There was a moment, not that long ago, when our ancestors looked up at the sky to see only birds and stars. Dreamers imagined themselves flying above the land and looking down at the world below. A birds-eye view. An unlikely perspective. In under 70 years since the first powered airship floated above Lake Constance in Southern Germany, a pair of human feet would step onto the dusty surface of the moon.
Humankind has traversed the unfathomable gap, from the first tentative hot air balloons in the 18th century, to the powered Airships with 14 horsepower engines, to space rockets powered by 160 million horsepower liquid propellant engines. Technological advancement, through the prism of conflict.
The Space Race was run at breakneck speed under the looming, frightening spectre of a Cold War set against a simmering backdrop of nuclear conflict, but advancements in the understanding of not just what we can achieve, but who we are as people of Earth, changed everything.
The Astro is a new perspective for us, as watch designers, and is inspired by the race to stand on the moon, and the broader legacy of human understanding that remained.
DESIGNING THE ASTRO - THE INSPIRATION BEHIND THE DESIGN
I’ve been interested in space since I was a wee boy - astronomy, Apollo and the iconic imagery of the moon landings have always fascinated me - I think at some point we all have aspirations to be an astronaut before the realities of life get in the way - it takes a certain type of person to be an astronaut and unfortunately for me I’m two cans short of a the required six-pack.. The innocent wonder of the planets and the stars, the white-clad, gold visored astronauts standing on another planet, it’s inspiring and frightening and wondrous all at the same time. Researching this project was brilliant, because it allowed me to get into the details of things I’ve skirted around for a while. Luckily for me there has been a resurgence in the interest in the history of space - new docufilms like the masterful Apollo 11 or the heartbreaking Challenger: The Final Flight series on Netflix and even cinematic films like First Man, have all taken the space endeavour history and brought it right back into the present. I’ve always assumed, naively, that the race to space was run for the furtherment of humankind…just because. But it wasn’t long before the research revealed some harsh realities of the space race - the backdrop of the cold war, political posturing, nuclear armageddon. To find the origins of the space race I had to go right back to the years just after world war 2, and a speech by Churchill called the Sinews of Peace. It was the phrase “the iron curtain” that seems to be the ignition spark for rising tensions between two ideological sides. The Suez Canal Crisis, the downing of the secret U2 spy plane, JFK coming into power and immediately launching a botched bay of pigs invasion, which in turn lead to the Cuban missile crisis. Thankfully the race to space was the resulting aftermath, and not nuclear armageddon.
The human toll the race to space sought, in many ways, to mask, was huge, and lasted long after feet had stepped onto the lunar surface - and the characters that were involved in these monumental achievements might not have remained true to the innocent spirit of adventure the space race, in some ways, represented. But time has etched the people involved in many pioneering missions into the fabric of history, and their achievements remain part of that collective glory of human endeavour. It’s an almost impossibly huge topic to research, for so much happened in such a relatively short amount of time, but in the areas that I looked at, a universal truth permeates it all - it was a tremendous achievement by so many incredibly skilled and dedicated people.
DESIGNING THE ASTRO - CASE DESIGN
Work began for the Astro in July 2020 once the research phase was safely in hand, and knowing the history of watches tied to the space race, it was always going to be a challenge to get past the iconic watches so closely tied to the moon. It wasn’t long before we knew we had to do something really different, totally unexpected and outside of our comfort zone.
Watches, clocks and everything about the mechanics of these little objects are formed entirely around circles - the wheels, pinions, barrels and balance inside the movement, the rotor, crown - even just the fundamental way of the hands revolving around a dial to display the time - it’s all circular. Adapting that into square thinking is an interesting, and unique concept. I knew that this had to be entirely original and not follow any precedents, not just set out by other square and rectangular watches, but by all watches associated with space.
In my research the biggest take away was that for most people around the world, the achievements and iconic images that resulted of these endeavours were all witnessed through square frames - television broadcasts live from the moon, photographs taken on the Hasselblad cameras and books with colourful prints and illustrations - all presented through a restricted square sided view. Even now, into the modern day of Space-x and reusable, self-landing boosters - we’re still watching it happen through our televisions and computer screens - squares and rectangles. It seemed like the resonance for the Astro was clear - the case should form the aperture through which our vision of the space race could be viewed - but in a little twist taking on the shape of a squircle, in a nod to the big wood-clad boxy television sets of the late 60s and early 70s.
