Iconic Names for Iconic Watches

New York Times, February 24, 2014

GENEVA — In October 2003, Maximilian Büsser, managing director of Harry Winston Rare Timepieces, was on a flight from Singapore to Geneva when he began to sketch the outlines of Horological Machine No. 1, a daring three-dimensional watch that would soon herald the birth of his own radical brand.

Mr. Büsser had not registered a name for his company but he knew how it would appear on the dial: B&F, for Büsser & Friends, reflecting a concept he had pioneered while working on Winston’s celebrated Opus series: Assemble a group of friends skilled in the horological arts and put them to work crafting an iconoclastic timepiece.

Dissuaded from using B&F by his trademark attorney, who argued that he would have to contend with lawyers from Bell & Ross — a Swiss watch brand that often goes by the initials B&R — Mr. Büsser reluctantly agreed to add his first initial to the moniker, making it MB&F.

“But I really didn’t want to,” he said, lamenting MB&F’s asymmetry and over-emphasis on his contribution (as opposed to that of his “friends”).

There was also the name’s glaring unconventionality. Switzerland’s best known watch names tend to pay homage to the luminaries of watchmaking past: the Pateks, Philippes, Breguets and Piguets of the world, men of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries who laid the foundation for a Swiss cottage industry that last year exported roughly $24 billion in watches around the globe.

To some early critics, Mr. Büsser’s playful choice lacked gravitas.

“The first graphic designer I worked with told me it was a crappy name,” Mr. Büsser recalled. “He said, ‘You’re in luxury — you can’t sell a $200,000 watch with friends in the name. That’s for Mickey Mouse.’ I said, ‘Well, it’s the only way I can convey what I want to convey.’ And that’s what we did. It’s funny — success makes you sexy.”

The history of consumer goods and services is dominated by companies that eschewed tradition, logic, and good sense when choosing names for their products. As a prime example, Steve Manning, founder of Igor, a naming and branding agency based in Sausalito, Calif., cited Sir Richard Branson’s famous gamble. “If you’re crazy enough to paint Virgin on the side of an airline, people are going to give you the benefit of the doubt that something different is going on here,” he said.

Today, the practice of baptizing watches with names — be they functional, experiential or evocative — is so common that it hardly seems possible timepieces once were sold generically.

But it took the Swiss until the 20th century to catch on to the power of a brand name. Once they did, the industry spawned a bevy of iconic timepieces whose equally iconic names hold the keys to a parallel reading of watchmaking history.

The first Swiss brand to break with tradition by choosing a made-up word for its products was, paradoxically, founded by a Bavarian living in London. According to his memoir, Hans Wilsdorf was riding atop a double-decker bus when “a good genie whispered” in his ear a “short yet significant word”: Rolex. In 1908, Mr. Wilsdorf registered the trademark that would establish his brand “as the international mark of success,” said Jake Ehrlich, editor and publisher of RolexMagazine.com.

Whether Rolex would have climbed to the top of the watchmaking heap with a different name is impossible to know. “It’s a chicken or egg scenario,” said Amit Dev Handa, the luxury timepiece concierge of the Mandarin Oriental in Las Vegas. “The names of these watches are all very easy to pronounce and they give people a point of reference.” Take what many consider to be Mr. Wilsdorf’s greatest creation, the Rolex Oyster, the first water-resistant watch, unveiled in 1927. Associating his luxury timepiece with the image of a sea-dwelling mollusk, the pioneering marketer conveyed an essential point about his product: It concealed something rare and valuable. When Mr. Wilsdorf added the word Perpetual to the name in 1931, denoting the model’s first-of-its-kind self-winding wristwatch movement, he all but sealed its groundbreaking legacy.

Louis Cartier, a contemporary of Mr. Wilsdorf, shared the Rolex founder’s preference for straightforward product names that conjured a clear image.

The first Cartier Tank watch, designed in 1917, was purportedly modeled on the overhead view of an Allied tank: the brancards evoked the treads of the vehicle, while the case represented the cockpit.

That the watch industry’s first enduring product names emerged in the years bookending the Great War is no coincidence. At the time, “images of American soldiers smoking cigarettes, with these enormous strap watches on their wrists” began to appear, said Michael Friedman, historian and development director for the Swiss brand Audemars Piguet. It was the advent of the wristwatch era and the industry’s budding marketers seized the opportunity to make a name for their brands — literally.

At Jaeger-LeCoultre, for example, the legendary 1931 Reverso had its roots in a conversation that took place on the sidelines of a polo match in India. An officer of the British Raj is said to have challenged the Swiss businessman César de Trey to devise a timepiece that could withstand the rigors of the game, said Jaeger-LeCoultre’s artistic director Janek Deleskiewicz.

Named for the Latin phrase “I turn around,” a reference to its unique swiveling case design, the Reverso remains a pillar of the Jaeger-LeCoultre brand. But the name of the person who first uttered the by-now timeless moniker has been lost to history. When asked who coined the name, Mr. Deleskiewicz said, simply, “the product itself” — the implication being that the Reverso and other revered watch models emerged from their makers with their marketing messages wholly intact, like tiny, ticking Aphrodites.

More than just magical combinations of syllables, however, the industry’s lasting names are love letters to the decades in which they were conceived.

The 1952 Breitling Navitimer, a “navigational timer” for pilots; the 1955 IWC Ingénieur, designed explicitly for engineers; and the 1957 Omega Speedmaster, a chronograph that went to the moon and back, were introduced at a time when “science was considered to solve all human problems,” said Georges Kern, chief executive of IWC, referring to the notions of progress and mathematical precision embodied within their monikers.

