Porsche Design has been uniting the worlds of automotive design and horological innovation for nearly half a century, and its recent rebirth as an independent watchmaker takes the synergy to the next level. Scroll down for the full story.
“If you analyze the function of an object,” Professor Ferdinand A. “Butzi” Porsche famously uttered, “its form often becomes obvious.” It was on this principle that Porsche, grandson of Ferdinand Porsche, founder of the eponymous luxury automaker, designed his most legendary contribution to the automotive world, the iconic Porsche 911, in 1963. So devoted was “Butzi” to further exploring this adage that in 1972, in Stuttgart, Germany, he founded the Porsche Design Studio to apply his creative prowess beyond the world of cars and into the wider universe of luxury objects.
The first of those objects to emerge from the company, and still the most famous and influential, was a wristwatch simply dubbed the Chronograph I. Ferdinand A. Porsche cut his artistic teeth at the Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm, and that school’s Bauhaus sensibilities (it was founded by the legendary Max Bill) left a lasting impression on Porsche that was evident in all the products he designed; this trailblazing chronograph watch was no exception. Outfitted with the then-new Valjoux 7750 automatic chronograph caliber, it is regarded as the watch industry’s first “all black” timepiece, using black PVD-coated steel for the case and bracelet and an austere black dial with high-contrast markings for ideal legibility, much like the gauges on the dashboard of a Porsche car. “One of the biggest obstacles in those early days of auto racing was avoiding glare,” says Gerhard Novak, Porsche Design’s General Manager of Timepieces. “Mr. Porsche improved the functionality of sports cars by covering the dashboard with a black coating. When he made a watch, he applied the same principles of functionality: he covered the dial, the case and the bracelet with black and added contrast with the white hands. From the beginning he was not looking at what was already on the market but was interested in creating a functional object.”
In these early days of Porsche Design, the actual manufacturing of the watches was contracted out to established watchmaking firms, the very first of these being Orfina, a Swiss company not well known in the United States. The Orfina-made Chronograph I found a place in cinematic history as the watch worn by Tom Cruise in the 1986 blockbuster Top Gun, though few likely could identify its brand name at the time.
In 1974, the Porsche Design Studio migrated from Stuttgart across the Austrian border to set up a more lasting shop in the small town of Zell am See, and F. A. Porsche branched out from his pioneering wristwatch project into other areas, producing, among other items, a slick set of aviator sunglasses in 1978, the TecFlex ballpoint pen in 1999 and a mobile phone with a monobloc aluminum casing in 2007. However, wristwatches, as the compact machines closest in spirit to automobiles, would continue to be a major focus.
Starting in 1978, Porsche Design partnered with a more well-known Swiss watchmaker, IWC Schaffhausen, to produce its watches. It was this era, which lasted to 1997, that is regarded by many as a creative high watermark for both companies, uniting the visions of both F. A. Porsche and Swiss watch visionary Günter Blümlein, whose historical footprint in the industry also encompasses the revitalization of Jaeger-LeCoultre and the rebirth of A. Lange & Söhne. Emerging from this period were memorable, influential co-branded pieces like the Kompassuhr (“Compass Watch”), which introduced a hardened, antimagnetic, black-PVD-coated aluminum case that protected the accuracy of the watch’s mechanical compass; and the Ocean 2000, which was worn by West Germany’s naval divers. Most notably, after giving the world its first all-black watch nearly a decade earlier, Porsche Design, via IWC, unveiled the first all-titanium wristwatch in 1980, the Titan Chronograph, memorable for its integrated bracelet and “hidden” chrono pushers, which were flush with the streamlined contours of the case. It proved to be a harbinger of things to come for Porsche Design, which now makes its watch cases exclusively in titanium, a material tough as stainless steel but half its weight, corrosion-resistant and magnetism-resistant — all properties that make it attractive for use in the automobile industry — as well as hypoallergenic for greater comfort on the wrist. “Mr. Blümlein was an engineer, Mr. Porsche was a designer; both were Germans, with the same mindset,” Novak says. “Both were lovers of mechanical watches. Mr. Porsche was full of ideas for products and Mr. Blümlein was desperately looking for such ideas, so the partnership was, at the time, ideal.”
