20 January 2022

In Love with Lugs: Exploring Watchmaking's least appreciated aspect

by Neha Bajpai

In the watch world, there is one maxim that rules most disciplines - ‘form follows function’. So be it the shape of the case or the placement of the crown, functional ease and technical sophistication often determine the aesthetics of a timepiece.

One of the most underrated design elements of a watch are its lugs – those short pairs of arms that attach the strap to the case. Originally introduced as transformational components in pocket watches that were being strapped on wrists during World War I, watch lugs got a huge stylistic makeover in the mid 20th century. Unlike the big, bulky pocket watches, wristwatches were delicate things and to establish this difference and distance from old fashioned watchmaking, designers adopted all sorts of wonderful elements to demonstrate an unbridled creativity.

The Roaring Twenties marked the most important decade in the history of watchmaking. While Cartier enthralled watch enthusiasts with the Tank and its fascinating variants, Rolex introduced the world’s first water-resistant watch –the Rolex Oyster, which had a unique octagonal case, fluted bezel, screw-down caseback and wire lugs. Fuss-free and absolutely functional, wire lugs were the most popular lug style during the 1920s. Made for the commandos of the Royal Italian Navy, Panerai’s first Radiomir from 1936 also adopted these lugs to go with the 47mm cushion-shaped case in Staybrite stainless steel. Over the years, the wire lugs have been modified to facilitate a quick strap change system. We have seen Nomos using spring bars for the wire lugs in their Metro line, which makes switching straps absolutely effortless. And then there is the Panerai Radiomir where you can unscrew the lugs and attach a new strap anytime you please.

A modern Panerai Radiomir with wire-style lugs | Panerai

Between 1904 and 1936, Louis Cartier presented a slew of stunning Tank watches with beautifully proportioned cases and stylish fonts. Right from the Tank a ̀ Guichet to the Tank Asymétrique and the Tank Chinoise, each iteration of this iconic watch strengthened the maison’s reputation in fine watchmaking. Interestingly, in terms of the lug design, there was just one variation of the Tank that really made a sold impression. Created in 1923, the Tank Obus might not have been as successful as its predecessors but it had these gorgeous bullet lugs that made all the difference to its square case. There have been several versions of this watch over the last few decades, include one made in 1998 for the prestigious Collection Privee, Cartier Paris.

A Cartier Tank Obus, featuring the distinctive bullet lugs.

Although bullet lugs aren’t as common as straight or cushioned lugs, it is amazing how De Bethune has given this very retro design element a futuristic feel in the DB28GS Yellow Submarine. Presented in a fiery yellow colour scheme, the sporty DB28GS is crafted out of grade 5 titanium and is a rugged version of the DB28 with all the trademark elements in place—floating lugs, delta-shaped bridge and exposed balance wheel on the dial. However, the floating lugs here have been enhanced with bullet-shaped tips, which make the watch look even more avant-garde. Right from its debut timepiece, the DB1, introduced in 2002 to the more complicated watches like the DB15RT and the DB29 MaxiChrono Tourbillon, De Bethune has used bullet lugs quite cleverly in its creations over the last two decades.

The De Bethune DB28GS | De Bethune

The greatest design exploration in the watch world came through in the 1940s and 1950s. Heavily influenced by iconic buildings and modern cars, mid-century watches from Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin were decked up with some of the most stunning lugs. Right from the curves of the Studebaker Champion to the base of the Eiffel Tower, watch brands found design inspiration in pop cultural icons every now and then. One of the most sensational watches from this period is Patek Philippe's reference 2471. Designed by the famous Genevan case maker C. Markowski, this dramatic rectangular-shaped timepiece is adorned with flared, triple scroll lugs at the ends. Known as the “little ram’s head” by collectors, the ref. 2471 was made for and it was one of the rarest and largest rectangular wrist watches produced by Patek Philippe at the time.

Between 1948 and 1955, Patek Philippe made another intriguing watch with distinct lugs, the reference 2441. Often referred to as the "Eiffel Tower" for its distinct flared lugs, this watch inspired the design for the ‘Pagoda’ wristwatch in 1997. Be it the stunning 2431 with its sexy flame lugs or the 2448 graced with sculpted lugs, Patek Philippe’s archives are full of such striking design details.

