Once upon a time there was a watch. It was a watch with a round shape … This is how the story of the watches started long time ago. From the sundials, water clocks, clepsydra and the first portable watches the history of the watches has always been about rounded shapes. Only in the late ninety century / early twenty century we see the appearance of the first watch cases with shapes different from the well known rounded ones (e.g. Louis Cartier 1908 and Vacheron Constantin 1912 tonneau-shaped watches). At the beginning they were based on rounded caliber movement fitted in a watch case with square / rectangular shape and then, in a second phase, new movements with rectangular shapes started being manufactured (e.g. rectangular Gruen Quadron about 1925).
Since then many other shapes have been designed and commercialized. The creative work has gone well behind the exploration of two-dimensional shapes and also complex structures are now considered for modern watches. The following section underlines the many different shapes from the most classics to the most innovative.
The shape was originally the consequence of the system used to indicate the passage of time (ie. hands rotating in a circle) and now it represents the most commonly used shape even for many digital modern watches. Depending on the specific execution and decoration circular shapes have been used for very classic watches as well as sport and casual watches – in fact, this shape is the most versatile and has been the sole reference till the ‘1900. Over time the perfectly circular shape has been stretched into ovals or carage and then modified into barrels.
The tonneau (French for barrel) shape was most likely the point of transition from rounded to square / rectangular watches. Vacheron Constantin introduced its first tonneau-shaped watch in 1912 and has since become an iconic model in its collections. However, it seems that the first watchmaker to introduce a tonneau-shaped watch was Louis Cartier in 1906 – this model was then followed by a square-shape in 1908 and tortue-shape in 1912. Due to its novelty, the tonneau-shaped watches became very popular in the early 1900.
Initially the tonneau-shaped watches were housing regular rounded caliber movements but over time also the movements started leveraging the new shape. Nowadays tonneau-shaped watches are mostly designed to be used for classic occasions and very seldom they are developed for watches meant for casual or sport occasions.
Rectangular-shaped watches represented the modernity; a break from the past and inherited rounded shapes. As such, this shape has been adopted by all the watch manufacturers who wanted to modernize their image (up to the latest smartwatch by Apple). At the beginning the square or rectangular shapes were being used only to manufacture watches for classic occasions, but over time some watch manufacturers started using them also to develop watches for casual or sport occasions.
A peculiar rectangular shape is the “tank” one. Many people use the descriptor “tank” as an alternative to “rectangular” but in reality those two shapes are not the exactly the same. The “tank” watches originally developed by Cartier (1917) were inspired by WWI Renault Tanks. In those watches the two sidebars “brancards” tend to be bulky and extend into the lungs like to emulate the caterpillars of the tank. Those tank watches might have both rectangular and square proportions.
Interesting to note that some watches evolved over time from rounded shape to tonneau to square while always keeping the dial rounded (e.g. Bell & Ross).
Once experimented with any kind of regular shape (including hexagons, cushions, baguette, lozenge…), some watchmakers started investigating asymmetrical watches. To name just few of the first asymmetrical watches manufacturers: Cartier with the skewed shape of the "Parallelogram" (1940's), Hamilton with the renowned Ventura introduced following WWII (circa 1957) showcasing an asymmetrical case, pointed and extended lugs and curved crystal, Patek Philippe with the unusual and unconventional designed by Geneva jewelry designer Gilbert Albert (circa 1965), Cartier again with a “crash” design (1967) and Vacheron Constantin with a lozenge shaped, asymmetrical case (circa 1972). Since then many more manufacturers followed the trend and started exploring also variations on the third dimension for watches to be used in classic occasions as well as the casual and sport ones.