Jean-Loup Glénat, Head of Design at Franck Muller explains the challenges and rewards of working with such an iconic shape.
With the vast majority of the world’s watches designed in a round case, building a brand based on a case shape that doesn’t fit this norm can be considered an extremely risky approach. However, for Franck Muller, the tonneau shape has not only brought them immense success in the world of Haute Horlogerie, but moreover, it has become a signature of the manufacture. Just catching a glimpse of this shape on a wrist is enough for you to make an educated guess that it must be a Franck Muller watch.
Indeed, when the brand’s eponymous founder Franck Muller created his very first tonneau watch in 1992, he wanted a shape that was recognisable and identifiable at first glance. What makes the Franck Muller tonneau even more unique however is the fact that the case is curved three-dimensionally meaning it is also curved on the profile. Franck Muller calls this the Cintrée Curvex. This lets the watch sit comfortably on the wrist, but on the flip side, also makes it incredibly tricky to produce.
To further explore the inner workings of this fantastic design concept, we sit down with Jean-Loup Glénat, the Head of Design at Franck Muller to talk about the challenges faced when working with the tonneau shape and how he keeps this core DNA of the brand while expanding the collections within the manufacture to keep it fresh and exciting for the modern watch enthusiast.
Cortina: The tonneau case has long been an icon for Franck Muller and has become one of the most recognisable elements of the brand. Are there any challenges in designing new watches while having to keep to this case shape?
Jean-Loup Glénat: Having such a recognisable shape is a real opportunity for a brand. We obviously cultivate this link with the tonneau case. This shape, like a framework of a painting, allows total creative freedom as long as you stay within the framework, from a skeleton version to classic or sporty collections. The challenge is to make sure that what we imagine is mechanically feasible because it is much more complex to fit complications into a tonneau-shaped case than into a classic round watch.
C: Even with all the different shapes, the Curvex is something that is also a big part of Franck Muller, even if it is a little less obvious. Can you tell me about the challenges faced when designing a watch with such a curved profile?
JG: This is where things start to get complicated. The tonneau shape combined with the curved profile means that we have to meet many technical challenges. We overcome these challenges by working closely with all the departments, starting with the engine manufacturers and constructors, from the external part to the watchmakers who assemble the first series. The major challenge is often between the size and horizontality of the mechanism and the respect for the proportions of a first design. As designers, we are in a way the guarantors of the success of a project during which we face many reflections and compromises. This overall vision and these enriching collaborations make our job very exciting.
C: The Vanguard case can be called a more modern and contemporary version of the tonneau Cintrée Curvex case. Would you agree?
JG: The starting point of the Vanguard project was a revisited, avant-garde projection of our famous tonneau shape. So I agree that it is more contemporary. The success we have had since its presentation in 2015 has reinforced this strategic choice. We play with the notion of time in our creations and must paradoxically freeze a design, the shapes and their expressions in the time.
C: Tell me about the Skafander, it must have been an incredible challenge trying to fit such an iconic watch like a diver watch which has always traditionally been round into this shape.
JG: The Skafander collection is part of this strategy of exploring new technical and dynamic horizons for the brand. We are showing that the capacity of the Manufacture to push the limits is still intact. This type of challenge results in incredible exclusivities that are offered to our clients and exciting work for our teams. We have indeed other projects in the pipeline with a technical and functional approach.
C: How do you then impart brand DNA into the collection of watches with different shapes like the Long Island and the Master Square.
JG: The brand’s distinctive features are not limited to the tonneau shape. The curves, the expressive numerals, the Guilloché, the complications and the colours are all assets that allow us to maintain a strong identity from one collection to the other. This rich heritage offers great creative freedom. For me, freedom and creativity are the two fundamental values of the brand. A real delight for a designer!
C: What are your considerations when designing a Franck Muller watch for women? I’m sure size isn’t the only difference?
JG: Of course. We have a more sensitive, more delicate approach. The shapes are more organic, and the curves and figures are less masculine, more gentle and softer. We work with other materials such as mother-of-pearl and use symbols like in our latest collection the Vanguard Rose Skeleton. Complications can also be different, like the moon phase which is much more popular with ladies.
C: Speaking about size, Franck Muller’s men’s watches have traditionally been a little bigger and more robust. But recent trends like the Vanguard Casablanca, we see a SEA region request for smaller sizes in 43 mm and some cases 41 mm. Do you think that this is just because Asians tend to have smaller wrists or do you see a trend shifting to smaller, more subtle sizes?
JG: This is something we are experiencing on a global scale. We have more requests for sizes 41 and 43. The oversize trend reached its peak a few years ago when 45 to 50 mm watches were no longer the exception but a market demand. The curved shape of our watches was an advantage to respond to this demand because when the size of the watch is large, wearing it requires a correlation between the size of the case and the size of the wrist.
Otherwise, the watch moves, turns, slides and bumps. The only way to avoid this is through ergonomics. Few brands have succeeded in this challenge because having a curved case back increases the complexity of manufacturing and design. Today the cursor is gradually falling and diameters are decreasing to sizes between 40 and 43 mm. But the current trend is not limited to this and the diversity of watchmaking styles is combined with the diversity of markets, we have to match all tastes and all size preferences.