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Celebrating Bauhaus’ 100 years with 5 iconic watches

Celebrating Bauhaus’ 100 years with 5 iconic watches

Bauhaus Dessau
The corner of Bauhaus Dessau

In 1919, Walter Gropius, left in the pursuit of change after the events of the First World War, founded the Bauhaus school to unite the arts for a new world. In search of a eutopian unification of the arts including architecture, sculpture and painting he aimed to improve society by increasing well-being. His vision, aided by the school’s eminent tutors such as Vasily Kandinsky, also pushed for a cleaner approach which at once built upon & rejected the ideals of pre-war Expressionism.

Barcelona Chair
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s iconic ‘Barcelona Chair’

Moving from the conceptual to the concrete, design and architecture from this school echoed a lifestyle of exercise, health & community professed there. The design produced at this school was uniquely apt for the 20th century following the slogan: “Art into Industry”. This approach resulted in vastly simplified lines for the sake of mass production as seen in objects as iconic as Marianne Brandt’s silver & ebony teapot. Quality was, however, never compromised in this pursuit. Whilst the political stance in the 1930s put an end to these aspirations, we cannot deny that the watch world still feels the effect of the Bauhaus.

Barcelona Pavilion
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s iconic ‘Barcelona Pavilion’

Ironically, it seems that watches were no priority at the Bauhaus yet today I would like to celebrate the 100th anniversary of this timeless institution with five inspired watches. Each echoes the original principles of the school or has played a role in its popularisation in recent years.

Patek Philippe Calatrava ref. 96, 1932 – 1973

Phillips Patek Philippe ref. 96
Patek Philippe ref. 96 in Platinum on Gay Frères bracelet, sold in May 2019 by Phillips | Credit: Phillips

The Patek Philippe Calatrava seems perhaps a strange place to begin. A brand with such an illustrious presence &, at times, florid approach to watchmaking appears out of place beside the Bauhaus. Yet this was the image cultivated by 1980s ad-men — a radically different position to that held in the early 1930s. At this time, Patek Philippe suffered financial difficulties and was looking for a different future in the new hands of Jean & Charles Henri Stern. Their answer came in the form of the Calatrava reference 96 in 1932.

Christie's Patek Philippe ref. 96
Patek Philippe ref. 96 in Steel, sold in October 2017 by Christie’s | Credit: Christie’s

Existing a world apart from their pocket watches of old, this watch embraced the aesthetic of clear functionality presented by the Bauhaus & the International Style. Crucially, it also embodied the pursuit of quality inherent to the education of the Bauhaus.  Offered in various metals with a flat bezel and gently arching lugs, the design was simple, even plain. In spite of this, its 31mm case was comfortable, practical and utterly timeless.

Christie's Patek Philippe ref. 96
Patek Philippe ref. 96 in Gold, sold in March 2017 by Christie’s | Credit: Christie’s

During its 42 years of production, many dials were offered: everything from applied gold baton markers to large, radium-coated Arabic numerals with small or central seconds. More importantly, this watch applied the Bauhaus principle of form following function with no adornment ever compromising the essential functionality.

“…this watch embraced the aesthetic of clear functionality presented by the Bauhaus & the International Style.”

Mechanically, its manually wound movement was initially taken from renowned watchmaker Jaeger-LeCoultre but was soon brought in-house. Contained within its elegant bridges and plates was another Bauhaus pursuit: quality. Exquisitely striped and tested to for temperature and position, this was a quality item of accuracy and consistency. Finally, this watch formed one ground-breaking transition: it was the first serially-produced Patek Philippe, a Bauhaus-esque unification of quality and reproduction.

For more, take a look at the Patek Philippe website.

Junghans Max Bill, 1961 –

Junghans Max Bill Automatic
Junghans Max Bill Automatic | Uhrenfabrik Junghans GmbH & CO.KG.

Born in 1908, Max Bill was a Swiss designer of an immense talent range. Across his career he practiced skills ranging from art to architecture & from typeface design to silversmithry. From 1927 to 1929 he studied at the Bauhaus in Dessau but is often now remembered for his work with clocks & watches in the 1950s & ‘60s.

Junghans Max Bill Mega
Junghans Max Bill Mega | Credit: Uhrenfabrik Junghans GmbH & CO.KG.

