6 Minimalist Watch Brands Producing Super-Clean Timepieces
Minimalism is highly valued and hard to execute in watchmaking, but these brands have managed to turn 'pared back' into perfection.
Good design in watchmaking is a hard thing to define. You can pinpoint all the ways something is wrong – the subdials aren’t placed right, the hands are the wrong shape, please don’t put that date window there. But the vectors that make up the visual harmony that’s achieved when everything is in its right place is harder to define, especially when you just have three hands or maybe a small seconds with which to play.
Minimalism is highly valued and hard to execute in watchmaking, but these brands have managed to turn ‘pared back’ into perfection.
When your entire brand is built on the founding principles of the Bauhaus movement, you really have given yourself nowhere to hide, design-wise. Nomos, founded in 1990 after the fall of the Berlin Wall, has made its name creating beautiful, clean timepieces where nothing is extraneous.
In order to keep its design language fresh, it houses its creative team in Berlin, at the Berlinerblau; a Vitra-furnished space where people obsess over the precise length of numerals and optimal colour palettes. The watchmaking itself happens in Glashütte.
Nomos prides itself on its in-house mechanical watch movements – it now has 11 different varieties, five automatic and six manual-wind. In 2014 it went one better than just making its own movements, it found a way to make its own escapement; something only usually done by luxury watch brands charging rather more than Nomos does.
In keeping with the Bauhaus ideals of art being accessible, Nomos’ timepieces are incredibly good value. Its most basic, the Ludwig, is just over $1,200/£1,000 with an in-house movement, while the only reason its Lux has the price tag it does ($18,750/£15,800) is because its case is white gold.
Watch to buy: Metro Date Power Reserve
Unusually for Nomos, it brought in an outsider, product designer Mark Braun, to create this. From the ‘power reserve as design feature’ to a date function that doesn’t ruin the dial, this is Nomos as its best – subtle, clever, timeless.
The team behind this London-based brand are so committed to minimalism, they don’t even tolerate stitching on the straps. Here dials are white or black, colour is relegated to the straps, cases are either steel or gold-coated steel, and the only type of watch on offer is a rectangular three-hander with or without date.
With so little to hide behind you’d expect something to niggle. But even the date, being on the small side, integrates itself into the beautifully spaced and proportioned indices – there are no numerals here; far too fussy.
Rectangular watches aren’t for everyone, they can get lost on larger wrists, but choosing to power them with a quartz movement from Seiko keeps the price points reasonable. This means you can experiment with a new watch case style without having to make some serious budgetary decisions.
Watch to buy: M01 gold watch 38mm with brown leather strap
There is only one style to choose from but it’s amazing how subtle changes of strap colour and case material can alter its personality. This combination leans into the vintage vibe that the rectangular case evokes, with the slightly smaller case size feeling more ideally proportioned than the larger 41mm.
That said, if Bauhaus austerity is more to your taste, it has to be steel and black. And 38mm too, of course.
To have one woman founding a watch brand is rare enough. For it to be three, and sisters no less, is unicorn levels of rare. Paulin was founded by the eponymous trio in 2013 in Glasgow. Great-granddaughters of famed Scottish sculptor and painter George Henry Paulin, they have grown up around creatives. However, ‘simplicity’ was the watch word when it came to designing their own timepieces.
Parts are sourced from around the world, with the movements coming from Miyota for its quartz designs and Seiko for automatics, while some of the leather straps are British bridle leather from Claytons Tannery in Chesterfield. The dials feature Paulin’s proprietary font, called Geo, which was designed in house and inspired by the sharp geometry of Art Deco typefaces.
It has collaborated with fellow British watchmaker anOrdain on a boldly colourful creation, but its default is stripped back, no-frills, with a 60s retro futuristic vibe.
Prices are as eye opening as the designs – the quartz Commuter, Paulin’s most popular design, starts at just $215/£180, and you can upgrade to an automatic version for $470/£395. If you want to stand out from the madding crowd but without restoring to peacockery, Paulin is the perfect way to do so.
Watch to buy: Commuter Automatic
The dull grey of the dial combined with the futuristic numerals is very reminiscent of the ‘knackered tech’ aesthetic of Terry Gilliam’s 1985 dystopian black comedy, Brazil. Which is a good thing.
Revered Japanese watchmaker Seiko set up sister company Grand Seiko just so it could have an outlet to explore the idea of making the perfect watch – one that was timeless, durable and with superlative accuracy. Although it has experimented with complications, including 2022’s incredible Kodo Constant-Force Tourbillon – the first time ever these two units have been combined on a single axis in the history of watchmaking – it’s design ethos is refinement above all else.
