10 Watches That Don't Tell Time? Look a Bit Closer
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10 Watches That Don't Tell Time? Look a Bit Closer

By definition, watches, no matter whatever else they might do in addition, are made to tell time. As a rule, the vast majority of watches do this in analog fashion with the use of two rotating hands, one for the hour, the other for the minute, often with an additional hand to track the running seconds. But every so often, you’ll run across the proverbial exception that proves the rule — a timepiece whose design is so radical, so outside the mainstream in design, that at first glance (sometimes even at the second or third) it appears that you can’t read the time on it at all. Even most of these avant-garde pieces, however, have been designed with the purpose of timekeeping in mind, even if this basic function is overshadowed or reduced to an aesthetic afterthought by the more spectacular elements the watch offers. Here is a selection of 10 very interesting watches (actually, nine watches and one example of high-end wrist-worn art), most of which actually do tell you the time — as long as you know how to read them.

F.P. Journe FFC

F.P. Journe FFC

F.P. Journe founder Francois-Paul Journe teamed up with legendary Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola to conceptualize and produce the original FFC watch, a unique piece in a tantalum case that fetched $4.93 million at the 2021 Only Watch auction, becoming the highest-selling F.P. Journe watch in the indie brand’s nearly 25 years of existence. Journe added a platinum-cased model to its regular collection in 2023 with the same visually perplexing yet technically ingenious time display. The watch’s non-analog dial is dominated by a large metallic glove whose fingers are cleverly deployed to display the hour while a pointer at the tip of the glove indicates the minute on a perpetually rotating minute track. At 1 o’clock, all the fingers are closed in a fist except for the pointing index finger, for example; the index finger and middle finger are both pointing at 2 o’clock, and so on until 5 o’clock when all five digits are in evidence, the next cycle begins with a single thumb at 6 o’clock and different combinations of thumb and fingers. (To reference the most famous line from Coppola’s most famous film, this unusual and totally unique time display was an offer that at least one buyer couldn’t refuse.) More recent versions of the F.P. Journe FFC are slightly more accessible than the one-and-done Only Watch piece but production is still highly limited.

Hublot Spirit of Big Bang Sang Bleu

Hublot Spirit of Big Bang Sang Bleu

Hublot’s tonneau-shaped Spirit of Big Bang collection launched in 2014 and has grown to become a pillar of the “Art of Fusion” brand alongside the original round-cased Big Bang that anchors Hublot’s modern portfolio. The Sang Bleu editions of the Spirit of Big Bang, which debuted in 2023, feature an aesthetic and a timekeeping system inspired by the work of Swiss tattoo artist Maxime Büchi and his avant-garde magazine Sang Bleu. The watch’s sharply beveled lines and hexagonal bezel take their cues from the work of Buchi (whose clients include Kanye West and Adam Lambert), which is known for its geometrical, multifaceted, three-dimensional look, with overlapping hexagons, diamonds, and triangles. This sculptural motif continues on the openworked dial, which lacks any traditional hands but instead displays the time via three superimposed, rhodium-plated, octagonal disks; the largest one indicates the hour, the smaller one atop it, the minutes. Super-LumiNova on the triangular tips of the disks act as markers for the time on the outer scale. The skeletonized automatic chronograph Caliber HUB4700 also drives an unusual stopwatch readout on two additional diamond-shaped disks that serve as counters at 3 and 9 o’clock. The Spirit of Big Bang Sang Bleu is offered in three limited editions in three case materials, titanium, all-black ceramic, or the brand’s proprietary King Gold.

Konstantin Chaykin Joker

Konstantin Chaykin Joker

Can a watch that smiles at you still give you the current time? Russian independent watchmaker Konstantin Chaykin has famously tackled that question with his GPHG Award-winning Joker watch, equipped with one of the watch world’s most creative and outlandish calendar complications, the first of them released in 2017. The Joker’s guilloché-treated dial appears at first to be a straightforward depiction of a grinning, google-eyed clown face but is actually a cleverly designed regulator-style time display.  The hours and minutes are indicated on the two subdial “eyes” by rolling eyeballs, and the wide aperture of the mouth reveals an unusual moon-phase display, with the moon disk painted in red to resemble a lolling tongue as it moves across the open smile. Small symbols representing the spade, heart, diamond, and club from decks of playing cards appear at quarter-hour points on the bezel. The watch’s 42-mm steel case contains the proprietary K07-0 automatic movement, based on the ETA 2824-2, which the Moscow-based horological artisan has enhanced with a special module created in his own workshop.

