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Making the Case for Shaped Watches

by Helbert Tsang 16 Jun 2022

People collect watches for a lot of reasons. Some put great value on provenance, others appreciate mechanical complexity. One aspect that I have until very recently failed to fully appreciate is the beauty of different case designs. There was a time when I would always prefer a round watch over a different shape. Judging from how Patek Philippe perpetual calendars in different case shapes are valued shows that a lot of people still agree with that view. Lately I have started to develop an appreciation for watches with various case shapes, and I have to confess that they bring an aspect of gratification that one simply cannot derive from round watches. Here are a few shaped watches that I have been enjoying lately.

Cartier Baignoire Allongée

One of the theories behind the origin of the Cartier Crash is that a Cartier client who was wearing a Baignoire Allongée (which literally translates to “elongated bathtub”) got into a car crash, and the resulting warped remnants of the watch inspired Cartier to make the Crash. I personally do not believe in this theory, but that was how I learned of this model in the first place. While I would certainly prefer to wear the Crash, I find that the Baignoire Allongée gives me great enjoyment as well. The long case shape makes this a great unisex choice, and the case also curves around the wrist which makes it extremely comfortable to wear.

In recent years, steel bracelet sports models would be widely considered to be the most desired watches, but back in the 90s, vintage shaped Cartier watches were all the rage and would often fetch top dollar at auctions. As Cartier watches have been enjoying a massive resurgence in popularity lately, the Baignoire Allongée is becoming increasingly elusive in the market (if you don’t count the modern spiked case variant that is). I have been really liking elongated Cartier case shapes lately and I hope to add another variety to my collection soon.

Patek Philippe Golden Ellipse Ref. 3582

Whenever someone mentions the words “Golden Ellipse”, I think a certain shape will start to appear in a lot of people’s minds, and that shows how successful Patek Philippe has marketed the Ellipse. Even though the 3582 is part of the Golden Ellipse product line, its case shape is not the same as what you were imagining a moment ago. In fact, it probably bears more resemblance to the world’s most widely worn watch - the Apple Watch.

The ref. 3582 was produced for a short time in the 70s, which was not long after the initial introduction of the Golden Ellipse in 1968, but I like to think of it as more like a distant cousin to the Golden Ellipse. In the Patek Philippe 1973 catalogue, this particular variation of the 3582 was pictured and accompanied with the text “A dial within a dial? That’s the impression created by this new design in blue gold.”. Seeing the classic Golden Ellipse shaped dial sitting within a case that can only be described as shaped like an Apple Watch just brings me so much joy.

While some have raised the question of whether Jony Ive has taken inspiration from this watch in the creation of the Apple Watch, I believe that the resemblance is merely coincidental. What fascinates me is the irony that it is a modern electronic wrist computer that has driven me to take interest in a shaped mechanical vintage Patek, which I would otherwise likely not have paid any attention to if the Apple Watch was never invented.

Urwerk UR-103

Hardly anyone would associate the term “shaped watches” with Urwerk, but the fact is the majority of Urwerk’s creations are in non-round cases. Case in point - the UR-103 would resemble a rectangle when viewed directly from the top, and when viewed from the side, it always reminds me of a spaceship with the large sapphire window being where the cockpit is.

The fact that the UR-103 has a satellite wandering hours mechanism makes it an interesting watch as it is. But in addition to that, Martin Frei of Urwerk has also demonstrated that he is a master of case design in the creation of this watch. The case of the UR-103 somehow manages to look futuristic and classical at the same time. The case design takes a lot of cues from the Art Deco design language. One thing that I find particularly visually interesting is the engraved stripes covering the top of the case, which would otherwise be very bare. The stripes add complexity to the case design, and they also serve an additional practical purpose of hiding minor scratches very well. The idea of it being an Art Deco spaceship makes me adore this watch even more.

The UR-103 never fails to put a smile on my face whenever I strap it on. Some might perceive the size to be imposing just from reading the case dimensions on paper, but the relatively restrained (for an Urwerk) case design makes the watch quite versatile. I can honestly say it is the watch that I pick up on most mornings because of that. I also find that this particular variant works equally well with more formal outfits (as the red gold case adds a bit of elegance to the watch) as it does with casual clothing (particularly when paired with the fabric strap).

Concluding Thoughts

As watch collectors, wouldn’t we all experience some level of fatigue in interest with the ever popular round watch at some point along our collecting journey? Round watches are like the comfortable pair of jeans that you would always put on. You know it will certainly work but at the same time you would also acknowledge that it is just a bit lazy.

In recent years, we have seen a lot of advancement in terms of dial colours and movement complication and finishing. As there is now less room to further push boundaries in those areas, perhaps case design will be the next frontier of innovation in the coming years. I believe we all owe it to ourselves to give shaped watches a place in our collections, and I hope watch designers will continue to innovate in terms of case designs to give us more choices to pine over.
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