The job title of “watch designer” is a dream for any watch nerd, and in recent years scores of online micro-brands have popped up headed by longtime watch lovers. Ironically, Baume & Mercier Design Director Alexandre Peraldi’s long career was not sparked by a love of horology — it was simply sparked by a love of design, and creating within the constraints the industry provides. We sat down with him to talk about how a new watch comes to be.
Q: How did you get into design?
A: Designing watches was not my plan. I wanted to draw and design, and do something with my hands, so I went to school in Paris. After I joined Cartier as a young designer, I discovered watches and the watchmaking industry. My only watch at the time had a calculator, or something. After 12 years at Cartier, I decided to come to Baume & Mercier. It was very small, but very exciting, with a lot of new models and creativity. And when I joined Baume & Mercier, it was a huge breath of fresh air. People ask me sometimes, “Why did you leave Cartier to join Baume & Mercier?” and I say to them, “It’s like if you want to be a good musician, you should learn classical music for ten years, and after that you are able to play jazz.” In this case I learned to design classical at Cartier, and I learned how to design jazz at Baume & Mercier.
Q: If a young person today wanted to get into watch design, how would you suggest going about that?
A: Design is difficult. You have to feel that from the beginning. But for me — I think it’s important to me to design “outward”: to discover all the different fields of design, not just watches. To work with your hands is also very important. Craftsmanship is very important — like sculpture or modeling; it’s important to build something with your hands and understand the shape that way. You can’t only be able to design by drawing something. It’s more a matter of shape than graphic design. Graphic is different. You should be very good at drawing, but at the end of the day, it’s shape.
Sketches and 3D models of Baume & Mercier’s limited-edition Shelby Capeland chronograph.
Q: Walk me through your design process from start to finish. When you’re developing the design for a watch, where do you start and what are the building blocks on top of that?
A: We start with the marketing brief. We speak for a long time to understand what are the needs of the brand to start the first sketches. From there it’s a classic process. We start with sketches to explain what we have in mind with the marketing team, to test the first ideas, and after that, when we have agreed on the direction of the aesthetic, we start to design in 3D. We become very, very quickly more precise. And at this moment we are able to define the shape with the profile view, with the detail of the watch. At the same time, you start to work with the 3D to be able to perfect the shape from the first rendering in 3D, or the first mockup with a 3D printer.
We do this kind of 3D mockup to feel the size, and to wear it on the wrist and feel the quality of the surfaces. And to have something so precise, and to give it to the marketing team and to bring it to reality before having the final product itself, is very important. This is a very traditional way for me, though now it’s very short because of the 3D printer. In the past, you had a 2D design. To then give it to someone to do the first prototype in metal was very long and expensive.
Q: Do the mechanical or technical aspects of the watch constrain certain aspects of design?
A: Absolutely. When we start to deal with the industry constraints, we have the price, the quantity, the machines we want to use — we have to work closely with [our technical team] to realize the first idea. The first prototype is always very close to our idea, but there is always the problem of price. We start looking at the prices and find out it’s too expensive to engineer, so we have to fight with them to understand why this price is like that, and what are our opportunities to change something — so we spend a lot of time with them on the computer or at the manufacturer to solve the problem. In the end, these constraints are important to help improve the aesthetic.
Q: How do these constraints influence the aesthetic?
A: When you design your first prototype, if it’s done and it’s okay and you don’t have any problem of price or quality, and you say it’s okay — for me it’s not okay, because it was just your first idea and the first idea is never the best. Perhaps it’s a good one, but you should improve that. If you have a problem, you are obliged to improve and obliged to change your mind. And when you are obliged to change your mind, it’s a great opportunity to find another solution, another aesthetic. The reason I love to design is the opportunity to improve because of a reality, a technical reality, and the opportunity to do a better job.
Details from the Shelby 427 that helped inspire the limited-edition Capeland.
Q: Is there one running theme, or aesthetic or principle that you adhere to throughout all your designs?
A: I try to think of comfort — it’s a part of my mindset. It’s important. Every element has to have a reason to be. A shape is not just a beautiful shape — it needs to have function. So the shape comes from the aesthetic, but it also comes from the comfort, and sometimes from the utility of the mechanism. All these elements, we mix together, and we try to find the best way. I like simple design, nothing extravagant. I like the simplicity in the design, but it is the most difficult to reach because it’s easy to add on elements. But for me, the simplicity is most important in my design.
Q: Is there a specific part of the watch that allows you more creative freedom than another?
A: You could think of the dial because it’s the face of the watch, but for me it’s more graphic — it’s not a shape. Yes, graphic work is very important, but…the shape of the watch is more important than that for me. And the shape of the lugs is difficult because it is the connection between the case and the strap, and it’s always different — with a rubber strap, or a metal bracelet, or a leather strap. Or because the watch is big, it has to still fit on the wrist, or because the watch is small, you have to design a discrete attachment, or sometimes the watch is very thin. So this part is difficult, but it’s important to get right in your design, even if it’s discrete. Nobody thinks about lugs. They think about the shape, the dial or the bracelet, but they don’t imagine the difficulty it takes to get that right. For me, it’s the most important part…the rest of the watch is a consequence of that.
Q: Are there any current trends you do like and you don’t like?
A: At the moment I am becoming very wary of the vintage trend — it’s a good thing to speak about the past, but for me it’s not good for creativity. I try to stay current with smartwatches. It is important. I think there is something — more than the smartwatches themselves — but there is something more important than that for the future of watches. We have to stay linked with reality, and linked with young people and what we put on our wrists in ten years. And to be honest, I don’t know. Nobody knows. I am sure it will change a lot, and we have to keep that in mind.