MB&F Sarpaneva MoonMachine 2

MB&F Sarpaneva MoonMachine 2

MB&F stands for “Max Büsser and Friends,” and since its launch in 2005 it has been a workshop for Maximillian Büsser, a former executive at Jaeger-LeCoultre and onetime CEO of Harry Winston’s Timepiece Division, to apply his considerable engineering chops and artistic vision to create “Horological Machines” that are often wildly different from anything seen before in the timepiece arena. The “Friends'' that have partnered with Büsser on some of these projects include Finnish independent watchmaker Stepan Sarpaneva, who built much of his renown on very expressive moon-phase “face” designs. Sarpaneva and Busser joined forces for the first HM3 MoonMachine watch in 2012, and the pair reunited in 2019 for the follow-up MoonMachine 2. What makes this avant-garde timepiece special — even within the always eclectic MB&F portfolio — is its projected moon-phase function, in place of Sarpaneva’s usual engraved moon disk. An optical prism refracts the hour, minute and moon-phases in their flat positions so they appear perpendicular to the exposed movement; three moons in total are depicted, all in gold and finished by hand — two on the moon disk mounted between the digital jumping hour and running minute displays ticked discreetly into an aperture at the bottom, plus a third one directly applied to the rotor of the super-complex movement. 

MeisterSinger Benjamin Franklin Edition

MeisterSinger Benjamin Franklin Edition

Non-traditional timekeeping is the stock-in-trade of MeisterSinger, the maestro of single-handed watches, but the recently released Benjamin Franklin Edition, based on a historical invention of its legendary namesake, takes the concept up a notch. Whereas its dial looks nothing like any modern clock face, its design hearkens all the way back to a “four-hour clock” concept that Franklin developed in 1723 with the aid of Scottish astronomer James Ferguson, for an era when single-handed timekeepers were still the norm. Essentially, each of the dial’s four cardinal points hosts three sets of hour markers divided in four-hour increments: when the single central hand points straight up, it’s either 4, 8, or 12 o’clock, for example. When it’s pointed at the 3 o’clock position, it’s either 1, 5, or 9 o’clock, and so on. The wearer is expected to intuitively know which four-hour period they’re in, as well as whether it’s AM or PM, as the hand moves along the outer scale to indicate the approximate minute. Powered by a modified ETA?Unitas 648 manual-winding caliber, the watch — a U.S.-exclusive edition limited to 70 pieces — is not one you’d wear if you’re concerned about down-to-the-minute timeliness, but for channeling the historical cool and inventiveness of our most innovative founding father, it can’t be beat. 

Qannati Eternity Bracelet

Qannati Space Bracelet

Founded in 2018 by entrepreneur Mahmood Qannati and based in the Kingdom of Bahrain, Qannati Objets d’Art makes bespoke timepieces as well as non-timekeeping “Eternity Bracelets” — both forms of wearable art inspired by the heritage and culture of ancient Mesopotamia. Qannati has partnered with eminent Parisian jewelers Frédéric Mané and Jothi-Seroj to create this series of “modern-day reliquaries,” which meld contemporary French design with 4,500-year old Mesopotamian tradition, and incorporate rare gems and exotic materials in their breathtaking miniature vistas, all on display under domed sapphire crystals. The timepieces, which combine 3D jeweled constructions with analog subdials for the hours and minutes, are crafted in Switzerland by a master watchmaker, while the Eternity Bracelets (Space Bracelet pictured above) make an even bolder statement on the wrist with their dazzling gemstones, miniature sculptures, and not a clock face in sight.

Ulysse Nardin Freak One Ops

Ulysse Nardin Freak One Ops

Ulysse Nardin gave the world one of its most iconic non-traditional watch designs with the original Freak from 2001, which displayed the time without hands, a dial, or even a crown, instead using a “flying carousel” system in which a baguette-shaped movement rotated on its own axis with a bridge pointing to the minutes while a mainplate-mounted disk indicated the hours. In 2023, Ulysse Nardin introduced the latest generation of the model in the Freak One,following up the first gold-and-titanium-cased model with the military-look Freak One Ops, whose khaki camouflage-style colorway combines a black DLC titanium case with a bezel made of carbonium, a carbon-fiber composite material used in aeronautics. The watch features the “no hands, no dial, no crown” design of the original, along with the setting and winding system via the heavily notched locking bezel rather than a crown. The movement’s mainspring barrel cover rotates to serve as an hour disk while the bridge assembly, with a carousel flying tourbillon, tracks the minutes. The movement features the silicon components pioneered by the original Freak as well as a DiamonSil (synthetic diamonds grown on silicon) treatment on its escapement; it’s also equipped with the proprietary “Grinder” winding system, whose four-bladed rotor gathers energy from the slightest motions of the wearer’s wrist.