Initially released in 1961, Max Bill’s Junghans wristwatch acted as a successor to his 1950s ‘Kitchen Clock with Timer’ by the same brand. The design of this watch is perhaps closest to the original concept of the Bauhaus as it is the only watch in this article with a direct connection to the school. As an evolution of his clock, the wristwatch was pure functionality but treated with the loving touch of an architect.

Junghans Max Bill Automatic
Junghans Max Bill Automatic | Uhrenfabrik Junghans GmbH & CO.KG.

The case was simply polished metal with thin, diminutive lugs. The strap was leather & the dial, whether given batons or quintessential Arabic numerals, was simply printed with no fuss or clutter. To match this, the hands were unadorned batons to clearly show the time. Whilst this seems very common for modern watchmaking, it was something very new at the time.

“…entirely fulfilled the Bauhaus dream with a simple and functional design.”

Junghans Max Bill Chronoscope
Junghans Max Bill Chronoscope | Uhrenfabrik Junghans GmbH & CO.KG.

Unlike the Patek Philippe, these watches were highly accessible & so entirely fulfilled the Bauhaus dream with a simple and functional design. With an automatic or manually wound movement & a choice of dial colours & configurations, this was all the watch you could need. Consequentially, it became a timeless classic. With a modern movement, this watch continued to be offered today.

For more, take a look at the Junghans website.

Swatch, 1983 –

Swatch advert 1982
Early German advert from 1983 | Credit: Swatch AG

Descending the pecking order further still, we have what many (myself included) would call the most iconic watch of all time: the Swatch. Conceived as a watch for every man & to resurrect the low-end of the watch industry, Swatch was released in 1983 with a unique design which took the Bauhaus concept of truth to material to a new level with its sealed plastic case.

The birth of the Swatch can be found in the war waged between Japan and Switzerland to create the thinnest quartz watch in the late 1970s. The result was the Concord Delirium: a series of watches which used their caseback as the baseplate of their ETA movement thus fusing the two elements together. For the luxury market, this permitted the creation of the scarcely believable 0.98mm thick Delirium IV.

“…this watch returned the lifeblood of the Swiss watch industry.”

Swatch advert 1984
Advert from c. 1984 | Credit: Swatch AG

Whilst applications in the luxury market were limited, this principle was ideal for the Swatch. When released in 1983, the Swatch was a unique product with a case which followed its function perfectly. It was reasonably robust and yet was highly inexpensive. Whilst discussing the Swatch one cannot neglect the fact that, alongside the return of the appeal of luxury mechanical watches, this watch returned the lifeblood of the Swiss watch industry. For that alone, it deserves an awful lot of respect.

Swatch Jelly Piano
The Renzo Piano-designed Swatch ‘Jelly Piano’ from 1999 | Credit: Swatch AG

Where the Bauhaus emphasis of this article if concerned, this piece was utterly true to its materials with no attempt to conceal its plastic components: a rather revolutionary stride for the Swiss. The Swatch also combined the playfulness of imaginative & artistic designs with the time — the absolute necessity. Together, these attributes quite accidentally formed a timepiece with the same lasting presence & good intent as the Bauhaus itself.

For more, take a look at the Swatch website.

NOMOS Glashütte Tangente, 1990 –

Nomos Glashuette Tangente
Nomos Tangente | Credit: NOMOS Glashütte

NOMOS Glashütte (or simply Nomos) was founded in 1990 in the historic town of Glashutte in Saxony, the heart of the German watchmaking industry. Created just after the fall of the Berlin wall, Nomos has since grown to a significant size and produces a wide range of Bauhaus-inspired watches.

Nomos Glashuette Alpha calibre
Nomos Alpha calibre | Credit: NOMOS Glashütte

Interestingly, the watch which is undoubtedly most true to this movement is the Tangente which was one of the first models released. With a polished steel case, angled lugs & an exquisitely simple silvered dial, this piece takes direct inspiration from the watches of Stowa of the 1930s, but more on that later. The Tangente is available in both automatic and manual configurations whilst no unnecessary function compromises the purposeful design. If you want one of these watches, you are offered a maximum of the time, the date & the power reserve.

