, the ’King Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Chronograph in steel of jewellers. This helps understand that what is most important is the creativity behind the products. This is what ultimately drives the success. Even if we only analyse Cartier’s watchmaking, this appears strikingly obvious.
The first Cartier timepiece to become a legend was the Santos watch. It was designed in 1904 as one of the first wristwatches for men. Alberto Santos-Dumont, a Brazilian aviator, asked his friend Louis Cartier to come up with a more convenient timepiece, easily usable in flight conditions but still suitable to wear at the aristocratic gatherings of the time.
It was introduced in 1911. Its rounded rectangular case and square dial shape was a revolution among the classical roundness of pocket watches. Its simple elegance and high legibility inspired from Art Deco had the power to seduce the avant-garde thinkers and trend-setters of the time. Even though pocket watches were still considered the only timepieces acceptable for gentlemen, Cartier was undeniably instrumental in developing the acceptance of the wristwatch. A bold vision sometimes lays the foundations of a whole new orientation in an industry, a whole new concept in the way luxury goods are seen.
The next achievement was the introduction of the Tank in 1919, which became Cartier’s most recognisable and famous model. A true icon, even nowadays. The name also holds its own history. It was the end of WWI and the war in Europe had been won with the help of the British and Americans and their new war machines introduced for the first time: the tanks. Louis Cartier used the name as a tribute to victory and freedom, creating an exquisitely elegant yet rugged rectangular case. It became an instant classic. It has appeared in multiple versions, different sizes, with horological complications, with artistic decorations. The possibilities are endless and we will most probably see some staggering new ones in the near future, as the centennial anniversary of the Tank approaches. A great opportunity to celebrate Cartier’s unique history and quality through the ages.
Such opportunities come easily to such a strong brand. The relaunch of the Panther collection this year provides a beautiful illustration of the power of a distinctive iconic model. The original Panther design dates back to the 1980s and brought some of Cartier’s characteristic disruptive approach to women’s watchmaking. The femininity of the design, the fluidity of the bracelet, the originality of the timepiece is so timeless that they still perfectly embody the values of Cartier today.
It is surprising to see that Cartier is sometimes not viewed as a high watchmaker considering its rich historical background and the fact that it was Alain Dominque Perrin, Cartier’s CEO at the time, who first established, in 1991, a foundation to promote the international outreach of High Watchmaking, the Comite International de la Haute Horlogerie. That same year was held in Geneva the first Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie.
It became the annual meeting point for professionals of the industry, the now famed SIHH, which showcases today 30 of the most exclusive watchmaking brands. No matter how one looks at it, Cartier is without question one of the luxury brand with the highest emotional power and iconic status.
Nonetheless, trying to create a new one is never an easy task. With their latest Drive, introduced in 2015, Cartier might very well be on the way to succeeding once more. The latest novelties from 2017 unveil the potential the brand sees in this new collection.
The models are distinctive, recognisable, unique. They are already being diversified with new appealing complications such as the beautifully balanced Moon Phase or the refined Slim version. Only time will tell if they rise to the coveted ‘icon’ status but judging from the response of journalists, retailers and aficionados around the world, it is on the right track.
While a few brands can surf on their iconic models, some others search for their ‘core’ models for years without ever reaching this point. Parmigiani Fleurier, an independent brand introduced in 1996, has introduced many beautiful models but they often lacked the ‘wow’ factor that suddenly sparkles into iconic status…until now.
At the SIHH in Geneva this year, they introduced the new Toric Chronometer which has the potential to propel them into this next phase. This particular case used to be reserved for ultra limited series of great complications like minute repeaters.
It was in fact the original case design of Michel Parmigiani when he created his brand more than 20 years ago. It appears to be quite ‘simple’. No wildly original case form, no extravagant dial, no extraordinary pile-up of complications.
And this might just be what is so amazing about it!
After a time of overstatement, that the watchmaking industry as a whole is paying for through the crisis it is experiencing, it seems that going back to finesse, authenticity, apparent simplicity is decisively disruptive.
The elegantly fluted bezel is striking, different, beautiful. The grained dial rendering adds a subtly vintage accent which provides a timelessness to the piece. The large fan-shaped date aperture is one of these small details that could seem out of balance but, on the contrary, falls perfectly in place and gives harmony to the whole. The contrast in colour provides a delicate counterpoint that also adds to the legibility of the watch.
The gold frame of the window gives yet another touch of style and class, mirroring the golden lanceshaped hands. Just like the delicate crescent ending the seconds hand. The more you look at it, the more you are infused with the sense of equilibrium it exudes. It masterfully checks all the necessary boxes on the road to icon material.
Parmigiani might very well have finally found that model which will become ‘iconic’. A model they will be able to rely on to make the company prosper for years to come as all the brands that have achieved this status do.
We see that to create a true iconic luxury product, you do not simply cater to a need or offer a specific function. This would be just creating a premium product. Luxury in its essence is useless, just like Art. It creates desire, it attracts by its beauty and its rarity. A true luxury product fulfills much deeper, much more fundamental human aspirations. It embodies a piece of eternity, a timeless beauty and value that will never be outdated. It represents a power tool, a personal reward symbolising one’s higher perception of beauty, giving a sense of belonging to the ‘ones who know and understand’. It is above all an expression of sensorial pleasure through the beauty of precious materials and remarkable craftsmanship.
A real luxury brand has the power to elevate people, like Art, almost like a religion. This is when the product really becomes an icon. As we have seen, rare are the ones that have achieved such status.
The quest to create such a desired product is the guarantee of an eternal aspiration to achieve utmost quality through limitless creativity.
This will create fundamental differentiation. This will create unique products that will hold their ground in the ever growing jungle of ‘luxury wanabees’. For the sheer pleasure of the lucky beholders who can cherish these timeless icons.