How do Watches Get Their Names?

How do Watches Get Their Names?

Post-WW2 consumerism popularised branding for watches and other products, shifting focus from functionality to marketing appeal

Josh Sims

Our Luxe watch expert is keeping you up-to-date with all things horology…


And, much as the few decades of this pre-Quartz era benefited from an abundance of more boutique independent watchmakers, able to find a market for quirky designs, so the 1960s and 1970s in particular offered some of the most arresting and adventurous names in watchmaking.

Just think of the intriguing Golden Horse (Rado), the tongue-twisting Ploprof (Omega), the pop Bivouac (Favre-Leuba), the bold Conquest (Longines) or the exotic Monaco (Heuer)? Or how about Caravelle’s Bullion? Or those watches of tomorrow, and named for such too: Favre’s Moon Raider, Wittnauer’s Futurama, Seiko’s Astro or Amida’s Digitrend? They all had a certain poetry…

“Inevitably the things we have to think about now when naming a watch means many of the watch names chosen by the industry over more recent years can sound a little dull in comparison,” as Zenith’s product development and heritage director Romain Marietta concedes.

“The watch market was much smaller in the 1960s and perhaps there was not a sense of just how big some of the brands that survived would get. We could come up with much cooler alternatives to the ones used but often they don’t work for some reason.”

Indeed, today naming a watch is no easy task. Many of the most iconic watches, truth be told, have names that are somewhat prosaic, with maybe just a hint of machismo.

If Jaeger-LeCoultre’s comic book hero-sounding Reverso is so called for, well, the user’s ability to flip over the case, and the Cartier Santos is named for a pioneering pilot who commissioned it, Breitling’s Navitimer and Omega’s Speedmaster are named, of course, to echo their functionality.

How do Watches Get Their Names?

How do Watches Get their Names? The Significance of It

What else might one call a diving watch but something as literal as the Fifty Fathoms? Watch names can capture the spirit, or the technology of the times. Cartier’s blocky Tank was inspired by the new Renault tanks that Louis Cartier saw in use on the Western Front in 1917 – a name now somewhat at odds for such an understated dress watch today.

Similarly, take Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Polaris, also named for another, somewhat more potent, weapon of war. And, what’s more, named by a US sales agent who’d concluded that the brand’s more standard approach – just giving its models a name based on the three digits of its caliber number – just wasn’t going to cut it.

He would prove his point too – his name for the watch would be that of arguably Jaeger-LeCoultre’s best-known model.

“We very much start with the movement, and use its three digits as a code name for the project, until some kind of cool nickname starts to emerge. That then becomes the nickname for the project,” explains Lionel Farve, the company’s product design director.

“But with the Polaris line, the initial name E859, was thought by the US agent to be too simple. He wanted to find something that would highlight the innovative spirit of this diving alarm watch.”

Polaris hinted at adventure, at extremes, at the pole star, but the watch was also released in 1968, six years after the US military brought into service its Polaris submarine-based nuclear missile system, a well-publicised event given the height of the Cold War at the time.

How do Watches Get Their Names?

How do Watches Get their Names? Practices

“We have no confirmed information in our archives on the origin of the name Polaris,” says Farve, and Jaeger-LeCoultre is typical of the Swiss watch industry in not knowing how many of its most famous pieces got their names, “but [clearly] the Polaris name immediately evokes that of the missile.”

What of Tudor’s big hit the Black Bay? The company says they gave the name simply to conjure up the idea of a remote, exotic cove akin to those in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean.’ If that sounds rather thin, a haphazard way of naming a watch – especially today, in an era of hyper-marketing and multi-channel media – haphazard is still more the norm than the exception.

External agencies of the kind that now specialise in naming products remain unused. For Zenith, the committee, consisting of six members including the CEO, heads of operations, design, marketing, etc., ultimately selects the name.

“But good names, the options we consider, can come from anywhere. We try to be honest in our opinions. When presented with a new design, we strive to refrain from expressing outright dislike. We’re Swiss, after all, so we try to find a compromise,” laughs Marietta.

“It can take some time before we agree on a name. Sometimes the name only comes very close to the launch.”

