Perhaps the greatest struggle in designing for the future is that the future is a constantly moving target. Whether one is designing a watch, a car, a chair or a building, what looks cutting-edge today may not reflect the vision of the future five years from now. Because of this, many enthusiasts gravitate toward more traditional, “timeless” styles, but the most intriguing concepts arise when a designer’s vision of the future has power beyond the context of its creation. It has its glimmers in the current watch market, with brands like MB&F reinventing concepts from the swoopy vision of the chrome-laden 1930s with its experimentation. High quality watch making designs. However, in my own opinion, nothing matches the vibrant, optimistic and deeply stylistic appeal of the Space Age design movement of the ’60s and early ’70s, and perhaps no other watch embodies the look and feel of this design school better. This circa-1970 Hamilton than Fontainebleau.
Space Age design can trace its origins to the late 50s, when designers such as Eero Saarinen began experimenting with the (at the time) cutting-edge plastic and metal materials developed as a byproduct of the Space Race. These materials combined with rounded, Pop Art-esque forms and striking primary color palettes marked a stark departure from the jet-inspired, chrome-trimmed futurism of the previous decade. By the mid-60s, the style had come into its own with interior designers such as Eiro Arnio, Joe Colombo, Peter Ghiz, Verner Panton and Raphael Raphael, automotive designers including Bill Mitchell and Marcello Gandini, and fashion houses such as Pierre Cardin. , and popular entertainment from “Star Trek” to the 007 franchise work together to influence a particularly splashy vision of things to come. Watch brands have also been eager to jump on this stylistic movement, but perhaps no other watchmaker has embraced the look as fully as Hamilton.
In the late 60s, Hamilton was in a state of flux. The historic American brand was gradually moving from its traditional location in Lancaster, Pennsylvania to Bienne, Switzerland, and its position in the industry was changing with the acquisition of the Buren brand in 1966. It also contributed to the (historically underrated) joint effort to develop the world’s first automatic chronograph movement, Caliber 11/Chronomatic, as part of the Project 99 consortium, which included Heuer, Breitling and Dubois-Depraz. All this rapid change led to a creative environment ripe for experimentation, and Hamilton was eager to push forward with a new avant-garde visual language. This new corporate attitude was given a chance to shine on the world stage in 1968 when Hamilton was approached by legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick to develop a concept timepiece. 2001: A Space Odyssey. Although the cuff-style five-time-zone design was featured in the film’s iconic space station scene alongside other space-age design icons such as the bright red Artifort gin chair, the watch dates back to the late ’60s and outlived Hamilton’s production capacity. Instead a different, but no less futuristic, Odyssey 2001 used a film presentation with a three-hander.
As cutting-edge as the Caliber 11/chronomatic movement was in 1969, it was a natural move to present it with a state-of-the-art watch design. Heuer, of course, approached his piece with the iconic square-cased Monaco in the design challenge, but Hamilton turned to the Odyssey 2001 for its inspiration. Hamilton designer Ulrich Neidegger combined a silver main dial, black outer dial surface, and wide-faced indexes with a wider oval shape, inspired by the famous French Palace of Fontainebleau (as well as the newly constructed and similarly shaped Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami). . The resulting clock feels right at home in the Pan Am spaceport lounge 2001: A Space Odyssey As it did in the watch market in the late 60s and early 70s, and it remains one of the most amazing wearing experiences for a vintage chronograph.
While the Hamilton Fontainebleau’s stainless steel case looks large on paper at 47mm-wide and 14mm-thick, in reality, the watch wears well thanks to its short 40mm lug-to-lug distance. There are few other cases where large-watch wrist presence and small-watch comfort are so effectively combined, and the tapering flying saucer-style side profile ensures that most of the case thickness is hidden on the wrist.
But it’s the Hamilton Fontainebleau on the dial that really shines. Obviously, the concept of placing a circular main dial inside a non-circular case is not unique to this design, and other Caliber 11/chronomatic models such as the Heuer Monaco have approached the challenge with a similar philosophy. What sets the Fontainebleau apart in this regard is how clearly it emphasizes the difference between case and dial forms. Striving to straddle the area between the original Monaco dial and the rehaut, with constant color and long horizontal indices, Fontainebleau’s panda dial colorway and massive, brightly polished face indices celebrate the visual duality here. The silver main dial surface also features deep horizontal brushing that gives a distinctly metallic feel on the wrist and imbues the surface with numerous highlights and lowlights at different viewing angles. The decision to echo the oval bezel shape cut by the chronograph subdials and 6 o’clock date window works to give the design a cohesive, offbeat look, as does the heavy ribbed texture of the pointed baton handset cleverly coordinated with the brushed silver dial. superficial
Of course, the caliber 11/chronomatic automatic chronograph movement inside the Hamilton Fontainebleau needs no introduction. It remains one of the most historically significant chronograph movements of all time, but it helps explain the Fontainebleau’s rarity today. Simply put, in the more than 50 years since this automatic chronograph movement was introduced, collectors and watchmakers have been keen to run expensive Heuer and Breitling examples – often saving Hamilton models with the movement for parts including Fontainebleau. As anyone who has seen Fontainebleau cases and dials available for sale online without movement can attest, this decades-long process of cannibalism has quietly resulted in one of the rarest examples of the first-generation Caliber 11. / Chronomatic Chronographs. Combined with low sales numbers in its early years (many of these models were sold with re-branded dials in later years to reduce excess inventory), the Fontainebleau is an interesting choice for forward-thinking collectors.
This particular Hamilton Fontainebleau is fitted with a period-correct, new old-stock bracelet from NSA, which features unique black center links. Although Hamilton never offered this bracelet, this semigloss black and brushed steel two-tone pattern cleverly echoes the panda dial layout, while its tapering form flows surprisingly well into the oval lines of the case body.
All in all, the Hamilton Fontainebleau is a fascinating piece of avant-garde space age watchmaking, juxtaposed with some of the icons of this wild, often overlooked era of industrial design. It may not be the best-known or most valuable of the Caliber 11/chronomatic family timepieces, but it has its own dramatic, funky retro-futuristic vision that inspires us all to expand our horizons and take a trip. Back when the future was stylish and promising.