Starting off with that unique shape for the case was exciting, but I needed to work out how to engineer it together, including my own pre-ordained requirement for the case to be lugless. Having straps butting into the precious real-estate of the case internals was an immediate hurdle to get over - typically on a round watch you have all the space you need to fit things in and the lugs don’t even come into play, but with a lugless square watch the design is restricted at two key points of your workable internal space. Typically our watches are rear-loading, which makes maintenance really easy and clean, but this means that the internal assembly of dial, hands and movement needs to fit through the rear of the case, as well as have an ability to secure down this assembly and finally get the caseback on with sealing enough to hit our 100m water resistance baseline.
It was a fascinating process working out the mechanics of this case design and how to keep everything looking neat and slim. Multiple iterations, each one improving on the last and converging towards our final design. A squircle is fine from above, but a straight forward extrusion of that shape made the watch look quite slab-like - unbroken sides of polished steel - so we wanted to include a number of elements on our case design that made it more interesting when you’re not looking at the dial, and reduced the impact of these flat sides: the contrasting finished recessed areas on the 9 and 3 o’clock side - the angled apertures for the straps and a discreet caseback with curved form. On the wrist it combines into a watch that feels discreet on your wrist yet has a big presence.
DESIGNING THE ASTRO - THE DETAILS
Our goal for all of the 4 dial designs was to have them follow a narrative arc in some way - from the start of the space race to the current day, while featuring lots of a dynamic depth and texture, all morphing and changing with the light and shadows. Knowing we had limited space to bring the dial module into the watch through the caseback, meant that in order to have an edge-to-edge dial design, the dial had to be in multiple parts. We wanted the time-referencing to be clear but have our renowned high-quality finishing - applied indices and multiple polished elements, layers and colour accents.
There’s no end to the amount of inspiration you can find for materials, textures and colours in space - everything is bespoke made for the task, with “space-age” fabrics, bespoke alloys and…velcro - loads and loads of velcro. For the Valentina and Eagle models, we wanted to somehow reference the events that would follow on from these great achievements, and there’s been a number of interesting things happening in space, not least of which is the very recent news of the new James Webb telescope capturing the cosmos 13 billion years ago. But there have been a number of things launched into space on interesting missions, like the two vinyl record-like phonographs made from gold-plated copper and etched with pictures and sounds from Earth, launched aboard both the Voyager spacecraft in 1977. We used a radial record-like texture for the outer surface of the dials, with numerous layers leading into the two-tone main watch dial.
There have also been numerous depictions of space in popular culture - artwork, music and film, not least of which is the iconic film by Stanley Kubrick - 2001: A Space Odyssey. In this film there’s a scene where Dr. David Bowman is walking down a octagonal tunnel- white, brightly lit - cutting edge set design for its era. We took this as inspiration for the hexagonal pattern on the Stellar and Futura - we did try an octagon but at this scale it looked more circular, so went with the Hexagon instead.
A number of subtle influences appear on the Astro range, like the reticles on the corners of the crystals, printed underneath in silver - The Apollo missions all took Hasselblad cameras with calibrated lenses to capture what they were witnessing. In each of the plates on these cameras, small crosshairs were placed to allow NASA engineers to accurately measure stuff captured in the photographs - moon rocks and other interesting geology.
We’ve included small nods to pioneering missions, like Apollo 11, on the Stellar and Futura with a highlighted 11 o’clock numeral, whilst the caseback features a crystal with underside printing, a spherical motif with the silhouette of a command module orbiting around it - just above where the counterweight from the automatic movement sits - a nod to Michael Collins, who spent his time in the command module when Armstrong and Aldrin were walking on the moon, and in the process becoming the single most distant human from the entire history of humankind.
The crown is inspired by the reentry capsules, with a conical shape and fluted edges - obviously it needs to have the ability to grip and turn, pull out and push in, so the ergonomics of that needed to be achieved whilst keeping that reference and I think it’s worked out great - the crown is robust and easy to grip whilst almost floating alongside the case due to the reflections on that curved conical surface.
The Astro is different. It’s unique and challenging. Square cased watches are always going to polarise, which is all part of the fun and the experience in bringing it to market has been equally as unique and challenging. The creation of so many bespoke items, including the natural rubber straps and the custom artwork for the box has all been brilliant fun - each time we launch a watch we’re expanding how we do things, and I guess if you’re not dividing opinion then you’re not doing it right, and with the Astro I think we’ve made a big leap in our own understanding of what we can achieve, and what is possible if we put our collective minds together.