Deceptive Simplicity

The Slim d’Hermès debuts a new font on its dial, itself formed using a centuries-old craft.

Simplicity has a certain subtlety. For all intents and purposes, a watch, even a beautifully designed one at that, exists just to tell the time. The time-only watch is, in effect, a blank canvas for the watch designer to give an artistic representation of measuring time. Despite this simple readout, there are myriad possibilities available on the market at the moment. Anyone passing by a watch shop—or even a fashion emporium on Bond Street, rue St. Honoré, Place Vendôme, Madison Avenue, or Orchard Road—cannot help but notice that virtually every brand has a simple, time-only watch for sale.

Hermès is no stranger to the high-end watch market. The company has form and history. With movements historically supplied by the likes of LeCoultre and Lemania, Hermès has always had time on the mind. Hermès’s first foray into the watch market was the development of leather straps and holders that turned a pocket watch into a wristwatch. And though over the decades Hermès has indeed sold other watch companies’ wares in addition to its own, these days the focus is firmly in-house. Through cooperative agreements with Vaucher/Parmigiani, Hermès has started to produce in-house timepieces from start to finish.

The Slim d’Hermès

Last year, the Slim d’Hermès was launched and largely lauded by both watch journalists and consumers alike. What was there not to like? A new design to the watch case, the micro-rotor automatic from Vaucher, and the new font by acclaimed typographer and artist Philippe Apeloig. But this year, Hermès went a considerable distance further, with a limited series rose gold case and white fired enamel dial Slim watch. Along with the Hermès leather straps, the watch is the epitome of horological craftsmanship: Its dedication to hand-made elements creates a luxury good that not only looks good now, but has that intrinsic quality that will allow it to be prized and admired for decades to come. Perhaps paradoxically, the Slim d’Hermès watch is the antithesis of trendy, this despite the fact that it hails from the esteemed Paris fashion house. It is a timeless design—the kind of watch that gives more established watch firms pause.

A New Typography

While watch enthusiasts and collectors write a great deal about movements and case design, and although passing comments are made about the typeface or markers or numerals or the shade of the dial, little is known about why such choices are made. With the introduction of a new font for the numerals by Hermès for the Slim watch, I had the chance to sit down with the artist and designer to learn what went into the final form.

Rather than use an established watch face design, Hermès went one better, and asked Philippe Apeloig, the French typographer and former Artistic Director of the Louvre, to design a font just for the Slim watch. It was a decision made from a meeting in 2012 between Philippe Apeloig, Pierre-Alexis Dumas, and the Creative Director at Montres Hermès, Philippe Delhotal. Apeloig had been at the top of the list for Delhotal, and both agreed quickly that the new typeface would be a successful addition to the watch.

Firing the enamel dials.
Firing the enamel dials.

So why a new font? The man who ushered in the age of the smartphone, and in his legacy, the smart watch, Steve Jobs said it clearer than anyone: “I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and sans serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating,” said Jobs  at the Commencement Speech at Stanford University in 2005.

Philippe Apeloig echoed much of the same ideas in creating the font for Hermès.  When I asked him about what kind of requests were made by Monsieur Dumas and Monsieur Delhotal, Apeloig noted that the remit was relatively open and simple. “They explained to me that, technically, their challenge was to manufacture a very fine, very flat watch with an ultra-thin movement. My job was to design a typeface for the numbers that matched the lightness of the object.” So where to start?

Apeloig was not influenced by trends or fashion, instead taking inspiration from the historic and the modern, wandering  around art and design museums looking at paintings and sculptures. His studio in Paris is a library of art books, and he continuously follows new developments in choreography, dance, and architecture. For the Slim d’Hermès font, he looked at other watches from the Hermès collection, but almost immediately went with a modern design, as he did not want to feel influenced by what was created in the past. Apeloig had never designed typography for a watch before, but for him the  challenge was to make the watch light—visually speaking. As he says, the design sought “pure and perfectly in harmony with a sense of minimalism.”