Watchmakers tend to return to their historic names, such as Zenith and Defy, for several reasons. One significant factor is their legal ownership or usage rights over these names. These names were first utilized in the 1960s, later revived for unconventional designs in 2009, and reintroduced once more in 2017 to signify a departure from tradition.

How do Watches Get Their Names?

How do Watches Get Their Names? The Process

The older companies have built a portfolio of names to pick from. Secondly, now that these makers typically serve a global market, each name has to work across multiple languages and cultures; it has to both be pronounceable and above local meaning.

That’s one reason why many watch companies prefer to rely on the torturously complicated and, to company outsiders at least, seemingly irrational reference numbers instead.

“But using a code rather than a name is also an industrial approach – you see the same logic with Airbus or Audi. We think [names like the BR 03-92 or the BR 05A] fit the utilitarian nature of the product,” argues Bell & Ross co-founder Bruno Belamich.

Of course, many watches are known by names that the watch companies haven’t even given them. Usage by collectors has occasionally trumped any attempt to impose a name by the manufacturer, many of these names of an evocative or pop cultural kind that the brands themselves likely wouldn’t be bold enough to use themselves.

“The cool names nearly always come from the collectors,” as Zenith’s Marietta notes, citing its Chronomaster A3818 being called the ‘Cover Girl’, thanks simply to it appearing on the cover of a book about Zenith; or, better still, the ‘Superman Blue’, for its dial being close in shade to that of the super-hero’s uniform.

“Typically brands don’t want to use names like these because of the risks of them being misinterpreted, though we do like to try to anticipate what the watch community might end up calling a model one day,” Marietta says.

How do Watches Get Their Names? Nicknames

Sometimes fans have little choice but to collectively name a watch. Seiko, which does not name its watches, has seen its Grand Seiko and more mass-market designs dubbed the likes of the Snowflake and the Skyflake, in part due to the texture of the dials, in part a nod to the snowscapes around the company’s manufacturing hub in Shinshu.

Seiko even considers the speed at which the collector community names a watch or collection as a rough benchmark of its longer-term popularity.

“Nicknames come from the watch shapes themselves, from famous characters or actors in films who wear them and any other inspiration which takes the fans’ fancy,” explains David Edwards, managing director of Seiko in the UK.

“Nicknames inspired by the watch shape include the Tuna Can, the Monster, the Samurai and the Turtle. A character in a film inspired others, such as the Captain Willard from ‘Apocalypse Now’, and another example is the ‘Arnie’, named after the actor who opted to wear a specific hybrid watch during the 1980s.

“The last two indicate one of the challenges of using nicknames – as we have no official partnership or franchise with that specific actor or one of his films, we couldn’t use those names in any [official] communication.”

In contrast, other watch companies tend to believe that the name they give to a watch is crucial to its sales success. More than ever a mechanical watch is an emotional rather than a practical purchase.

Nicknames

The Importance of Names

“Giving a watch a name is now more crucial than ever before – it must evoke the environment and the material.

“It doesn’t have to explain the movement or some feature but it does have to be part of the story-telling around the watch – because it’s that emotion that convinces a consumer to buy it,” argues Marietta.

That emotion isn’t always clear. But then as Sadry Keiser, Roger Dubuis’ international marketing director, points out, the watch industry has historically been about working with a product that’s very tangible. Watches are solid things. And the industry isn’t always so good at all the soft, marketing- oriented things like names, he suggests.

Sometimes you get it right – like its Excalibur model, a knowingly pompous, fun, grand name that nonetheless perfectly expresses a look. On other occasions, you encounter difficulty. So, in the end, how do watches get their names?

“We think about the actual name of a watch very early in the process because we find it tends to prove inspirational for our designers,” says Keiser.

“We want to assist in potential sales in some way, but also, if you like, to be impertinent, because so many of the names the industry chooses now are just so serious. But sometimes you can certainly debate the quality of creativity in a name.

“When we launched an Excalibur single flying tourbillon 36mm we called it Excalibur 36. Sometimes all the info that comes through to enable the choosing of a good name just doesn’t make it. The fact is that there are great products with not so great names.”