The texture and colour of its dials may be whimsically inspired by subtle pink of cherry blossom or the feel of the first snow outside Grand Seiko’s workshop in Shizukuishi in Iwate Prefecture, but the aesthetic tends towards three hands, slim indices and beautifully polished cases.
Nothing is extraneous, everything is considered. Grand Seiko is definitely a brand where less is more.
Watch to buy: 62GS collection
It is the modern reissue of the 1967 design that started it all and embodies then-designer Taro Tanaka’s ‘Grammar of Design’. This stipulated flat surfaces and angles to best reflect light; bezels that were simple two-dimensional faceted curves; and that there should be no visual distortion from any angle, with a mirror finish on all cases and dials.
Finally, only unique case shapes would be allowed. Meaning no more round watches. It’s the ideal way to own a piece of Grand Seiko’s history without the risks of shopping vintage.
This brand is so minimalist, it only has two watches in its collection. Two very desirable timepieces, it has to be said. It was set up in 2018 by a group of watch lovers, two of whom worked under design wünderkind Mark Newson at Ikepod; something that can be detected in the brand’s visual language.
The idea the group had was to create minimal watches with a distinct aesthetic that were priced in that fast-being-deserted sweet spot between $1,200/£1,000 and $1,400/£1,200, where the likes of Omega used to reside. At the moment Aera has chosen to focus on an affordable diving watch and pilot’s timepiece, neither one putting a sartorial foot wrong.
At first glance, each one is the archetype of its field. However, there are subtle tweaks that show an almost Satanic attention to detail. The concave dial on the pilot’s watch, for example, is one single piece rather than the usual two-piece construction; a decision that took two years of experimentation to achieve. Because of the matte, almost velvet-like finish to the dial, printing on it was impossible, so the lume had to be applied by hand, while on the diver the curve of the sapphire glass is such that it guarantees legibility above or below the waves.
Every detail on both these three-handers is thought out, challenged and examined to ensure the few features they do have are in harmony. Minimalism has never looked so good.
Watch to buy: P-1 Pilot
Given there are only two, it’s hard to choose. But the concave dial on the pilot’s watch gives it the edge over the D-1 Diver. Only just though.
Yes, this is the brand that once made a watch with Spongebob Squarepants on the dial, and it has flirted with a chronograph, but generally speaking, Unimatic makes solid, reliable three-handers, some of which have no indices at all, in a kind of childish Pop Art style.
Founded in 2015 by two friends, Giovanni Moro and Simone Nunziato, in Milan, Unimatic was born out of their love of the quintessential diving watches from the 40s and 50s. Think Omega, Blancpain and Rolex with their Seamasters, Fifty Fathoms and Submariners.
The Unimatic aesthetic is big and balloon-y, in a good way. The indices are lushly rounded dots, complemented by the broad, sword-like hands. Everything is tactile and made to been seen; something that is not always the case when brands opt for a more minimalist approach.
Being diving watches, they’re good to 300m and powering them is the reliable Sellita SW200-1 or Seiko’s NH35A automatic movement. There may not be much variation in the design, but if you’re after a retro diver and don’t have the free cash to splash on one of the big-name marques, Unimatic isn’t a bad place to start.
Watch to buy: Modello Due US2-MN
So minimalist, it doesn’t even have indices. Also, the black DLC case combined with black dial really shows off the contours of the watch.
Entirely minimalist brands are hard to come by, yet many watch brands like to play with pared-back proportions; even if only for a single watch or collection.
The motto of Piaget’s entire Altiplano collection appears to be ‘keep it slim and keep it simple’. Even when it displayed the guts of the movement on the dial, it still managed to do it in a way that felt very no-frills. The same is true of Vacheron Constantin’s time-only Patrimony – a beautiful three-hand dress watch that will never go out of style.
Tissot’s PRX Powermatic 80 brings some 70s sex appeal to this design category, while Bulgari’s Octo Finissimo adds a touch of sprezzatura to proceedings. Timex’s iconic Marlin delivers mid-century minimalism at an astonishing price, and Iota uncomplicates a complication by stripping a GMT back to its bare bones.
Away from the bombast of its HydroConquest collection, Longines’s Heritage line plumbs the Swiss brand’s back catalogue to produce refined designs with a retro flavour, and you can’t get more fuss-free than Jaeger-LeCoultre’s classic timepiece, the Reverso. You can even flip the case over, should such things as hands and numerals be too much for your austere aesthetic sensibilities.