In the watch collecting and resale community the term ‘prototype’ is vastly used to describe any sort of rare or unique watch. In many instances the term is misused, also for attributing a higher value to the described watch.
There are different terms to describe watches in their respective phase of development. Unfortunately there is no clear and official definition about what criteria a watch prototype must adhere to, and to render the subject even more complex, there are prototypes, which can theoretically be attributed to more than one category.
Please note, that following is an attempt at categorising prototype watches and parts to allow for better orientation and judgement when confronted with the term and to facilitate the formulation of pertinent questions, if wanting to acquire a watch declared as prototype. The categories and descriptions below have been discussed with engineers formerly involved in the development of prototypes at CEH, Omega and Swatch, but they remain personal and somehow ‘artificial’. In other fields of industrial design such as cars, furniture etc. other definitions for developmental stages and prototypes can apply.
Prototype watches, movements or parts must be defined as precursors for watches, movements or parts destined to be retailed or at least envisioned to enter production. One exception applies: the experimental watch (see below).
Therefore several versions showing technical and/or aesthetic evolution are built by the prototyping department of the watch manufacturers. To render the attribution of prototype status even more complex, one can define sub-categories of prototypes, depending for which purpose the prototypes were created. The definition for a sub-category is quite vague and the transition between sub-categories is fluent, moreover some prototypes can be attributed to more than one sub-category.
Prototypes are not made to be catalogued or categorised, so most prototypes are not marked as such, some just retain a number for internal reference, others are not marked at all.
To determine if a watch is a prototype extended research is needed and comparisons to confirmed prototypes and marketed watches needs to be performed. The fact that a watch is unique or different to current models alone does not qualify it to be a prototype. Of course the most reliable resource for the attribution of the prototype status is an extract from the archives of the watch manufacturer. Unfortunately not all prototypes have been catalogued and listed, so archives are not always helpful.
Mock Up – overall concept development
A mock up is a non working design study. Most of the time they don’t contain a movement and their hands are glued to the dials or attached to a rough movement plate containing specifically machined pinions to attach the hands. If part of the design, calendar wheel(s) are glued to the back of the dials. The dials themselves and other components can be machine made, hand modified or hand made. The crowns are fixed, they sometimes can be turned, but have no functionality. Mock up’s are built to decide upon an overall concept and serve as base for further prototyping. Nowadays many mock up’s are made with 3D visualisation software and are not built as tangible objects. As an alternative mock up’s are now realised with 3D printers.
Proof of Principle / Proof of Concept – feasibility testing
Single parts or unmounted, sometimes incomplete movements or watches are made to be tested using very specific test setups for checking very specific features and the interaction of components. This preliminary testing phase overlaps with functional prototype watch building, which is the testing phase while the watch is predominantly worn on the wrist.
Functional Prototype – functionality testing
A functional prototype is built to test for the overall functionality and interaction of one or more components while worn on the wrist. These prototypes can contain hand made or hand modified movements or other components, where single parts are unfinished and not yet aesthetically refined. Not only the entire watch or the movement can be submitted to functional testing but also all other parts such as the case, the crown or the bracelet, depending for which purpose the watch is being conceived. So, even crown, case parts, straps / bracelets, dial and the hands can be subject to functional testing. Either concerning operation, comfort, material resistance or visibility in specific circumstances. These prototypes are often distributed among specialised professionals or employees for reliability testing in specific environments or during daily use respectively.
Aesthetic Prototype – internal aesthetic evaluation and refinement
These prototypes can contain preproduction movements, but sometimes also movements from the production line already attributed with a production code. The purpose of aesthetic prototypes is to find the visually most appealing combination of parts for later production without jeopardising its functionality. These prototypes represent the largest number of preproduction pieces, as many combinations of dial colours, dial designs, hand shapes and colours etc. are assembled and tested.
– Omega Prototype Movements –
Some prototype movements from Omega can be identified by their production number. Is the production number beginning with 000 or 0000, it means that the movement belongs to a preproduction series and that it was most likely used for testing purposes. Movements marked as such must not be different in construction from the marketed versions, but they can show some minute variations. Earlier movement prototype versions are unnumbered, scratch numbered and sometimes they lack even the caliber identification marks. Latter movements most likely show construction or finishing peculiarities as compared to the marketed versions and enter the category of ‘functional prototypes’.
Some Omega movements bear a very strange 5 digit production number, which is preceded by an ‘R’. These movements or the parts of the movement, where normally the ‘regular’ production number of the movement is stamped, has been replaced by Omega. To keep track of the ‘officially modified’ movements, Omega uses these ‘R(eplacement)’ numbers. Of course these movements are not prototype pieces.
