Letters and Numbers: A Watch's Typeface
New York Times, Jan. 17, 2016
Brands know that well-chosen fonts can do much to convey the style of a timepiece.
Study the face of a watch and you’re likely to notice something other than the time: The typography used to design the logo, numerals and words, which subtly communicates critical information about the timepiece, from the era in which it was produced to the values of its maker. And yet, many contemporary brands are careless about fonts. ‘‘You can buy a $200,000 watch that has Times New Roman on it — the most common typeface in the world,’’ said Jonathan Hoefler, founder of Hoefler & Co., a type foundry in New York. ‘‘That’s like showing up for a gala dinner in a T-shirt.’’ Recently, however, a growing number of watchmakers have begun to recognize the power of typography. Hermès commissioned a French graphic designer to develop a custom typeface for its Slim d’Hermès collection, unveiled last March. In November 2014, Mondaine introduced a family of watches called Helvetica, after the pragmatic and ubiquitous 20th- century font. And Apple, concerned with readability on a small display, designed a new typeface, San Francisco, for its Apple Watch. Here, a closer look at what makes some typefaces — and timepieces — feel so right.
For its fourth collection of fine timepieces (after Arceau, Cape Cod and Dressage), Hermès created Slim d’Hermès, ‘‘an elegant, classic but also contemporary piece that speaks to the essentials of the brand,’’ said Philippe Delhotal, creative director of La Montre Hermès.
The model, which had its debut at the 2015 Baselworld fair in Switzerland, is powered by an extra-thin movement and comes in three sizes, with a bevy of alligator straps in colors such as black currant, Etruscan (terra cotta) and elephant gray. The watch’s notable visible feature is its sophisticated and spare sans-serif typeface, which features numerals distinguished by subtle line breaks.
Call it ‘‘Font, Interrupted.’’
Mr. Delhotal said that ‘‘to create a timepiece that stands out,’’ Hermès recruited a frequent collaborator, the French graphic designer Philippe Apeloig, in January 2012 to design a custom typeface.
In an email, Mr. Apeloig said his task was to ‘‘make the watch light, visually speaking.’’
‘‘I was not afraid to cut some of the numbers in segments to increase the feeling of lightness,’’ he added. ‘‘The silent spaces subtly allude to the concept of time.’’
In 2010, André Bernheim, chief executive of Mondaine Watch, convened an eclectic group of Swiss acquaintances — an engineer, a historian, a television host and a composer — to brainstorm ideas for a new watch collection.
‘‘It had to be something out of industrial Swiss heritage,’’ Mr. Bernheim said.
It wasn’t long before the group settled on the concept of fonts — and one very Swiss font, in particular: Helvetica, the sans-serif typeface developed in 1957 by the Swiss graphic artist Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffmann of the Haas Type Foundry.
‘‘Helvetica comes from the Latin word for Swiss, so what can be more Swiss than Swiss?’’ Mr. Bernheim said.
Mondaine next hired a young designer, Martin Drechsel, and challenged him to interpret the two-dimensional font in a three-dimensional timepiece.
The result was the Helvetica No.1 from the 2014 collection, featuring three styles — Light, Regular and Bold — each accented with subtle font-inspired details such as lugs modeled after the Helvetica numeral ‘‘1.’’ The group has since expanded to include a smartwatch as well as a New York edition that celebrates the use of Helvetica in the city’s subway system.
Beyond the name, Helvetica appealed to the Mondaine team for another reason: ‘‘Swiss people don’t yell; we don’t talk about how much money we earn; we don’t talk about good things or bad things,’’ Mr. Bernheim said. ‘‘And that’s Helvetica. It’s very discreet.’