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Distressed finishes and irregular designs

Chris Hall
April 15, 2024
5 min

The watchmaker’s world is one of order and exactitude. Whether by hand or by machine, in the micron tolerances of an escapement or the flawless mirror polish of a tourbillon bridge, the watch is a paean to precision. We pore over calibres with louped eyes, in awe of the crisp edges and uniform Côtes de Genève stripes; Instagram is loaded with macro images of guilloché dials and applied hour markers. Even the smoothness of the underside of hands is scrutinised. We like our fine watches to be just that – finely made, with time poured into achieving something close to perfection. For the most part, we also worship symmetry: neat geometric patterns, concentric dial layouts and balanced designs are the watchwords of our watches.

Why, then, do we think recently that the industry is in love with disorder and chaos? Dials, cases, straps and in some cases entire designs seemed to have been engineered to give the appearance that the watch had been subject to some purposeful distress.

We might all remember the proliferation of faux-patina on dials that began around ten years ago; while still present here and there, this is something different. That was a quite simplistic and re-ductive aping of trends in the vintage market; today’s designs take elements of that wabi-sabi phase and combine them with more radical creative expressions and techniques. Perhaps the most obvious on display was Panerai’s new Radiomir line, which came cased in something the brand calls Brunito eSteel, a recycled metal with a particularly weather-beaten appearance. Panerai first debuted ‘patina steel’ with the PAM0992 back in 2019, another Radiomir with a light bead-blasting that gave it a semi-matte finish, but this is several steps further down the path of ‘pre-patination’. Montblanc 1858 also chose a ‘distressed steel’ finish for one of its Unveiled Secret Minerva monopusher chronographs, resulting in a dark-grey matte finish with lighter notes to the case edges, as if worn away by repeated use.

From left to right: Chopard Mille Miglia Classic Chronograph, Brown Calfskin Leather Perforated (Vintage) Strap; Grand Seiko Masterpiece Sbgz009, Engraved Dial Picturing White Birch Forests; Tag Heuer Carrera Plasma Diamant D'avant-Garde, Polycrystalline Diamond Dial; Montblanc 1858 Iced Sea Automatic Date, Glacial Pattern Dial

Other brands flirted with their own degrees of imperfection. Both Chopard and Patek Philippe launched sportier models with ‘pre-aged’ straps; the Mille Miglia Classic Chronograph on a well-worn calfskin intended to evoke the upholstery of a vintage car, and Patek Philippe’s Calatrava Pilot Travel Time 5924G on a green ‘vintage finish’ leather strap. These may not seem like grand statements, but not so long ago, anything this against the grain would have been unthinkable from the grande dame of watchmaking. Last year’s 5226G, with its grained black dial, might in hindsight be seen as the start of a movement towards such new varieties of textures.

Grand Seiko is another watchmaker better known for its love of the precise and well-defined form, but it too showed that it can undercut its own image to great effect. Its painstakingly hand-engraved platinum limited edition, the SBGZ009, draws inspiration from the white birch forests of Japan’s North Yatsugatake mountains. (Of course, being Grand Seiko, the case is polished to a fine finish before being engraved – some habits die hard). While the result isn’t ‘patina’ in any sense, the move away from clean lines is notable; such use of texture is often deployed to contrast with a smooth, clean dial (or vice versa), but here Grand Seiko went further and carried the same engraving pattern onto the dial.

Giving such normally immaculate cases a textured overhaul is nothing truly new; you can trace the influence right back to jewellery-inspired watches of the 1970s and 80s, at Omega, Piaget, Patek Philippe and others. The recent pieces created by Carolina Bucci for Audemars Piguet also deserve a mention; certainly they have helped to show that even bonafide icons of watch design can be sympathetically revamped in this style.

It’s fair to say that chaos comes more naturally to some than others. You might not have expected it from Montblanc, but the jagged, irregular tension of the Iced Sea dials has become their biggest selling point and this year’s new pieces lean into the glacial motif even more. By contrast, a modicum of controlled chaos is more or less Roger Dubuis’ manifesto: its Excalibur range has proudly developed a design language around asymmetric, angular skeletonisation (with, it must be said, a recurring five-pointed star motif hidden within) and this year’s Blacklight Spin Stone pushed the concept even further, with lurid combinations of synthetic sapphire in blue, pink and purple atop the openworked bridges and notched bezel. It’s equally business-as-usual at Hublot, which debuted a new collection of Sang Bleu collaborative designs.

Perhaps the last word in harnessing the power of randomness and irregularity should go to TAG Heuer, which showcased the second wave of pieces in its boundary-pushing Carrera Plasma family. It caused something of a stir in 2022 when it launched, thanks to its liberal use of lab-grown diamonds, and the follow-up is even more dramatic. With an assorted medley of synthetic stones set flush into its sandblasted, black-coated aluminium case and bracelet, the overall impression is of a head-on collision: an explosive supernova with a one-piece diamond dial at its centre. It’s hard to think of another watch that can evoke such an intensely energetic fusion even while remaining completely still. The poster child for a new way of approaching decorative gem-setting, it’s an unforgettable design that speaks to a wider watch world evidently prepared to embrace the chaos of the times – within reason.