“…Nomos was instrumental in the restoration of Bauhaus aesthetics to watchmaking…”

Nomos Glashuette Tangente
Nomos Tangente | Credit: NOMOS Glashütte

The dial design is of quietly good quality with thermally blued hands, small seconds & Arabic numerals with an obvious legibility entirely in line with the forward-looking Bauhaus school. However, this is not actually why these watches were included in this article. In reality, they belong here due to what the brand has achieved for this style.

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Whilst the Stowa equivalent is well made & more authentic, Nomos has been extremely serious with its philosophy thus deserving placement on this list. The obvious proof is Nomos Glashuette’s membership of the Deutscher Werkbund, a union of German artists, designers & architects which was co-founded in 1907 by Peter Behrens, a mentor to both major heads of the Bauhaus: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe & Walter Gropius. To add to this, Nomos was instrumental in the restoration of Bauhaus aesthetics to watchmaking with their enduring commitment to this design.

Nomos Tangente 33 blue - a century of Bauhaus
Nomos Tangente 33 blue — ‘a century of Bauhaus’ | Credit: NOMOS Glashütte

For more, take a look at the NOMOS Glashütte website.

A. Lange & Söhne Saxonia, 1994 –

A. Lange & Söhne Saxonia Automatic
A. Lange & Söhne Saxonia Automatic | Credit: A. Lange & Söhne

The final celebration of Bauhaus principles put into wheels, springs and gears is from another company which appeared after the restoration of modern Germany in 1989. This is the A. Lange & Söhne Saxonia — the simplest watch released by this historic company upon its return to the market after a near-50 year hiatus.

Available through the years in a myriad of different executions simple & complex, the Saxonia illustrates another term central to the spirit of the Bauhaus: Gesamtkunstwerk. This Teutonically complicated word describes the synthesis of different artforms to create a “comprehensive artwork”, or in the case of this watch a “comprehensive wristwatch”. It also successfully follows Gropius’ statement; “Art and Technology — A New Unity”.

On the face of things, the Saxonia is utterly Bauhaus in its simplicity by offering, if desired, only the time on a simple case with detached lugs. However, the reason for this watch’s inclusion in this article goes beyond simplicity or even its association with Bauhaus designs in its 1930s pieces. It deserves to be here due to Lange’s endeavour to elevate manual skills to a world-class level in a modern world, something dear to the principles of Bauhaus’ unified school & technical college.

The gold case of this watch is a sublime achievement of brushing, bevelling & polishing for uncompromising quality. In the same way, all that is present on the dial is given superlative attention. All in gold, the hands are curved & centrally capped whilst the phenomenally delicate indices are sharply bevelled to catch the light.

A. Lange & Söhne Saxonia Automatic dial
A. Lange & Söhne Saxonia Automatic | Credit: A. Lange & Söhne

“…the same culture of craftsmanship which drove the Bauhaus.”

On its reverse, the caseback displays an in-house movement corresponding to the features chosen. In any case, it will be made to an genuinely irreproachable standard. Even the most pared-back version offers a drool-inducing level of detailing from the gold chatons held in place by thermally blued screws to the striping across the mainplate. Most eye-catching is the hand-engraved balance cock which requires experience & a very steady hand to create from the same German silver as the rest of the movement. Functionality also remains with a 72-hour power reserve thus satisfying the need for practicality.

A. Lange & Söhne calibre L941.1
The Cal. L941.1 | Credit: A. Lange & Söhne

These aspects add up to create a watch which, whilst anything but attainable, carries in its components the same culture of craftsmanship which drove the Bauhaus. The very same culture guided the guilds in Germany for hundreds of years thus forming the backdrop for the establishment of the aforementioned school.

For more, take a look at the A. Lange & Söhne website.

In Conclusion

In today’s culture of nostalgia, the Bauhaus & its unique approach to design feels closer than ever before as we become more attuned to the subtleties of design. This is especially the case in as passionate a circle as that of watch enthusiasts. In any case, the Bauhaus’ impact upon the world remains tremendous & its centenary deserves a moment of reflection upon just what we have gained as watch enthusiasts from its existence.

Tell me in the comment section below what you feel the Bauhaus’ greatest effect has been upon the watch industry.

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