‘What’ is easier than ‘Why’ by Adrian Hailwood

‘What’ is easier than ‘Why’ by Adrian Hailwood

The watch industry thrives on re-issues. While some may decry the lack of innovation, it is a fact that some wonderful watch designs are sitting in brand archives, ready to be brought back to life as tougher, more accurate and more reliable versions of their former selves. I am a massive fan of vintage watches, but I have to admit that I am often nervous about wearing them and opt for something contemporary. 

Knowing what your brand made in the past is relatively easy. As long as they can be confirmed as authentic, vintage examples of past manufacture can be obtained and copied, and some brands even produce 3D scans to ensure a faithful reproduction. If the desired model cannot be found, old catalogues and working drawings inspire. 

What is more problematic is knowing why a watch was made in a specific way. Some brands are lucky enough to have retired staff members from the correct era to consult for their memories, but once you go back past the 1950s, such information becomes sparse, and a full understanding of context can be lost. Instead, you have a working assumption, which on repetition, becomes seen as fact when, in reality, it is merely a myth. 

Omologato’s Laguna Seca sports an offset dial- either 45 degrees to the left or right depending on which version you choose. The offset is linked to the famous corkscrew corner on the track, but it wins extra points for serendipity in that it is an American design for an American circuit. If, after a little internet searching, you also decide that the offset dial indicated a ‘driving watch’ – sorry, you lose all your points. 

The most prominent brand that made this mistake is Vacheron Constantin and their renowned ‘American 21’. Originally made in 1919 and then again in 1921 with a few design tweaks and finally relaunched in 2005, this watch has a similarly offset dial. All available sources said it was a driving watch designed so that you could read the time more easily with your hands on the wheel. 

I had no reason to question this until…I tried one on. Miming holding a steering wheel, it became apparent that you couldn’t read the watch at all. Relaxing my arms, I realised that the watch was more accessible to read when typing, the angled dial compensating for the angle of my forearm; for the same reason, it was easier to read when standing, sitting, or doing anything except driving. Interestingly, the publicity shots shared by VC tend to show a driver with his hands ‘resting’ on the wheel, the better to show the watch, rather than in a ‘driving’ position, when, of course, the dial would disappear. “But they wore it on the inside of the wrist”, I hear you cry… rarely they did, and that is not what is shown or claimed by the brand, and it doesn’t help with visibility. Other sources state that the large steering wheels of the time caused the drivers to hold the wheel differently, with the hands at 5 and 7 o’clock. This makes a watch worn on the inside of the wrist more visible, but contemporary pictures do not support this. It feels like a desperate attempt to support an incorrect assumption stretched to a ridiculous extent. 

Two further questions come to mind: why was this watch only marketed to the USA when driving was happening all over the world, particularly in Europe, the home of the motor car and why, if it truly helped visibility when driving, did motorsport brands such as Heuer not adopt it?

The same can be said of the Longines - Avigation Watch Type A-7 1935, relaunched in 2016 and based on a chronograph delivered to the US Air Force in 1935. The press release—copied word for word without question across watch blogs worldwide —states, ‘Its black dial shifted 40° to the right. The particular orientation of the dial allowed pilots to read the indices without having to release the plane's control yoke.’ Of course, the brand is always right…isn’t it? The brand should know its own history…shouldn’t it? Swap driver for pilot, and it is clear that this is as much nonsense as that presented by Vacheron Constantin. 

Driving watches do exist. The earliest I have found was by an American brand, Gotham, but Jaeger-Coultre, Hermes, and others also produced them. They were designed to sit on the side of the wrist and hence be visible when gripping a steering wheel (or control yoke…). Later, ‘side view’ watches arrived worn in the conventional position but displayed the time digitally on their edge, again visible while driving. 

So, if the Vacheron Constantin American 21 wasn’t a driving watch, what was it? A protracted exchange of emails and research with American trench watch expert Stan Czubernat provided clues. Offset dial watches were produced by several American brands, including Waltham and Elgin, in both round and square cases long before the Vacheron Constantin 1919. The reason for this has its roots in pocket watches with Lepine and Savonette cases. A Lepine watch, or ‘open face’ has the crown at 12, while a Savonette watch, or ‘hunter’ has the crown at 3. In the race to produce sufficient wristwatches for WWI US troops, pocket watch movements were repurposed. While a Savonette movement would have worked perfectly, these were less common and, as they were usually used in men’s watches, too large. Ladies’ fob watch movements were ideal but were almost exclusively Lepine, which meant the crown was in the wrong place for a wristwatch. 

