The horological world has a fair amount of apocryphal wisps and zephyrs ebbing around its weather systems, but one anecdote that would appear to be bona fide concerns Truman Capote berating a journalist for his unsightly timepiece, which was putting the author off mid-flow during an interview. “Take that ugly watch off your wrist and put on this one,” the Breakfast At Tiffany’s author is said to have yelled, removing a Cartier Tank from his own wrist and hurling it across the desk. “I beg you, keep it – I have at least seven at home.”
It will be a century ago next year that Louis Cartier was inspired to create the French brand’s iconic dress watch by newspaper photographs of the Renault FT-17 tanks being used on the Western Front. The watch-buying public’s long-standing love affair with rectangular pieces hasn’t been entirely monogamous – most are owned as part of a more varied collection, naturally, and even their most ardent lovers over the years have failed to resist the odd bit on the side. The square Rolex chronographs popularised in the 1940s made fidelity particularly tough for wearers of that era. But, with the help of the ebbs and flows of fashion nudging their basic design tenets in the right direction, rectangular watches have never quite drifted into the slipstream of the ultra-fashionable zeitgeist, nor have they been left gazing at it forlornly from a distance.
In fact, we’re in the midst of a deeply plum period for a type of timepiece that seems to enjoy a perpetual purple patch. With its swivelling game-changer the Reverso turning 85 this year, Jaeger-LeCoultre has come up with a refreshed range of the piece including, most excitingly of all, the customisable Atelier Reverso.
The latest iterations of the Boucheron Reflet, showcased at Basel 2016 – one featuring a marble face, another blue aventurine glass – also drew sharp intakes of breath on being unveiled. The Tank, meanwhile, edges towards its centenary in style, with the latest model – the Louis Cartier Sapphire Skeleton in pink-gold case – sitting near the summit of Cartier’s achievements to date.
Elsewhere, the Vacheron Constantin Historiques Aronde, a watch whose name, old French for “swallow”, refers to its seductive wing-like caseband flanks, contributes much to the sub-genre’s contemporary canon. Beautiful period pieces from Longines, Hamilton, Elgin, Tissot – not to mention Patek Philippe’s quirkily glorious “Top Hat” model – are still getting the discerning buyer salivating prolifically at auctions.
So why the enduring appeal? Partly it comes down to watch lovers’ innate yen for originality. “In watchmaking, it’s all about uniqueness as well as timeless elegance,” says Damian Otwinowski, Retail Director of Watches of Switzerland London flagships, “and rectangular shapes are still a rare part of new launches and core collections of brands.”
"So why the enduring appeal? Partly it comes down to watch lovers’ innate yen for originality."
Jonathan Darracott, Global Head of Watches at Bonhams, points out another passionate proclivity of timepiece aficionados: the love of conquering seemingly unimpeachable technical difficulties. “Creating these things was a huge challenge for watchmakers, because quadrilateral watches are hard to make waterproof,” says Darracott, who is himself a fan of Jaeger’s Reverso (“It’s got so many quirks going for it!”). “As any engineer will tell you, square edges require perfect fits, which is much more difficult when you can’t make things concentrically.”
But perhaps the major thrust behind the appeal of these rectilinear gems – from when they first became popular in the 1920s and 1930s to the present day – is their sheer stylistic calibre and the intrinsic longevity of the design tenets that underpin this calibre. From the start, the earliest rectangular models purloined all the prosaic beauty of the Art Deco movement, while relinquishing its prissy curlicues and flourishes (which, incidentally, Louis Cartier himself despised).
Hence, their natural habitat has always been on the wrists of arms draped in the finest Vitale Barberis Canonico Grand Cru or Scabal superfine cashmere. “The rectangular watch has always been something different aimed at the dress watch market,” as Darracott points out. “We’ve had the Omega diver’s watch and, of course, the Heuer Monaco, but generally you hardly ever get a rectangular sports watch.”