Why are some themed watches so immediately satisfying while others are seemingly dead-on-arrival, forcing consumers to ask themselves, “Why does this product even exist?” We’ve all seen cobranded or themed or collaboration watches that click immediately and just work, and we’ve all seen as many, if not more, that fall spectacularly flat for one reason or another. I believe there’s a formula of sorts that we can use to understand why some themed watches get it right and why others come off as kitschy and gimmicky.
A themed watch takes an idea or visual aesthetic — usually not directly watch-related — and attempts to merge it with the more straightforward notion of what goes into a simple timepiece. A good themed watch is a valuable item for brands because it broadens their customer bases; it’s a valuable item for consumers because it can help them appreciate two things thing at once, the watch and the theme. The emotional reactions that these timepieces generate are what ultimately get people to purchase the timepieces, and why a discussion of themed watches is important in the context of appreciating and understanding watches.
The two major ways of incorporating a theme into a watch design are either by expressly celebrating that theme or by imagining a new item that could logically and emotionally exist within that theme, as a part of it. Both celebration- and imagination-style themed watches incorporate some non-watch idea or entity, ideally, one that as many people as possible have a positive association with, and designers of both understand the importance of incorporating that idea or entity into a wristwatch.
Celebration Versus Imagination In Themed Watch Design
Watches that celebrate a theme are watches that have signs on them meant to promote the theme, similar to how a poster, mug, or t-shirt might celebrate a place, event, or idea. Those posters, mugs, and t-shirts aren’t there to exist within the theme, but rather are a canvas on which to paint a celebration of that theme — usually by mentioning or displaying the theme explicitly.
Celebration-style items make great souvenirs, but little else. I’m not saying there aren’t well-designed celebration-style watches, but there aren’t many of them. And there are virtually no good celebration-style watches at the high-end. The issue is that watches that celebrate a theme often have little independent value outside of celebrating that theme. Few things are worth celebrating your interest all the time, and it is often the theme is so loud it actually detracts from the enjoyment of the watch itself.
In their greatest moment, any celebration-style themed watch can only be as good as the best souvenirs. Accordingly, most souvenirs are only as valuable as the memories associated with them. It is for this reason that most souvenirs are inexpensive, and not particularly profound in the design department. It isn’t that souvenir watches are bad, but almost by definition they can’t be judged independently outside of the theme they are meant to celebrate.
Celebration-style themed watches may have a brand slapped on the dial, some overt and superfluous design element that sticks out, an artist’s signature, or even an actual piece of some allegedly important item incorporated — there are myriad approaches to the celebration style. I am not trying to suggest that the above design strategies are universally wrong, nor that all celebration-style themed watches are unfulfilling or poorly designed. I am however saying that celebration-style themed watches more often than not are recipients of criticism from the enthusiast community and are rarely if ever seen as being timeless designs or classics.
Why Imagination-Style Themed Watches Work Best
Now let’s talk about imagination-style themed watches, and why they are often more compelling than celebration-style themed watches. If a celebration-style themed watch is one that explicitly promotes a theme, imagination-style ones imagine they are actually part of it. Let’s use the Star Wars universe as an example. A celebration-style Star Wars themed watch intended to focus on the Luke Skywalker character might borrow design elements from his costumes, weapons, adventures, and of course inject some overall Star Wars branding. Such watches indeed exist, and they are celebration-themed because they are attempting to merge familiar design elements into a watch you are told is meant to remind you of the great Star Wars universe, as well as your love of Jedis. Can you see how that is a lot like a souvenir?
Alternatively, imagination-style themed watches begin with a premise like, “What would a wristwatch look like if it were designed by the same person who designed a lightsaber weapon, and what if it was something that the Luke Skywalker character might have feasibly been wearing during his adventures?” This incorporates knowledge of the Star Wars universe, and intimate details of what this character did and what the items he worked and used look like. A designer then imagines a new item, that never existed before, but needs to harmoniously exist in that space. In this situation, the designer of a Luke Skywalker timepiece would create something that could thematically exist within the Star Wars universe itself, as opposed to being something that merely celebrates that universe (or a facet of it).
We see the same exact thing play out with motorsport-themed watches, some of which have garish stripes or car numerals, or just plaster a specific brand right on the dial. In contrast, others deftly incorporate elements of a historic automobile or in some rare instances, deliver an entirely unique timepiece to create a link to a racing team, a classic car, or an event.
The main reason why we aren’t getting more imagination-style themed watches is simply because they are more challenging to make, require more time, and involve a particular thought and set of steps to properly design. I’ve spoken to a number of professionally trained industrial designers, and according to them, this particular notion is typically not included in the standard curriculum. If watch brand clients don’t know to ask for it, and designers aren’t trained to apply it, then it logically follows that properly done imagination-style themed watches will be rare. That’s unfortunate because I think the biggest qualitative difference between celebration- and imagination-style themed watches is huge, and the market could do with more of the latter’s thoughtful executions.