The Age of the Incomprehensible Watch: A Design Story

Limited-edition Nooka Zub Zot 38 watches, featuring Patrick Star and Spongebob Squarepants
(Courtesy Nooka)

"Ball so hard got a broken clock /
Rolleys that don't tick tock /
Audemars thats losing time /
Hidden behind all these big rocks"

Jay-Z in Kanye West’s “N­­­----as in Paris”

Hova has noticed what I’ve noticed: Watches don’t tell time anymore. Time-obscuring "big rocks," in Jay-Z's case, or a flashy, colorful face with an inscrutable dial, do little to fulfill a timepiece's supposed purpose. There's a seemingly growing trend of design trumping utility.

What's behind this craze? Thanks to our overabundance of digital gadgets, time is everywhere, making the old-fashioned watch a bit of an anachronism, a vestigial reminder of a bygone era. I can already see that I’m behind deadline thanks to the upper right-hand corner of my screen. When I look down at my phone, I see my mother has already called me twice — and it’s only 11:30! Is the onslaught of incomprehensible watches just the result of designers’ efforts to stay relevant despite the inherent, antiquated nature of an object that does nothing but tell us what we already know?

Curious about the answer to this question, ARTINFO set out to ask some of the field's top experts about the fate of the contemporary watch. Here's what we found out. 


In fact, while logic would tell us the death of the watch is imminent, it appears that the opposite is the case. "Luxury watch sales have soared the last 10 years, at the same time the proliferation of smart phones continues to expand," John Reardon, the New York head of Sotheby's watch department, told ARTINFO. "Sales in the middle- and high-end watch market are staggering." Luxury Swiss watches saw record sales in 2011. Granted, the demand for high-end goods always hold up better in hard economic times than the middle market — but even there, Fossil reported a 19 percent net rise in fourth-quarter sales, and we interviewed quite a few humble watch designers who say they're doing very well.

What's behind the unexpected (and counterintuitive) resilience? Take Nooka, a New York-based line of incomprehensible watches (we’ll talk about what sets it apart more later) that is growing both locally and abroad. It's most popular with men, who make up 65 percent of its customers. That gender disparity is roughly the same across the industry, a fact that Nooka founder Matthew Waldman attributes to fashion — the true draw of the watch.

“Men have so few opportunities to have fun and accessorize,” he said. Watches offer men “an opportunity to dress up and play with fashion beyond a necktie or a T-shirt. Even if they are telling time with their cell phone, they still feel the need to express themselves.” A man can show that he’s wealthy with an expensive Rolex; or a “techno progressivist and a cutting edge thinker,” by wearing, say, one of his Nooka watches. And men, being as fond of gadgets as they are, seem to enjoy at least an air of utility. The watch kills two manly needs with one stone.


Watches aren’t just fashion statements, either; many designers are using them as modes of artistic expression and social commentary. The recently released Indian Stretchable Watch, a piece by Mumbai-based industrial designer Prasanna Sankhe of Hyphen, has a bit of a slant on its face’s axis, marked “12ish,” “3ish,” “6ish,” and “9ish,” a few degrees off of the cardinal directions. Ish, as Sankhe calls his watch for short, satirizes an entire culture. “In India, any time commitment is very loose,” he told us. “This design actually made use of the rigidity and permanent places of the digits and played on it.”

Artist Brian Catling designed the Dawn West Dusk East, another time-distorter for London-based Mr. Jones. Instead of hands, a small sun circles the watch face. Its color gradually changes to follow light throughout the day, and in the evening hours looks more like the moon. Sitting at their standard posts, noon, 3, 6 and 9 o’clock are easily discernible at right angles, but it’s a feat to try and differentiate 1:30 from 1:35. “It tells time, but on a human scale,” Mr. Jones founder Crispin Jones told ARTINFO.

The fact that both of these examples offer approximations rather than concrete hours and minutes is a statement of another purpose of the new avant-garde watch design: to convey a message rather than tell time. “Miliseconds are for machines, and they’re not meaningful for us," Jones explained. "We’re surrounded by so many functional time-keeping pieces that it’s hard to escape. So it does have a function; it’s a meditative object to play on the wrist.”


"There’s a clear reason why this is happening. It’s sort of an evolution," said Marcus Fairs of The design site features its own watch store, the designs of which offer about as clear a concept to time as the plot of "Donnie Darko." "Watch designers have started to experiment with the way time is presented, making it more of a puzzle." The result? A transition from mere timepiece to conversation piece. "By the time you’ve figured out what time it is, there’s four people gathered round staring at this watch."

Take the aforementioned Nooka. It's a line of popular watches, the faces of which are arrangements of dots and bars Matthew Waldman designed just before the era of smart phones set in. His mission since founding Nooka in 2005 has been to create a design that would "transcend the linguistics of math to make it more accessible and more intuitive." 

"How did you learn how to read a traditional watch? You had to be taught, right?" Waldman argued. "As an adult you forget you had to learn to count at one point as well. This is a design exercise about linguistics and transcending geopolitical boundaries and the Roman number system. This graphical language on this interface actually takes it to the next level of being more universal. You don’t even have to be from planet earth to figure it out.” Excellent point (although we're still trying to figure out what time Patrick and Spongebob are showing us in the photo above). 


As it turns out, our initial hypothesis was wrong: Watches designers aren't struggling at all. Watches are doing better than ever,  and not just among the old and technologically challenged — 50 percent of Mr. Jones' customers are between 20 and 30 years old, he says — nor for the blinged-out, globetrotting rap gods like Jay-Z (many Nooka watches are $100 or less). The truth is, watches have never been purely about functionality, and watch design today is simply entering a decisively postmodern phase. Watches are more about communicating aspirational individuality and personality, as Rolex has long known. While precision has been an age-old selling point, that is mainly because it is a quality that indicates fine craftsmanship.

The contemporary strides toward the freaked-out avant-garde do, however, represent a newfound freedom designers have found thanks to the rising tide of time-telling technology. They’ve been freed from the restrictions of having to fulfill any mandatory functionality and embraced the watch's identity as a brainy, macho accessory. Even as the technology underlaying our mobile gadgets turns over and transforms at a staggering rate, we are still likely to carry this several-hundred-year-old concept around on our wrist through all of its reinventions. The watch is — and excuse our pun — timeless.  

To see the most incomprehensible watches we've come across, click the slide show