Over in Europe, watchmakers had embraced the new-fangled ‘wristwatch’ in the early years of the 20th century and so did not face this problem. The Americans, however, with a conservative approach to production and a fixation with the pocket watch, had not evolved in the same way. The US solution was to tilt the movement and dial just far enough to clear the strap lugs. This meant the original dial could be used without the need to change or re-paint it. For a nation racing to equip its armed forces, such a practical solution saved vast amounts of time and money. A study of US trench watches shows that the traditional Savonette orientation quickly appeared and coexisted alongside the offset dials, again suggesting that the original design was for speed or convenience rather than any benefit in use. 

In 1917, Vacheron Constantin produced a cushion-shaped watch with a conventional dial layout. It is no great leap of imagination to suppose that this was a luxury version of the ‘Trench’ watches that were available in the early years of the 20th Century, and which became popular during WWI. In the same year, Vacheron would have become aware of American soldiers arriving in Europe wearing their ‘off-set’ dial Elgins and Walthams. Inspired by this novelty, Vacheron took their existing cushion case and produced their luxury version in 1919 for sale back to America. The dial of this watch was tilted to the left…a very awkward angle unless you are wearing the watch on your right wrist. In 1921 they tried again but this time tilted the dial to the right and created a classic. Of course, no other nation was producing offset wrist watches and so the American 21 was marketed solely to the originators of the design. 

To quote Stan Czubernat, “I do not feel that offset crown cases were designed with "driving" in mind. In the autumn of 1913, the Elgin National Watch Company introduced their first men's wristwatch, and they used race car drivers as their ambassadors. These men were Louis Disbrow and "Wild Bill" Endicott; they were prominently featured driving their race cars wearing an Elgin wristwatch in the print advertisements. Neither of these adverts featured a watch with an offset crown; these watches had the traditional configuration with the crown at the 3 o'clock position. In September of 1915, the Elgin National Watch Company came out with another advertisement featuring a gentleman driving a car; once again, the watch shown in the advert had the traditional configuration with the crown at the 3 o'clock position. To the best of my knowledge, no American advertisement exists from the Great War era showing a person driving a car featuring a wristwatch that had an offset crown.”

Applying logic to this problem – if the alignment tilt was about enhanced visibility, why didn’t everyone do it? Why are the German B-Uhr navigator watches not tilted, or the Breitling Navitimer? Why is every driver’s racing chronograph, from the Omega Speedmaster to the Heuer Carrera, not tilted? These users would have welcomed any advantage from their tool watches. The answer is clear – there is no visibility advantage because that was never the watch's origin. 

In the last couple of years, Vacheron has finally stopped saying that the American 21 was a driving watch, although it continues to be cited as one by watch blogs. Casting around for another story, they settled on this: “And, interestingly, the initial three pieces were sold to clients in the United States; the first owner was Reverend S. Parkes Cadman, a prominent clergyman, newspaper writer, and pioneering Christian radio broadcaster of the 1920s and 1930s, an outspoken opponent of anti-Semitism and racial intolerance. “He wanted to be able to deliver a sermon without turning his wrist to see the time,” Vacheron Constantin’s charming new CEO, Louis Ferla, explained. “The idea was to offset the time so that it could be easily and discretely seen.”

This is nonsense. No one turns their wrist to read the time while speaking; you just glance down, and your brain corrects the angle the same way we always do when reading the time. The clergyman's note of the alignment was most likely a benefit seen after purchase rather than a reason for seeking it out. 

The only example of an offset dial that delivers any benefit was designed by automotive designer Giorgetto Giugiaro for Seiko. In 2016, the brand launched a range of offset dial watches in analogue and digital formats as part of their Spirit collection; all tilted to the left. These are not, however, designed for car drivers but for motorcycle riders. The hand position as it grips the handlebar is very different to a steering wheel and for this, the offset makes sense. 

So, there you have it – the offset dial watch is an early American trench watch, not a driving watch unless you happen to be navigating Laguna Seca’s corkscrew and want your watch to match the road ahead.

Adrian Hailwood 

Watch consultant, valuer, authenticator and founder of TheWatchScholar.com

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