When you're a designer, some rules are non-negotiable. Chief among them? Details matter. Even the seemingly insignificant ones – the ones others might overlook in pursuit of efficiency or frugality. Exquisitely crafted and extravagantly priced, the Parisian fashion house Hermès has, shall we say, never been accused of skimping. Which is why, when it began designing its Slim d'Hermès watch back in 2012, it obsessed over something many watchmakers ignore: Typography.
At the time, Hermès' artistic director, Pierre-Alexis Dumas, and creative director, Philippe Delhotal, approached designer Philippe Apeloig about adding a special detail to the Slim's dial. Like all Hermès watches, this one would feature the brand's signature serif logo. It would also include a distinguishing set of minimalist numerals created specifically for the Slim d'Hermès' dial.
Working with Hermès' team, Apeloig designed a set of numerals that appear bisected with a razor-sharp knife. The rounded edge of the "2" hovers above the angled tail; a hairline break separates the two thin circles of the "8". It's a whisper of a font, with letterforms chiseled down to their bare minimum. "I was very measured in my approach," Apeloig says, "slowly reducing the shapes of each number to achieve a feeling of lightness." Apeloig drew each number by hand and was careful to imbue the shapes with Hermès' visual language, which he describes as sober, modern, and timeless. "I built in constraints, limiting the number of shapes—circles, triangles, curves, dashes—that I could use to create the numbers," he explains. "Each is drawn using a continuous line in which small cuts are made. Not only do the cuts draw the eye, but they reduce each number to its elemental parts and they make silence visible."
Hermès' approach to watch typography is unusually poetic. In reality, only a small and decreasing number of watchmakers go to the trouble of creating custom lettering for their dials. More often, watch brands use off-the-rack fonts that are squished and squeezed onto the dial's limited real estate. Patek Philippe, for example, has used ITC American Typewriter and Arial on its high-end watches. French brand Bell & Ross deploys the playful 1980 typeface Isonorm for the numerals on many of its timepieces. Rolex uses a slightly modified version of Garamond for its logo. And Audemars Piguet has replaced the custom lettering on its watches with a stretched version of Times Roman.
That watchmakers use typefaces originally created for word processing, signage, and newspapers highlights a central paradox of watch design: These tiny machines hide their most elegant solutions under layers of complexity, while one of the most visible components – typography – is often an afterthought.
The horology world's lack of attention to typographic detail is enough to drive a type designer crazy. "The choices that have been made are so anarchic," says Jonathan Hoefler, designer of famed fonts like Gotham and Mercury. "And you then find things like a $65,000 watch with the same typeface used for a jet ski or a sports drink." In 2019, Hoefler designed Decimal, a typeface fashioned after the golden age of watch lettering. Hoefler began thinking about Decimal after noticing how vintage watches often featured the same distinct letterforms on their dials.
Building a dial is a painstaking physical process done in miniature, and its lettering is no exception. The text on a dial is printed via tampography, a process during which enamel is transferred from an engraved silicone pad to a convex watch face. Tampography is more complicated and less precise than, say, digital printing on a flat piece of paper, which means the letters require certain structural tweaks to ensure they are legible on a small and demanding canvas. "One of the first things I noticed," Hoefler says, "was that the number four on every watch has this kind of wide trapezoid-shaped aperture, which exists to allow more space into the character."
Manufacturing constraints, coupled with the fact that only a limited group of artisans knew how to craft dials, led the world to coalesce around certain lettering styles, like the semi-calligraphic lettering of Breguet Numerals, designed in the 18th century by A.- L. Breguet. Even today, you can find the looping scrawl on dozens of watch dials from brands like Seiko and Patek Philippe. "By the end of the '70s, you can look at a Patek or a Timex, and you're seeing the same kinds of gestures being used everywhere," Hoefler adds. "It's remarkable that this cuts across culture and price points, and across the nation of origin as well." Hoefler notes that all of this changed in the 1980s when designers began producing digital fonts that could be stretched and shrunk to whatever size was required. Suddenly, the same typeface you read in The New York Times could be on your wristwatch, which was a boon for efficiency if not for horological craftsmanship.
Today, bespoke lettering is the exception, not the expectation. That makes it all the more commendable when a brand goes the extra mile. Chanel, for instance, created custom numerals for its Monsieur line that launched in 2016. Sleek, utilitarian numerals hug the edge of the dial, while the jumping hour features the same font only bolder and bigger. "I wanted a typography that was structured, taut, rigorous, bold, and echoing the drawing of digital numbers," explains Arnaud Chastaingt, director of the Chanel Watchmaking Creation Studio. "My objective was to create a typography that illustrated my vision of a masculine spirit according to Chanel, of an elegance defined around the notions of power and discretion."
It's more common for watchmakers' lettering to adapt an existing typeface. A. Lange & Söhne has made lettering a hallmark of its watches. For the august German watchmaker's 1994 relaunch, its designers modified Engravers, a late 19th-century font designed by Robert Wiebking, to the point of it being almost new. Similarly, the minimalist German brand NOMOS uses a semi-handmade approach with the majority of its timepieces. "There are always small design details that vary from model to model, so it would be inconsistent with our design ethos to just take a typeface off-the-rack," says Michael Paul, a product designer at the company.
NOMOS' Club line, for example, uses Interstate, a friendly sans serif font inspired by the United States interstate system's signage. NOMOS' designers tweaked the typeface, thickening the stroke and adding ink traps to the corners of the numerals so the sporty typeface can support a coating of Super-LumiNova. "It's only possible due to the thickness of the typography," Paul says. "You couldn't do that on the Tangente because the lines are too thin." The Tangente, by contrast, features minimalist numerals whose roots are squarely in the Bauhaus tradition. NOMOS' designers elongate the thin, Arabic numerals for the dial to create a more linear and rational aesthetic.
Even subtle tweaks to a typeface can elevate a watch, but the brands who fully invest in custom lettering view it as a distinguishing factor in their timepiece's design. "Much more than typography, it is a character trait of the Monsieur watch," Chastaingt says of Chanel's decision. No doubt, a watch has dozens of more complicated details that can communicate quality and mastery, but typography is a simple yet powerful visual shorthand for how a watch should be perceived. For that reason, Hoefler says using stock typography is a missed opportunity to extend the ideal of craftsmanship to a watch's most visible feature. "The thought that you could just open up Microsoft Word, choose a typeface and squeeze it to fit is a horror," Hoefler says. "I think perhaps most gallingly because it's the easiest thing to get right."
Liz Stinson is the executive editor of Eye on Design, published by AIGA. Her writing on design has also appeared in Wired, Curbed, Gizmodo, Architectural Digest, and The Wall Street Journal Magazine.