By 1997, however, both Porsche Design and IWC — whose fruitful collaboration sustained both brands through the difficult years of the Quartz Crisis — were on the path to successful futures independent of each other. Blümlein sold IWC, along with Lange & Jaeger-LeCoultre, to the Richemont Group of luxury maisons, and the Porsche Design Studio finally, perhaps inevitably, became a part of the automobile manufacturing firm still owned by its founder’s family, Porsche AG. The question of who would manufacture the next generation of Porsche Design watches was answered when the Porsche family purchased another historical Swiss watch manufacturer, Grenchen-based Eterna, founded in 1856.
The significant watches from this period included the P’6780 Diver, whose complex, hinged case design incorporated elements of Eterna’s historical KonTiki dive watch; the P’6750 Worldtimer, which cleverly displayed a second time zone in a mechanical digital format; and the P’6910 Indicator, which used a similar dashboard-inspired digital system to display chronograph readouts. According to Novak, many of the timepieces from the Eterna era owed much to the creativity of Roland Heiler, today the CDO of Porsche Design and Managing Director of Studio F. A. Porsche, who worked closely with F. A. Porsche until his retirement in 2005.
Professor Porsche died in 2012, the same year that marked the end of the collaboration with Eterna, which the Porsche family sold to China’s Haidan Group (renamed Citychamp Watch and Jewellery Group in 2014). This was the watershed moment for Porsche Design as a watchmaker. After 42 years of working with licensing partners, the company was now resolute in its goal of becoming a vertically integrated luxury watchmaker in its own right. Its strategy was a two-pronged international approach: designs for the timepieces would remain in Zell am See, in the Austrian state of Salzburg, while manufacturing would take place in a new state-of-the-art watchmaking facility in Solothurn, in northwest Switzerland at the foot of the Jura. “Designed in Austria, Swiss Made” would be the motto going forward, and the mission of the new workshop, called Porsche Design Timepieces AG, from the outset was to bring the principles of Porsche car manufacturing to high watchmaking. “The first step was to create a development process similar to that used to make Porsche cars,” explains Rolf Bergmann, Managing Director of Porsche Design Timepieces AG. “We involved our suppliers at a very early stage to streamline the process. Secondly we created our own production facility, basing it on the Porsche production principles, which gave us the ability to do 100-percent customer-oriented production: we can receive a custom order and produce a single watch. I worked in car production at Porsche for a long time and know these principles quite well. There is truly only one watch company in the world that produces watches like a car company, and only one car company with a watch company in the family. And that’s what makes us very unique.”
Appropriately, the first collection released by the newly independent Porsche Design in 2014 hearkened back to the very first model from 1972. The Chronotimer Series I was a contemporary update of the Chronograph I, with the same 42-mm case, a similar tricompax dial, and even the same movement, an ETA Valjoux 7750. The major differences were in the case materials — black PVD-coated titanium rather than the steel of the historical model — and the increased range of aesthetic options beyond the all-black standard, including a model with a rose-gold tachymeter bezel and others with white, blue and carbon fiber-pattern dials.
Following up the Chronotimer in 2015 was the 1919 Collection, named for the year that F. A. Porsche’s beloved Bauhaus school of design was established and taking obvious aesthetic cues from that style. Like the Chronotimer, it also took its template from a previous model, the Eterna-manufactured Worldtimer. Debuting with the austere Datetimer Series I model, 1919 watches are notable for their uniquely formed openworked lugs, which provide a smooth, form-locking transition between the case and bracelet and add to the watch’s overall lightness (the cases are 42-mm in diameter and made of bead-blasted titanium almost exclusively). The Bauhaus influence is also evident in the stark, minimalist dials, which feature a classical arrangement of central hours, minutes and seconds hands, with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it date window at 3 o’clock. One year later, Porsche Design introduced the 1919 Datetimer Eternity models, whose “timeless” look included dark green dials and a patinated bronze finish on the titanium cases. While ETA’s ubiquitous Valjoux 7750 continued to power the Chronotimers, the engines in the 1919 watches were provided by another Swiss movement-maker, Sellita, and modified by Porsche Design with its emblematic “PD Icon” rotor.