– Exception: Straps / Bracelets –
The straps or bracelets mounted on prototype watches are usually not prototypes themselves, an exception being of course, if the functionality or comfort of the strap or bracelet had to be tested, as for the shark-mesh bracelet introduced for the Omega Seamaster 1000 model. The straps or bracelets mounted on functional prototypes are sometimes not even of the same brand as the watch, as they were often sourced and mounted by the engineers themselves for testing the watch during daily use. During the end phase of aesthetic prototype evaluation usually the watches have specifically selected and attributed straps / bracelets.
Gabarit / Sample – evaluation by external companies
This French term describes a sample which is part of the presentation selection for further customisation and resale to interested brands. Manufacturers of watch movements (ESA / ETA for example) present their newly developed movements as complete sample watches in order show to the brands examples how their watch might look like, if they decide to buy their movements. The definition overlaps with the one for ‘aesthetic prototypes’. Samples are aesthetic prototypes, but not for internal use to filter for future production models, they are used outside the production facility to be presented as examples to watch brands and retailers.
Epreuve d’Artiste (EA), Artist Proof (AP) – evaluation by artist
Watches designed by Artists also go through the normal process of prototyping. Just before entering industrial production a small run of watches (normally 20 – 30) is made as presentation pieces for the artist. These pieces represent the last possibility for the artist to veto production and make last minute changes to the design. These watches can be marked, as also artworks are, with the abbreviation EA (Epreuve d’Artiste) or AP for Artist Proof, but they are not attributed with a number.
Pre – Production Watch – evaluation by general employees
These watches are already part of the earliest series of production but can show minute differences to later watches. Preproduction pieces which are part of limited edition series do not show the limited numbering. Such preproduction pieces are usually given or sold to employees of the brands. Eventual feedback from these giveaways / sales, can still influence production.
Zero – Series – evaluation by test market
These watches are produced in a limited, but undefined and unnumbered series. Watches belonging to the zero-series are usually sold on a predetermined test market to evaluate the reaction of a larger, independent group of people. The sale result of such zero-series permits a preview of the success a watch model might have. In some instants, and depending on the reaction of the ‘test-market’, some slight modifications can be made before the launch of the models on a larger scale.
An experimental watch is constructed to test for specific functionalities and/or for a specific purpose other than future production. Such experimental watches are a great source for extracting acquired knowledge to be fed into the prototyping of production models. Some examples of experimental watches or clocks were made during the 1960s to compete at observatory competitions. They should represent the respective manufacturers and increase the manufacturers reputation by winning, but these pieces were never planned to be put into production. Another more recent example is the ‘Omega Seamaster Ultra Deep’ made in 2018/19.
For the development of experimental watches most of the early developmental steps can be applied as for production prototypes: Mock-up – Proof of principle – Functional testing. These sub-phases can be regarded as prototyping phases for an experimental watch and represent parallel definitions to the ones for production prototypes.
The other prototype phases are inherently linked to future production and are not part of the development of experimental watches. In cases where the experimental watch is part of a marketing strategy, the aesthetic component becomes more relevant.
Experimental watches themselves can be regarded as prototypes as they, albeit indirectly, contribute to the development of the technology and/or aesthetics at least partially translated to future marketed models.
A dummy watch is usually used for display in a retail shop. As the mock up, it does not contain a working movement and the hands are usually glued to the dial or a specifically made set of pinions is holding the hands in place. With either system the hands are fixed and can not be moved. To the contrary of the mock up’s, dummy’s are normally aesthetically identical to the production models and their only purpose is not to use regular (expensive), working models as display. As there is no testing or evaluation feature attributed to dummies, they can not be considered prototypes.
Some marketed watches of the same model show slight irregularities when compared to each other. Watches can differ in the color or shade of the dial, the font and the position of the dial print, sometimes only by the presence or lack of serifs. Also, hands of different shapes can be mounted.
Depending on the watch models, such variants occur more or less frequently and represent one attractive feature of watch collecting. Nevertheless such variants are not prototypes, as they remain part of the marketed models.
Such variations occur from the normal process of adaptation of watch manufacturers to changing suppliers, optimisation of production protocols, changes in production machinery or an unannounced slight change in design. However, depending on what combination of features these watches show, and how rare this combination of features is, one can observe a high variability of monetary value of such watches.
These watches are pieced together from single parts and can easily be mistaken as aesthetic prototypes. Some watch models, sometimes watches from different watch manufacturers or brands, share identical movements or other components, sourced from the same supplier, which are then interchangeable. This interchangeability, which is one of the methods watch manufacturers use to keep the production and service costs low, allows for numerous combinations of parts which then can culminate in building unique watches.
Even if these watches are indeed unique, one must be aware that they are neither officially recognised as production models, nor as prototypes and thus enter the category of ‘Frankenwatches’.