Patek Philippe ref. 2471 | Phillips

Among the “Golden Trinity'' of Swiss watchmakers in the 1950s, Vacheron Constantin was probably the most playful in its design language. “The postwar era was all about faith and confidence in the future. The watchmakers in the 1950s were expressing this spirt with bold designs. We have a lot of watches in our archives that are not just about complicated techniques but a style unique to Vacheron Constantin. I love this tension created between a classic round shape and surprising lugs in some of our watches. For instance, one of my favourite chronographs from Vacheron Constantin is the reference number 4083 with double hooded lugs. These spectacular lugs lend a great personality to this chronograph which is super classic because of its round shape. It's a joy to have this watch on the wrist,” says says Christian Selmoni, Vacheron Constantin’s style and heritage director.

Vacheron Constantin ref. 4083 with the double hooded lugs | Phillips

Talking of hooded lugs, there is another watch from Vacheron Constantin, the ref 4009 from 1945 that brings out the beauty of this design element in a square case. While hooded lugs were quite common in mid-century watches from Omega and Patek Philippe, we have seen them in IWC’s Da Vinci watches from the 90s as well.

Besides the iconic Crab Claw lugs (seen in ref. 4659), the Cornes de Vache (seen in ref. 4461), the flame and the Tear-Drop, Vacheron Constantin’s got most creative with its lug designs with the ‘Batman’ ref. 6694. “The ‘Batman’ is a perfect example of Vacheron’s classic style with a twist. It represents our ability to transcend the round design with the help of very creative lugs. My other favourite from this period is the ref 4261, an extraordinary minute repeater with beautiful tear drop lugs. We made around 40 of these between the 1940s and the early 60s,” says Selmoni. “The Cioccolatone is another unusual, unexpected and extremely interesting design from our maison. It's a rectangular timepiece with a square opening and very curved case.”

Of all the watches that emerged from Vacheron Constantin in this period, the Cornucopia or ref. 4695 is the most audacious in terms of lug design. The oversized flared lugs amplify the square case, making it absolutely extravagant and larger than life.

Vacheron Constantin ref. 4261 | Deployant

Moving on to the 1960s, the early Speedmasters from Omega came with straight lugs and it was only in the second generation in 1964 (Speedmaster ref. 105.012-063) that the brand decided to switch to twisted “lyre” lugs that are now a key feature of the model. However, a few years before Omega adopted this style, Universal Geneve used these lugs in the Polerouter designed by Gerald Genta. Also known as “bombe”, these stylised lugs have made an appearance in some of the early Rolex Oyster Perpetual models and in Longines’ latest Silver Arrow watches.

An Omega Speedmaster featuring the earlier "straight" lugs.

Over the decades, the function and aesthetics of watch lugs have undergone several transformations. Among the modern watchmakers, where design plays a crucial role in defining a brand’s identity, it is interesting to see how lugs find a new dimension in watchmaking. One of the most striking examples of this is Audemars Piguet’s Code 11.59 that employs handmade, open-worked lugs with sharp curves and five different axes. These complicated lugs are welded to the extra thin bezel on the top and the caseback at the bottom in a way that gives an unobstructed view of the octagonal middle case. Each lug is carefully soldered and then hand polished at different angles. Even the screw openings on the lugs are presented with polished bevels.

The  Audemars Piguet CODE 11.59  | HODINKEE

To mark the 10th anniversary of its LM1 series, MB&F unveiled the LM1 “Longhorn” unique piece for an auction this year. It took Max Busser almost a decade to realise the original “Longhorn” lug design he had planned for the debut of this collection in 2011. Not sure of where to put the spring bar, Busser had opted for shorter lugs in the original watch but this year, he decided to drill two holes in the longhorn – one at the tip of the horn and the other closer to the case. So finally, this piece got the long, curved lugs – a unique feature not found on any other LM1 watch – and also the obvious name, making it the perfect tribute to the distinct design detail.

The piece unique MB&F LM1 Longhorn | MB&F

The importance of a good pair of lugs may not be as obvious as a watch’s dial but their impact on the overall design of a timepiece can’t be undermined. While some lug designs like the ones seen on Omega’s Speedmaster or the Rolex Explorer have almost become synonymous with the respective collections, vintage-styled lugs too are making a comeback in modern interpretations of some classic timepieces. Looking to the future, watchmakers in the independent space such as De Bethune and MB&F are sure to bring even more exciting creations to the industry's forefront.

Neha is a journalist based out of Hong Kong and currently works with Wristcheck as Media Director. She has been writing on luxury and lifestyle for 15 years and on watches for 12 years. She launched the Indian edition of WatchTime in 2012, where she worked as the founding editor and led the company’s foray into the digital space. A compulsive wanderer, Neha loves globetrotting, reading and watching rom-coms in her downtime.