The clerk at Toronto’s Bergo Designs is showing off a fashionable orange rubber Zub 20 Zot Nooka watch. He appears confused. He scrutinizes the square face, counts the dots that demarcate the hours, then reads the horizontal band along the bottom that measures minutes. “Um, it’s 2:16,” he says. “Wait, make that 3:16. No, 2:28.”
Such befuddlement, ironically, only reinforces the watch’s timeliness. Difficult-to-read timepieces are the newest status symbols, a defiant snub of traditional timekeeping. Nooka, a line designed by New York creative director Matthew Waldman, has received the benediction of the Modern Museum of Art and Barneys New York. Both sell it. It comes in five mind-teasing faces (vertical lines, horizontal lines, dots and lines, numbers and lines and circle dots) at prices starting at $150, and ranging up to $3,500 for diamond-encrusted models. The Nooka website lays out the logic: “The visual mass increases as time passes, giving weight to an abstract and ephemeral concept. Once you’re used to the new visual paradigm you may never go back to standard analog and digital displays on your wrist.”
Indeed. The new crop of unreadable watches professes to render analog and digital passé, 20th-century relics. The technorati are currently all over Tokyoflash, a Japanese collection sold on tokyoflash.com, that calls to mind satellite tracking systems or Vegas light shows and has been hyped as what “the Cylon Centurion would wear.” The geeks at tech-toy website Gizmondo explain the allure: “It gives us that combination of style and confusing lesser, stupid people that we just can’t quit.” “Cryptic” is a word frequently used by Tokyoflash to describe its watches, which cost US$130 to US$160. Neatorama.com, a trend-sighting website, recently championed “The 10 most difficult to read Tokyoflash watches” (i.e. “The 10 most desirable”). Finalists included the Shinshoku, a solid, continuous stainless steel band punctuated by a matrix of 29 brightly coloured pulsating LEDs (12 red ones to indicate the hour, three green to indicate 15, 30 and 45 minutes past the hour and, inexplicably, 14 yellow ones to indicate minutes), and the e35 JLr7 model, which displays hours, minutes, and seconds in a mystifying pattern of L-shaped notches. Then there’s the Eleeno Kion Elite, which has one traditional hand, only that hand is used to track minutes while the hour is revealed (cryptically) in the watch’s background pattern. Also selected was the e35 Geomesh, which Gizmondo rhapsodized about last year as “an indecipherable mess that looks like a fragmented traffic light. Upon further review, and a glance at the instruction manual, the Geomesh becomes less intimidating and its retro-future awesomeness comes forth.” Not everybody appreciated its opacity: “Making the watch hard to read is supposed to distract people from the fact that it’s 2007 and you’re wearing a wristwatch,” sniped one blogger.
But who can blame designers for trying? Reorganizing time is the ultimate creative challenge, one that man has been dithering with since Cro-Magnons recorded the phases of the moon some 30,000 years ago. As Einstein put it, “Space and time are modes by which we think, not conditions under which we live.” So, in a way, Tokyoflash’s offering of both the “approximate” and the precise time on many of its models makes sense, at least on a philosophical level. As does its graphic capture of time’s fleeting essence; its Equalizer High Frequency 2, for example, displays the time in five-second bursts using rows of ascending and descending lights. Perfect for the YouTube mindset. And for all of those boomers fixated with brain-sharpening gymnastics.
Waldman explains via email that Nooka was born of his ongoing quest to create “a new, more intuitive visual grammar.” The first watch design came to him in the late 1990s when a huge wall clock in a London hotel caused him to flash back to learning how to tell time. “I thought this is not as ‘intuitive’ as one may think,” he recalls. “I scribbled on a napkin and Nooka was born!” Swatch and Fossil turned down his patented design before Seiko licensed it in 1999 (Fossil has since jumped on the difficult-to-read-watch bandwagon with some of its Philippe Starck models). In 2004, the line reverted back to Waldman, who is continually adding new models. Up next, the Zon, which expresses the temporal in graph format. Clerks at stylish design stores everywhere better bone up on their arithmetic.