Fans are the new face of watch design

To create the first women’s model of its bestselling DS PH200M, a £785 sports watch popular for its precision and shock resistance, Swiss watchmaker Certina bypassed its in-house designers last March and took to social media, asking fans to vote on key aspects of the design, including the bezel, dial, hands, strap and packaging, with a chance to win the final model.

The winning design, which featured a 39mm dark mother-of-pearl dial offsetting a black bezel, surprised chief executive Marc Aellen, who was sure only light, feminine tones would resonate.

“The outcome was not expected and that alone was a good reason to do the campaign — to change our mind and vision,” he says. “We’re experienced people in the watch industry but sometimes we have ideas that are, just maybe, outdated.”

Polling the peanut gallery for ideas might sound like a marketing executive’s worst nightmare but a handful of forward-thinking watchmakers are doing just that — engaging customers and sourcing unexpected design ideas along the way.

Breitling Endurance Pro Iron Man Edition, £2,720,

Certina PH200M, £785,
Certina PH200M, £785,

Seiko also launched a competition last year, inviting fans to build their own Seiko 5 Sports watch via an online configurator, which received more than 48,000 entries. Seiko made 2,021 pieces of the winning design, which sold out.

And, in 2020, avant-garde Belgian watchmaker Ressence piggybacked on the lockdown trend for colouring books, asking fans to submit a coloured-in sketch of its popular Type 1 Slim watch. The winning submission was a pastel blue creation by Raymond Ramsden, a Yorkshire-based interior designer, which sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong for HK$375,000 (about £35,500), with all proceeds going to Covid-19 research.

Ressence’s founder, Benoît Mintiens, knew that designing by public committee was uncertain — he feared there wouldn’t be enough submissions, let alone good ones. The campaign received nearly 500 entries, from children to industry insiders.

“First, we had to have a potentially good design and, secondly, we had to sell at auction,” says Mintiens. “So you expose yourself as a brand. When you are a small organisation like ours — we’re not all Patek Philippe — you do these things.”

Some watchmakers are taking a more targeted approach, creating custom watches for a loyal collector base. Breitling sponsors the Ironman triathlon, and its special-edition Endurance Pro watch (£2,720) comes in a black-and-gold version available only to race finishers. Meanwhile in 2020, Panerai created a special-edition Radiomir Venti — with a 45mm case versus the usual 47mm — to mark the 20th birthday of, an online community of Panerai fans. Some 1,020 pieces were made, including a dozen with special engravings for important community members.

IWC Pilot’s Chronograph C. 03 for Collective, £6,450,
IWC Pilot’s Chronograph C. 03 for Collective, £6,450,

Panerai Radiomir Venti ‘Paneristi’ 45mm, £5,800,
Panerai Radiomir Venti ‘Paneristi’ 45mm, £5,800,

Chief executive Jean-Marc Pontroué is quick to point out that community-designed watches will always be a niche offering. “Our bestsellers are those that have existed for many years,” he says. Custom-made watches will ultimately be the preserve of the top end — watches priced at more than £50,000 (Panerai’s core product is the 44mm Luminor Marina, £6,800) — and sought after by clients used to personalising their toys.

In 2018, two Facebook executives founded Collective Horology, a membership-based watch collecting club rooted in the idea of creating exclusive collaborative watches.

Co-founders Asher Rapkin and Gabe Reilly act as a bridge between members and brands, sharing ideas and concepts for designs, as well as participating in revisions once the watchmakers come back with drawings. (Collective Horology receives a percentage of the retail sales.) The debut watch, the Zenith El Primero Chronomaster C. 01, was limited to 50 pieces.

“We believed in their concept and the strong members’ community of creatives, executives and makers from the Bay Area,” says Zenith chief executive Julien Tornare.

Collective has since produced five watches in partnership with brands, priced from $6,850 to $62,500, all of which have sold out. Membership has grown from 50 to 180 members — purchase of a collaborative watch is required to join — and includes Oscar and Grammy-winning talents, but also doctors, lawyers and a kitchen remodeller.

Co-founder Gabe Reilly calls its members “a little focus group on watches” that offers a pulse on members’ tastes and interests.

In the end, community-designed watches are about inclusivity and transparency. “It’s not necessarily to provide input and feedback but to be along for the ride,” says Rapkin. “They love a window into the process, out of sheer curiosity.”

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