A set of dials, fissures cleared, ready for another coating.
A set of dials, fissures cleared, ready for another coating.

When designing “type” elements for a utilitarian object—for watches, or whatever object that may be—Apeloig deals first and foremost with functionality and readability. He was quick to assure me that the need for clarity will never really preclude creativity and originality: Letters and numbers can take endless forms, after all.  In this instance, he created very erudite and parsimonious numbering forms, but then deducted away a space: an element for aesthetic form and a physical form for time.

Gesturing to the shapes of the numbers on the watch, he explained further. “Sobriety and minimalism were the qualities I was reaching for. I built in constraints, limiting the number of shapes—circles, triangles, curves, dashes—that I could use to create the numbers. 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, making silence visible. In this context, it’s the silence of time—its stop and start. When the numbers were assembled in a grid, a rhythm arose between the blackness of the line and the whiteness of the voids.”

That Enamel Dial

Creating enamel dials for watches is a difficult and expensive enterprise. Once completed, enamel dials are, indeed, “timeless” in that if they are properly cared for they will last and remain exactly as they were at the time of their creation.  And creation is the definitional word here.  Enamel dials are created, not merely made: In the original fusion process, the enamel powder is painstakingly melted with the metal to form the Grand Feu enamel finish.

Multiple steps, levels and parts are combined to create the Slim d'Hermes dial.
Multiple steps, levels and parts are combined to create the Slim d’Hermes dial.

To create the dials for the Slim d’Hermès, Hermès turned to a small artisan firm in Le Locle that creates enamel dials (and nothing else). Donzé Cadrans only employs six people, but among them there is almost a century of experience. The firm itself was founded in 1972 to create enamel dials not only for mechanical wristwatches, but also for other rotary objects of use in the consumer goods sector.

After Swiss watchmaking suffered from the “quartz crisis,” rotary telephones quickly gave way to smartphones operated by touch. Consequently, Donzé Cadran dwindled in size, and in 2011 it was taken over by the current management. Although small, its client list is impressive. Along with Hermès, Patek Philippe, A. Lange + Sohne, Ulysse Nardin, and Vulcain all have their enamel dials manufactured at Donzé Cadrans.

The process starts with an oversized metal disk. Copper plates used at Donzé Cadrans are convex in form to allow the meniscus of the viscous melted enamel to form a consistent layer.  The plate is cleaned, and a sprinkling of enamel powder is applied to the front and back.  An initial coating of enamel is applied on both sides to prevent the disk from warping later on in the process. Next, the dial is placed in an oven set to 800 degrees Celsius. At such temperatures, the enamel and metal actually fuse: This is fusion in the truest sense of the term.  Both materials are heated just to the point that they don’t melt into a pool of molten copper and enamel, but they meld into each other.

Once the first coating has cooled down, a second layer is then dusted onto the surface, and the disk is returned to the small oven. After the disk cools down again, the surface is inspected for “friseurs.” These are scraped out and the process repeats itself for a third time.  The number of times a disk goes through this is governed by the depth of the enamel coating required. A general rule of thumb is that each application will add approximately 0.1 mm of enamel onto the disk. With the Slim d’Hermès dial having a depth of 1mm, it does not take much math to figure out that there are 10 applications.

While the additional layers of enamel add to the lustre of the dial, there is a cost.  The cost comes in the form of failure.  Each time the disk returns to the oven there is a chance that it will fail in some form: by warping, cracking, or bubbling.

While the technology involved in enamel dial production has not changed since the 19th century, the process has undergone refinement. Gradual application of the enamel layers helps, but there is still an extremely high rate of failure. In the past, a success rate of one in ten was the norm. At Donzé Cadrans, with the current process, the success rate has been increased to approximately one in five, halving the failure rate. But this still means that a great deal of disks and dials are consigned to three large bins that sit in a separate room. The copper may be salvaged and re-used, but the time spent has been lost forever.