By the 1960s, watch names reflected the era’s more cooperative spirit. In 1969, for instance, Zenith unveiled El Primero, the first self-winding chronograph. While the words translate from the Spanish as “the first,” Zenith’s chief executive, Jean-Frédéric Dufour, maintains that the name is actually taken from Esperanto, a constructed language that resonated with linguists of the 1960s, when it still seemed possible that a common language could stave off world conflict.

The outlook in Switzerland turned inward with the onset of the ’70s.

The 1972 Royal Oak by Audemars Piguet — a groundbreaking timepiece lauded for what was then considered an audaciously designed stainless steel case by Gérald Genta — evoked a regal, old world association at a time when the Swiss were rapidly losing market share to the upstart Japanese. The oak in question was the tree in which King Charles II of England supposedly hid during the battle of Worcester in 1651, when he evaded capture by Oliver Cromwell’s army.

As the “Me Decade” gave way to the “Greed Decade,” the tenor of the names shifted again. The Polo, a 1979 introduction from Piaget, channeled the ultimate rich person’s pastime to invoke the notion of casual elegance: “Polo was a very exclusive game matching the sort of clientele Piaget was aiming at,” said its chief executive, Philippe Léopold-Metzger.

At Patek Philippe, widely considered the world’s most sought after watch brand, it took until the late 1980s for the company to codify its timepieces into formal collections. The round watches were labeled Calatravas, after the company’s symbol, the Calatrava Cross, named for a 12th century Spanish order of Cistercian knights that was meaningful to the founders, Antoni Patek and Franciszek Czapek, both of whom were of Polish Catholic origin.

Patek Philippe’s rectangular-shaped watches were called Gondolos, after a loyal Brazilian retailer, Chronometro Gondolo, in whose honor the watchmaker once manufactured a rectangular Art Deco-style timepiece.

Among hardcore fans of the brand, however, names play second fiddle to another form of nomenclature. “When you go to dinner with a group of Patek collectors, they speak in numbers,” said John Reardon, international co-head of Christie’s watch department, alluding to the mostly four-digit reference numbers that collectors wield as if they were codes to a private bank account — which, in a sense, they could be, so rare and valuable are many of the timepieces they identify.

Once the new millennium began, the mechanical watchmaking renaissance was in full swing and the financial crisis was still eight years away, which helps explain why the names conceived during this period — including the independent Mr. Büsser’s clinically titled Horological Machines — were as bold as the attitudes that created them.

Hublot’s Big Bang collection was the brainchild of its chief executive, Jean-Claude Biver, who was searching for a name that captured his watchmaking philosophy of “fusion,” in which traditional techniques meet technical innovation.

He referred to the collection’s signature combination of gold and rubber: “Normally, those two elements in nature don’t belong together,” Mr. Biver said. “After the Big Bang, gold was under the earth and rubber was in the tree, but in the Big Bang, they were one.” Mr. Biver said he did not struggle with the name. On the contrary: “It was one night, in November 2004, and it took me a dinner with some red wine,” he noted.

Today, watch companies are much more deliberate about how they choose their names. Tudor, founded in 1946 by Mr. Wilsdorf as a sister brand to Rolex, worked with Nomen, a Paris-based naming company, to coin the names of its Grantour and Pelagos collections. The former is a synthesis of the Italian words gran turismo and describes a sports watch designed to appeal to car enthusiasts, while the latter is a dive watch named after “a Greek word defining the deeper part of the sea and, in particular, the kind of creatures that live there,” said Davide Cerrato, head of marketing and product development.

Even more painstaking was the “art project” approach watchmaker Felix Baumgartner and designer Martin Frei employed when brainstorming the name for Urwerk, the subversive luxury watch brand they debuted in 1997.

“Ur — it’s like going to the origin, to the beginning of time,” said Mr. Frei, who was inspired by the ancient Sumerian city of Ur, where timekeeping began. “The next word, werk, is of course ‘work,’ like in English. But if you have it with Uhrwerk, it means movement. It was a play on words, this idea of a business that deals with the philosophical matter of time.”

In stark contrast to Urwerk’s earnestness is the irreverence that Shinola brought to its naming process. The founders of the Detroit-based watch brand were in a Dallas boardroom discussing names for their new American watch company when someone uttered an old-timey insult and bells went off. The antiquated name belonged to a 19th-century American shoe polish brand, until the company foundered in the middle of the last century, leaving its intellectual property rights ripe for the taking.

“To find a name that is part of the common vernacular but you don’t have any understanding of what it is — it’s kind of amazing,” said the creative director, Daniel Caudill. He added that Shinola’s choice of name underscored a fundamental brand quality: “We don’t take ourselves too seriously.” The company hammered that point home last spring, when it came time to name its first ladies watch, a cushion-shaped model with a stylishly thin strap.

According to ads touting The Gomelsky, the watch was “randomly named after the first person we met after we couldn’t come up with anything better.” That the complete stranger Shinola immortalized with its ladies timepiece happened to be a watch journalist named Victoria Gomelsky — check the byline of this article to appreciate the meta-narrative — made the story only that much better. Unknown to her, she had walked into the brand’s booth at the Baselworld watch fair in Switzerland last April at the exact moment that the company’s chief executive, Tom Kartsotis, had issued a dictum.

“The very first person who walks in the booth, we’re going to name it after them,” Mr. Caudill recalled. “It was kind of in jest. But the reality is everyone loved it.” Never mind that The Gomelsky’s namesake was born in Russia, contradicting Shinola’s American-made ethos, which the company expresses rather clearly in its other model names, The Runwell, The Brakeman and The Birdy. The story of the meet-and-greet in Basel trumped all.

Still, even Mr. Caudill admits that some names have their limits. “We have a Runwell bike; eventually we’ll have a Runwell bag, a Runwell shoe,” he said. “But no, there won’t be any Gomelsky beer cozies.”