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Students in Geneva May Be the Watch Designers of Tomorrow

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It was a Monday morning in mid-September and summer vacation was over for the five master’s degree students enrolled in what their university describes as Europe’s only diploma program in watch design.

“Why I am here?” said Aloïs Sauvage, 23, repeating the question he had been asked. “Because I love watches and the universe of horlogerie — and I love mechanics.”

The students had gathered in an upstairs classroom on the design campus of the Haute École d’Art et de Design, better known as HEAD-Genève, which is next to the Cornavin rail station in Geneva’s city center. Their task was to continue working on the mechanical watch projects that are central to their academic success and, they hope, futures in the industry.

“The dream is to create a model for a big brand, something that everyone recognizes — like the Royal Oak,” said Mr. Sauvage, referring to the celebrated Audemars Piguet watch designed by Gerald Genta. (Mr. Sauvage himself was wearing a piece from the Swatch What If? collection, designed with square cases. Two of his colleagues also wore watches; two did not.)

Since the program’s inception in 2014, 32 students have graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in watch design, and half of them returned for another two years’ work to gain their masters. That may seem like an astonishingly small number for a public university system, and a program whose tuition is 575 Swiss francs, or $645, per semester (although each student usually spends another 1,000 francs to 2,000 francs in materials).

But keeping the numbers small was always part of the plan.

“It is not so easy to find work as a watch designer,” said Nicolas Mertenat, a professor who managed Omega’s design team from 2010 to 2015 and founded the brand Blancarré. “But with these numbers there is a market for the students.”

Indeed, Valérie Ursenbacher, the program’s head teacher and administrator, said about 30 of the graduates have found work in the industry.

For these master’s students, two days a week are spent on their projects and the remaining three are filled with lectures, internships and workshops, often conducted by industry partners such as Piaget, Vacheron Constantin, MB&F and Baume & Mercier.

Such collaborations also help the industry, said Jean-Marie Schaller, chief executive of Louis Moinet. “In 2019, we made a competition with the HEAD students where the starting point was: ‘What is a modern watch according to the heritage of Switzerland?’ What they designed was very refreshing, and revolutionary.”

The competition did not produce a watch for sale, he said, but “it opened up doors. From their vision we realized we could push forward, have less and less boundaries.”

As brands viewing the students as key to the future of watch design, what do their projects say about what we will be wearing on our wrists in 10 or 15 years’ time?

“Social aspects and eco-responsibility are important in the students’ projects,” Ms. Ursenbacher said.

For example, Lucile Beney, 22, is refining a mechanical wristwatch for the blind and visually impaired that she began working on while she was an undergraduate. Now a 3-D-printed plastic mock-up, it has an opening in the case that allows access to three rotating discs with numerical Braille indicators.

Ms. Beney said she was well aware of electronic watches with Braille and of connected smartwatches, but she wanted to make something mechanical. “It is my first choice of watches, and I like the challenge,” she said. “Customizations of smartwatches is a major advantage, but drawbacks persist, such as battery life and dependence on technology — this may not suit those who prefer a more traditional approach in life.”

She has had the help of two visually impaired people who work at the Bibliothèque Braille Romande et Livre Parlé (Braille and Talking Book Library) in Geneva. In the beginning, it was difficult to progress because they could not see her sketches. “We had to communicate in different ways, with hands and touch,” she said. “I had to make a lot of prototypes in order to explain the watch through physical touch.”

Lisa Dutheil, 21, has been working on a flowery, colorful watch inspired by her family’s experiences with cancer. Surrounded by 3-D printed versions of her idea, she said a central element to the watch’s success will be its community website, which she is now designing.

“The social part, the community, is really important. It is not just a watch, it goes further than that,” she said. “On the community website forum, cancer patients and family members will be able to share their experiences, join discussions and connect. They will be less lonely. And wearing the pieces tells a story of you being a fighter, being a winner.”

Ms. Dutheil said the next generation of watch designers is “very aware” of what is happening around them, in terms of ecological and social aspects. “I think in our design, we now try to be as right as possible,” she said.

A showcase for craftsmanship is at the heart of Mr. Sauvage’s creation: He wants to fill the dial space of a watch with hundreds of mouth-blown miniature glass beads, a visual contrast to the precise order of its mechanics.

“I want to bring different artisans together as a way to remember the real savoir-faire,” he said. “With CNC-made cases, you create a canvas for the glass artisan.” (CNC is computer numerical control, an automatic manufacturing system.)

And Elie Eliez, 27, has a different inspiration — embodied in cloisonné enamel dials, which were popular with many brands, including Rolex and Patek Philippe, in the 1950s.

The technique is more than 3,000 years old, with the artisan creating a grid of gold wire, filling each grid cavity with enamel powder paints and then firing the whole in a furnace heated to about 1,472 degrees Fahrenheit (800 Celsius).

“I am inspired by tiles, Mr. Eliez said. “And I love square watches,” adding that “the square is not as exploited” as the circle in watch design.

The starting point of Séfana Bach’s project goes back even further: to about 3,500 years ago and the practice of putting a stick in the ground to create the first sun dials. “Light is the beginning of everything including the reading of time — it is a huge topic,” she said.

That ancient starting point has time traveled to the 1960s, judging from the psychedelic swirls of her conceptual dial designs. But Ms. Bach also is adding a photochromic pigment to the dials, so they will change according to the light conditions. “With direct sunlight, the dial color will really pop,” she said, and applications of Super-LumiNova, a fluorescent material, will help with low light situations.

Ms. Bach, 22, said she knows what the watch industry needs from the next generation of designers: “More fun. And more weird — things we’ve never seen, different cases and weird shapes. Yeah, we need some more fun in the watch industry for it to change a little bit, to evolve in another way.”

Ms. Beney envisions a different future. “Expect lighter, more durable, and aesthetically stunning watches thanks to the use of innovative materials and cutting-edge manufacturing techniques,” she wrote in a follow-up email.

And “personally,” she added, “I hope that the world of watchmaking and design, in general, will lean more towards inclusivity. This would involve creating watches that go beyond their functionality to have a positive impact on society.”

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