A handful of brands, mainly of the independent variety, have made it a driving element in their visual identity. Nonetheless, watch hand manufacturers are struggling, threatened from inside the Swiss watch industry by a drop in orders, and from outside by Asian and particularly Indian competition.
What it they were the real stars of a watch? So slim, so vulnerable, and yet everything depends on them: hands. While models may well boast an extraordinary dial or a high-precision movement, they would be nothing without this vulnerable component which, however discreet, is the one that systematically grabs attention, simply as a means of reading the time.
Their role is indeed delicate, even more so than that of the dial. Why so? Because they must pack the same assets – beauty, readability, distinctiveness and functionality – into a much smaller surface area. The challenge is inversely proportionate to their size!
Strong market concentration
The watch hand market is currently covered by four main suppliers: Universo (Swatch Group), Aiguilla SA, La Pratique and Fiedler. These firms are located and operate in Switzerland and France, as close as possible to watch manufacturers, whereas others have opted for lost-cost production in India. While each has its own profile, their ranges are comparable. Their production is often of three types: prototype making, first series and replenishment.
Sharp ends or counterweights?
Whatever the case, the goal is identical: to be legible, beautiful, and where possible brand-specific. Some watch manufacturers have indeed made hands a signature, generally placed at the tip of the hand: the open-tipped Breguet variety, the goutte de rosée® (dewdrop) hands by Louis Moinet, or the heart-tipped interpretation by Speake Marin, as Peter Speake-Marin confirms: “They have been a fixture since my first model, the Foundation Watch. As I was sculpting the hands, I decided I wanted something distinctive with more panache than the traditional English style, but along the same lines. The heart shape emerged quite naturally, there was nothing deliberate about it. “
The counterweight on the seconds hand is another territory that many brands enjoy exploring. The star on the El Primero models by Zenith is probably the best-known example. More recently, Baume & Mercier has placed a Cobra on its eponymous Capeland model, a tribute to the Shelby Cobra sports car issued in two limited editions.
Sharp designs on cutting-edge creations
Whereas all the aforementioned hands focus on one dimension only, Hysek develops and produces its own hands and is one of the only brands to adopt a multi-dimensional approach. The latest Abyss Tourbillon models feature a power-reserve indicator that is both skeleton-worked and split-layered, an extremely unusual 3D architecture.
These creative shapes are often to be found on creations by independent brands. Bovet, for example, produces exclusive and customised hands for each of its models, such as the Amadeo timepieces. But in cases where it is impossible to enter such a ‘bespoke’ universe, notably for budgetary reasons or simply because the model does not call for such an approach, SuperLumiNova provides another appealing option. Recent developments in the realm of this material have opened up exciting creative prospects. Both Claude Meylan and de Grisogono (Tonda by Night) apply it in playful and original ways on conventionally shaped hands.
From theory to practice
Theoretically, brands are free to choose the shapes of their hands. But in theory only, because in practice, legibility imposes its own constraints. The further one progresses into the world of technical watches, the narrower the scope for creativity.
This is because the priority is no longer placed on design, but generally on luminescence. If one excludes radioactive processes with encapsulated gases, the width of the hand generally takes precedence over other factors. Diver’s watches are therefore the ones most affected by this aspect. Blancpain has cleverly succeeded in making the hands of its Fifty Fathoms a model of legibility as well as an aesthetic signature.
A market in jeopardy?
Watch hand producers occupy a distinctive position, as manufacturers dedicated to serving watch brands. Discretion is the golden rule. Nonetheless, in confidential asides, some admit to feeling the pinch at certain times such as these: “up to 80% less orders in 2009-2010”, “2015 looks set to be a tough year”. Such are the cyclical ups and downs they have to face every five years or so. And that’s not all.
“Our clients are increasingly demanding: they expect ever faster deliveries for increasingly technical products”, say some with a weary sigh. The solution? “We work with new materials alongside brass, steel and gold. This enables us to make use of new industrialisation processes”.
At the end of the day, the logic behind it all remains identical: faced with a threat from Asia “and which is beginning to show convincing results, albeit still random”, technological progress remains the best competitive driver.