With the Monobloc Actuator, rolled out to great fanfare at Baselworld 2017 (and which I review here), Porsche Design officially ushered in a new era of collaboration between watchmaker and carmaker, uniting engineers at the Porsche Development Center in Weissach, Germany, with the teams in Zell am See and Solothurn for a tri-national effort. The resulting timepiece, whose design pays homage to pieces from the fondly recalled IWC era, particularly the Titan Chronograph, was the most convincing “sports car on the wrist” that Porsche Design — or, truly, any watch brand — has produced to date. The signature feature of its 45-mm titanium case is a single integrated chrono pusher on a multiply mounted rocker switch, inspired by the slide valves on the Porsche 911 RSR’s racing engine. Designed to be flush with the right side of the case when not in use, this practical pusher stops, starts and resets the chronograph function while also preventing moisture from penetrating the case during operation.
In addition to its chronograph counters at 12 and 6 o’clock and its on-theme motorsport-inspired tachymeter scale, the watch features another Porsche Design hallmark, a “function indicator” at 9 o’clock — essentially a redesigned running seconds disk that lets the wearer know the movement is working — and an added GMT function, with a triangle-tipped hand indicating a second time zone on the bezel’s recessed 24-hour scale. Porsche Design managed to build this unique functionality upon an outsourced base movement — the self-winding ETA Valjoux 7754 — but with the release of this sophisticated and uniquely Porsche complication, the next step in the company’s watchmaking evolution was a foregone conclusion: developing a proprietary movement of its very own.
That process had in fact started almost immediately after Porsche Design established itself as an independent watch manufacturer. In 2017, after three years of R&D, Porsche Design launched the Caliber Werk 01.200, using the reliable ETA 7750 as its template, with automatic winding, a 48-hour power reserve, and an integrated flyback chronograph function. Like the watchcases it would inhabit, it melded watchmaking expertise with techniques from state-of-the-art vehicle construction. Its barrel bridges feature cutouts that display the chronograph’s flyback function as well as its gear trains. The major movement parts are in matte black, a nod to the pioneering look of the Chronograph I; the bridges, plates, and polished screws are chrome-plated. Its energy-optimized rotor, made partially of tungsten, resembles an alloy wheel with “wheel rims” accented in gold or black and attached to the main movement by a central locking element emblazoned with the Porsche Crest. As with a Porsche car, performance is at least as important as aesthetics, and Porsche Design can boast that its caliber has been chronometer-certified by the Swiss agency COSC, guaranteeing its robustness and precision.
Porsche Design’s next exclusive movement, Caliber Werk 04.110, built upon a Sellita SW200, took the 1919 collection into new technical territory, eschewing a stopwatch and incorporating instead an uncommonly user-friendly dual time function that operates similarly to a chronograph. The 1919 Globetimer UTC, launched in 2018, which houses the movement, has a pair of ergonomic pushers that the wearer presses to move the central, 12-hour hand in one-hour increments, forward or back, to change the local time while the UTC hand (for the home time) and minute hand remain unaffected. A circular window at 9 o’clock serves as a day-night indicator (white during the day, black at night) that helps ensure the local time is set properly for AM or PM. In keeping with the watch’s automotive pedigree, the pushers can be operated easily even for a wearer behind the wheel of a car, with no need to unscrew or otherwise unlock them.
The synergy between car design and watch design ramped up, first in a series of limited editions geared toward Porsche owners. These included 2017’s Chronograph 911 Turbo S Exclusive Series, offered to owners of the 911 Turbo S car and incorporating the same carbon fiber and lacquer paint used for the car; and 2018’s Chronograph 70Y Sportwagen PCA Edition, which was exclusive to members of the Porsche Club of America and sported a special rotor shaped like the Porsche 911 Fuchs alloy wheel.
In 2020, the synergy came to full fruition with the launch of Porsche Design’s custom-built Timepieces program, based on the same production principles used in the manufacturing of Porsche sports cars, with a digital configurator modeled on the existing Porsche car configurator that customers can use to personalize their vehicle. Prospective owners of a Porsche car can now build a Chronotimer Series 1 watch that can be its perfect companion — from customizing the case, bezel, dial and hand colors to match the vehicle’s paint job and detailing to choosing a leather strap that matches its interior, right down to the contrast stitching in genuine Porsche yarn. More than 1.5 million configurations are possible, representing what is surely the most seamless integration of watch and car design on the market today. “Porsche cars are known for performance not just because of their engines,” Novak says in summation, “but also because of their durability, their driveability, their light weight and all the other aspects. It was important that we translate all of these into watchmaking, from the use of titanium, to COSC-certified movements, to what Porsche did with its cars 25 years ago, switching from serial production to customer-ordered production. That is the game-changer now.”