Urwerk UR-120 AKA Spock

Urwerk UR-120 SpockFounded in 1997 by visionary watchmaking duo Felix Baumgartner and Martin Frei, Urwerk has become one of the industry’s most wildly inventive indie brands, eschewing analog timekeeping in favor of its signature aesthetic, which uses orbiting satellites on multi-armed carousels to display the hour, often in conjunction with an unconventional retrograde minutes scale. Urwerk has applied versions of this innovative horological tech to various timepieces in a number of executions and materials — one of the most recent being the sci-fi-influenced UR-120, whose high-tech face replicates the “Live Long and Prosper” split-fingered hand salute of  iconic Star Trek character Mr. Spock. The movement, Caliber UR-20.01, uses a central carousel with three arms, spinning on a central axis, fitted with satellite hour markers on each arm. As each hour reaches the end of the 60-minute scale on the left, the current hour digit splits in half into two rectangular studs and thus replicates the Vulcan salute so beloved by Trekkers. The studs then spin on their own axis before shutting and making way for the next hour numeral. The UR-120 (nicknamed the “Spock,” of course) is suitably space-age in its overall appearance, with a gray-toned bezel of sandblasted steel and a main case of titanium, a ballistic-style calf strap, and a window in the caseback with a view of the movement’s star-shaped component that regulates the winding.

Vacheron Constantin Métiers d’Art Les Aérostiers

Vacheron Constantin Metiers d'Art Les Aerostiers Bordeaux 

Vacheron Constantin pays tribute to France’s pioneering 18th-century balloonists — called Les Aérostiers — with 2018’s Métiers d’Art collection of limited-edition timepieces, whose dials combine hand-engraved, micro-sculpted gold depictions of historical hot air balloons with translucent background elements in plique à jour enamel. The most eye-catching of the five models, representing five balloons whose journeys paved the way for modern aviation, is the Bordeaux 1784 edition, appropriately clad in a deep red colorway that evokes a fine claret, which celebrates a historic three-person flight over France’s famed wine region. The balloon’s engraved details include intricately executed fabrics and ornamentation, a depiction of a mythological scene, and the trio of tiny human figures in the basket. So where can you read the time once you tear your eyes away from the dial’s handcrafted beauty? Like previous models in Vacheron’s Métiers d’Art series, the watch contains the self-winding manufacture Caliber 2460 G4/1, which powers a hands-free, disk-type time display with hours, minutes, day and date indications all shown through apertures around the rim of the dial.

Van Cleef & Arpels Midnight Planetarium

Van Cleef & Arpels Planetarium
Van Cleef & Arpels, founded by Dutch jeweler Alfred Van Cleef and his father-in-law Salomon Arpels, was a jeweler before it was a watchmaker, and most of the maison’s timepieces are designed as timekeeping pieces of jewelry, the most high-end pieces equipped with what the company calls “Poetic Complications.”  One of the collection’s signature pieces is 2014’s Midnight Planetarium, whose starry aventurine dial hosts an entire solar system (but no traditional hour and minute hands). Designed by renowned watchmaker Christian Van Der Klaauw, the watch’s mechanical movement accurately displays the relative position of the planets in real time, with six rotating disks, each topped with a tiny sphere made of precious materials, representing the six planets visible to our naked eyes. Each rotating at its own speed, the disks — symbolizing Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn — make a complete revolution around the dial in the same period of time that their respective planet takes to orbit the sun. (Saturn’s rotation is the longest, at 29 years; Mercury’s the shortest, at 88 days. If you do care to read the time on this stellar timepiece, you can do so by squirting at the position of the rotating shooting star on the scale along the dial’s circumference.

 

 

 

  

3 Comments

Join the Conversation

JG
Joseph G.

I own an The Ascendent watch by Marion Labbez and Mr Jones. I really like it. People think it’s a struggle to read the minutes, but actually you learn how to do that quite easily. It’s the small hour windows that’s challenging.

TK
Taylor K.

These are cool watches, but I was hoping for watches that really obfuscate the ability to read the time. I love the Hermes Le Tempes Suspendu and The Haldimann H9 Reduction, Something about a watch that actively fights against its core functional purpose to attempt a higher aesthetic purpose is a fascinating artistic statement.

MB
Mark B.

The Hermès Le Temps Suspendu is one of my absolute favorite complications, and I would likely add it in a future update of this article. Thanks for commenting!

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