Design Story: Mondaine Watch

The Swiss, and in particular their railways, are known for being on time. Back in the 1940s, Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) wanted to highlight that part of their identity in a very visible way on their platforms. So, they asked Hans Hilfiker, one of their engineers, to come up with a clock design that could be seen across the station, incorporated into their brand identity, and most importantly help ensure that all Swiss trains left exactly on the minute. In 1944, Hilfiker came up with the solution, the Swiss Railway Clock.

He designed the now iconic clock face so that it was both practical and aesthetically pleasing. It featured a simple round white face which used lines to mark the time rather than characters, giving it a utilitarian and universal appeal. The thick black hour and minute hands make the time easy to read. But the most distinctive feature of the Swiss Railway Clock is its thin red second hand with a disk at the end. That red marker was nicknamed the “rote Kelle” or “red signal” because of the way that it resembled a station manager’s signal, which was used to mark a train’s departure. That little red disk became a symbol of Swiss punctuality.

Not only did the clock have a beautifully designed face, it also featured a tailor-made movement. All Swiss trains aim to leave exactly on the minute, as no seconds are listed on the departures board. This means all the clocks in a station need to run at the same time, to the second and their approach to the full minute needs to be clear. Hilfiker’s movement, which he created with clock manufacturer Mobatime in 1955, was designed so that the second hand on the clock could finish a full rotation in 58 and a half seconds before pausing at the full minute. The clock only starts its next minute after receiving a master electrical signal, which is sent out to all the clocks on the station floor at once. This movement was labelled ‘stop-to-go’ in reference to its pause at the minute.

In 1986, the iconic Swiss Railway Clock left the railway for the first time in the form of a wristwatch, sold by swiss watch manufacturer Mondaine. These watches are not only highly awarded, they’re displayed in design museums across the world, but also highly popular. In recent years Mondaine have brought out watches which mimic that original stop-to-go movement as well as collaborations with the Helvetica that move away from the classic Swiss Railway Clock Face.

That face had become so popular that Apple in its 2012 release of iO6 updated its clock face to one that was cannily similar to that of Hilfiker’s 1944 design. Later that year, Apple were forced to pay $21million for the use of the design, after being accused of plagiarism. While the origins of Apple’s use of the Swiss Railway Clock design were far less than ideal, there is something quite special in the merging of two great design classics and the idea that Hilfiker’s rote Keller is still helping people keep time.

Key Sources:

Time is Precious, Jan Hudal

Remarkable clocks and watches: the Swiss railway clock, Discover Switzerland

History of Mondaine Watches, Ezine Articles

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