A Simpler Time

Courtesy of Patek Philippe

When it comes to complicated modern timepieces, sometimes it seems that less is definitely more.

The other day a watch-collector friend of mine and I discussed his next acquisition. I was fascinated to hear what he, a man with considerable discrimination, had his eye on—maybe a perpetual calendar? Perhaps a world time? As it turns out, I was completely off the mark. From the many options available to him, this collector thought what was currently missing from his collection was the exquisitely simple Patek Philippe Calatrava.

The watches in Patek’s Calatrava family, which were introduced in the thirties, are the sort of timepieces a child might draw: round, with two or three hands and the option of a date. We live in a world of increasingly complex watches; sometimes even telling the time can be difficult amid the many knobs, jewels, and levers. There is something daringly understated about a watch that gives you only the hour and the minute, rather than a panoply of horological options (everything from the time in Tokyo and Timbuktu to how many leagues you are under the sea) all in one—increasingly oversize—wrist-worn machine.

The fully loaded timepiece is a symptom of our restlessly acquisitive age; the more the better. It was in fact the titans of America’s first Gilded Age, people like James Ward Packard and J. P. Morgan, who first commissioned elaborately jeweled and tricked-up pocket watches whose functions went far beyond the mere telling of time. Their logic is familiar: If one complication is good, then two must be better. This reasoning reached a larger market in the second half of the 20th century, when the so-called “tool” generation of watches was born—styles such as Breitling’s Navitimer, Omega’s Speedmaster, and Rolex’s GMT-Master, which all made the original purpose of a timepiece almost beside the point.

Happily, this bigger-is-better movement (pardon the pun) is balanced by an equally familiar creed, albeit one we have not heard much of lately: Less is more. Timepieces that offer the comparatively restful arrangement of hour and minute hands moving around a cleanly designed dial are an expression, says Fabian Krone, CEO of German watch brand A. Lange & Söhne, of the “pure love of the beauty of timekeeping.” And it is to capture this elusive beauty that Krone launched the minimalist Richard Lange last year.

Any good watch collection needs at least one such watch—almost pebblelike, flat and round with minimum fuss and furbelow. Others with simple good looks include the Extra-Plate of L.U.C. (Chopard’s haute sub-brand), IWC’s Portuguese F. A. Jones (named for the brand’s founder), Hublot’s 1915 Luna Rossa (for those who want a sightly flashier take on simplicity), and Piaget’s Altiplano.

Like anything perfect in its simplicity, however, an understated watch is difficult to design well. One of my favorites is Girard-Perregaux’s 1966, a model of balance and harmony. Yet its simplicity belies the difficulty in creating it, says the brand’s owner, Dr. Luigi “Gino” Macaluso. “To call this sort of watch simple is to underestimate it,” he says. I inquired further, as the 1966 is about as unadorned as a timepiece can get. “Unlike with a complicated-looking watch,” Macaluso explains, “the eye is not distracted by subdials, extra hands, and counters, so any mistakes become very obvious.” Thus the man who has constructed countless watches, drawing inspiration from sources as varied as the great complex timepieces of the 19th century and classic sports cars, firmly believes that the 1966 is one of the most demanding designs he has ever embarked upon. The challenge, as Albert Einstein once said, is “to make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.” True in life and, it seems, in watches.