After a flawless white surface has been achieved there are a number of other steps that can send the disk or dial to the bin room. First, there is the application of the numbers and the name. The first series of applied numerals were too thick.  On firing, the low viscosity of the melting enamel caused it to spread just a little too far; the numerals lost their “slim” form. Hence another set of dials were consigned to the failure bin. The enamel powder was then applied with a new, thinner stencil before the firing process, resulting in the numerals as seen on the production dial.

The Slim d’Hermès enamel dial is triple-tiered, meaning that there are three separate parts to the dial. Each of the three has to be manufactured separately before being cut to size and soldered together to form one dial. With each of the three separate parts, the same failure rate applies. In probability, to obtain an overall failure rate you would multiply the individual failure probabilities with each other. The acceptance rate, just for obtaining three enamel disks with the required numerals and markers, is now one in fifteen (read that as somewhere around 7 percent). The three disks have to be cut to the exact required size and then soldered together.

Cutting the three disks introduces a further risk of failure, but surprisingly, it is the filing element that proves the most difficult. The internal soldered surfaces of the disk have to be hand-filed at an exact angle: 15 degrees on each. Only one person can do this at Donzé Cadrans, and there is only one supplier of the correct file. I regard myself as a rational individual. So it surprised me when, with a serious look on his face, Mr. Claude-Eric Jan told me that one batch of dials had to be discarded as the filing was undertaken with an instrument that did not make “the right noise”! The solder did not take and the dials were not fixed together correctly.

The Slim d’Hermès dial involves the most laborious and difficult process that Donzé Cadrans has undertaken. It looks deceptively simple: just a white dial with some markers. Philippe Apeloig summed it up best: “I was amazed about the fact that the typography was rendered with black enamel and so perfectly. The purity of the white enamel highlights even more strongly the typography to pay tribute to a strong creativity thanks to an exceptional craftsmanship.”

The dial is a triumph of craft and design: The enamel is thicker than previously achieved, the markers are a demanding artistic form that requires unwavering precision, all while the process itself is almost tailor-made for failure. Despite all their knowledge and craft and their excellence in the field, it took Donzé Cadrans two years to complete the enamel dials for the Slim d’Hermès timepiece. The result: an enamel dial of stunning purity. Properly cared for, the dial will last generations and will always look as it does today. But there is that element, that fragility, that mortality embedded within the dial: It can fail.

Not just any hand-stitched leather strap

Leather was Hermès first specialization and helps maintain their pre-eminence in the fashion world. Expertly crafted, using saddle stitching that is only possible by hand, Hermès leather straps are the pinnacle of what is possible in the field. First, Hermès leather is uniquely tanned and prepared.  A variety of leathers, finishes, and colors are possible. There is not a single element to the Hermès leather strap that is artificial. Second, the type of stitch used requires a skill in both threading a needle and in executing each stitch. Third, the hand-finishing on the strap ensures longevity and comfort. Hermès leather artisans are without equal.

Hermès leather products (from the watch strap to the most expensive Birkin bag) use the saddle stitching that has defined the company’s leather goods from day one. It is a particular stitch, and one that cannot be replicated using a machine. First, a series of holes at required intervals are pressed onto the leather. Then, after threading two needles in a particular manner, one makes a hole with a sharp pin, and simultaneously threads two needles (one in each hand) through the hole with the left hand leading the thread away downwards; the right hand leading the thread up and away.  The stitch formed is very precise and acts as a knot.

A Future Classic

Philippe Apeloig summed it up when he described the approach as free from the influence of trends or fashion. The watch is classic in all senses of the word: timeless in both design and execution. A simple, yet elegant geometrically lined case; a leather strap that is made in the same manner as carriage harnesses from the 19th century; an enamel dial that owes more to yesteryear than current production methods; and a particularly refined font for the watch dial. Given the rarity and quality that Hermès imparts on all it produces, this watch is not a fashion statement. It is not the basis of a trend or certain style. The Slim d’Hermès is the definition of poise and sophistication.