Dialed Back Diver: A Study Of The Unimatic Modello Uno Watches
When it comes to watch design, we often don’t know what we’d like to see next. Sure, we all want to be surprised by something new, something we haven’t seen before. A brand that has proven recently that something new actually can feel very familiar is the Italian brand Unimatic Watches. With the Modello Uno, Unimatic has shown that there is a lot to discover within the familiar aesthetic of the popular sports watch. We spoke to Giovanni Moro, one of the company’s founders, to find out more.
Watch design is a fascinating topic to discuss. As some of you know, I have been working in design for the last fifteen years, and I love having a conversation about watch design. What I find most interesting is how our opinions on designs are often formed subconsciously. The acceptance of design is based on our frame of reference that is built on existing watches.
…we unconsciously look for a design that feels familiar
So even if we see something new, our brain is programmed to accept it based on shapes and details from watches we do know. So the reality is that we unconsciously look for a design that feels familiar rather than an entirely new design that needs some time before being accepted.
The MAYA Principle
Finding the answers within that space can be a challenge. Every so often, when something feels too familiar, it also feels boring and uninteresting. And if you move away too far from the design conventions we all know, chances are people will deem a design weird and strange.
In the 1950s, world-famous industrial designer Raymond Loewy defined the MAYA principle that describes this exact sweet spot for design. Maya is an abbreviation for “Most Advanced. Yet Acceptable.” In layman’s terms, that means you should push design to the brink of digestibility in order for it to be simultaneously challenging and accepted.
…changing the limits of acceptable watch design sometimes seems like an impossible task.
Loewy based his principle on his belief that: “The adult public’s taste is not necessarily ready to accept the logical solutions to their requirements if the solution implies too vast a departure from what they have been conditioned into accepting as the norm.” That makes designing a great watch very hard. With over two centuries of wristwatch design, changing the limits of the acceptable sometimes seems like an impossible task.
Taking a step back
But quite a few independent brands like MB&F, Urwerk, and HYT have successfully taken steps to push the boundaries of design recently. Other brands take a different approach, however. They research the design steps that can be made without fundamentally changing shapes and techniques but instead focus on optimizing the existing norm. It sounds less revolutionary. But the results can be quite extraordinary. Some of the releases of the Italian brand Unimatic Watches have proven that.
By changing up the design of familiar elements of a diver’s watch, company founders Simone Nunziato and Giovanni Moro have shown the impact on the overall design can be quite significant. Just by leaving the diving scale off the bezel of their Modello Uno has impacted the design up to the point where you could ask the question whether it’s aesthetically still a diver’s watch?
The Unimatic Modello Uno design
It’s this minimalist approach that intrigued me. It’s why I got in touch with Giovanni Moro to review two of the watches. The Unimatic Modello Uno U1-F and U1-FM. Both watches are almost the same and feature a 40mm stainless steel case with a brushed finish, a thick double domed sapphire, and a black matte dial with big white Super-LumiNova markers (dots, dashes, and triangles).
The most significant difference, however, is the design of the bezel and the dial. The U1-F features a black aluminum diver bezel insert with a raised lume dot at 12. The dial, meanwhile, is printed with a closed seconds rail in silver.
The U1-FM takes a more minimalist approach with its black aluminum bezel insert. It is adorned with nothing but a raised lume dot. The black matte dial is also stripped bare. The closed seconds rail that clutters the U1-F is discarded. The result? An intensely minimalist timepiece.
As soon as the watches arrived, I was pleasantly surprised by the looks of the U1-FM. Despite its minimalistic looks, the watch doesn’t feel distant or cold. It feels new and unique. But the U1-F is by no means boring or predictable. Although more conventional in its approach, the design of the elements is still sleek and minimal compared to many of the divers’ watches out there.
The minimalist approach is where Unimatic has found a unique approach to watch design that makes the brand stand out.
But the U1-F moves in familiar territory where you have several other options within the 500-1000 euro price bracket. The minimalist approach of the U1-FM is where Unimatic has found a unique approach to watch design that makes the brand stand out.
The Unimatic story
The curiosity Nunziato and Moro have for watch design is no coincidence. They became friends when they were industrial design students at Politecnico di Milano. As they loved watches, they started collecting them by buying them on eBay. And, like so many of us, their first love was buying affordable vintage Seikos.
In 2015 Moro chose to contact his friend Nunziato so that they might design a watch together.
After that, more watches followed, and it sparked the idea between Nunziato and Moro of what their perfect divers’ watch would look like. While working as a designer at a furniture company, Moro decided to design his first watch. As it wasn’t what he had in mind, he sold the design. In 2015 Moro chose to contact his friend Nunziato so that they might design a watch together.
The first was the Unimatic Modello Uno U1-A. It’s where both men got to use all the inspiration they had gathered over the years and combine it with their minimalist design philosophy. Although the U1-A is nowhere near as minimal as some of the following releases, it did provide the perfect basis for their minimalist approach starting with the U1-B.
Current production is under 3,000 pieces annually.
Up until now, Unimatic has released 39 different models. Most of which came from the Modello Uno collection. Next to that, Nunziato and Moro have also released the Modello Due. It is their take on a classic field watch. And a third model is the Modello Tre, the chronograph version of the Modello Uno.
Current production does not exceed 3,000 pieces annually. But the demand for Unimatic watches has seen an explosive rise. Some of the limited editions were sold out in a matter of minutes, like the Unimatic × Massena LAB Modello Uno Ref. U1-ML6 Tomas wrote about here.
Defining the principles
From chatting back and forth with Giovanni Moro and being intrigued by their designs, an interview seemed like a small step getting to know more about the Unimatic approach to design. So I decided to ask him some questions on their brand and design philosophy.
Jorg Weppelink: As you guys are watch collectors yourselves, you must have had a pretty good idea of what works for you and what doesn’t. What are some of your favorite all-time divers’ watches from which you take inspiration?
Giovanni Moro: I would need to mention too many! But narrowing it down to just a handful, I would have to say the first Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, the old Benrus type II, the Seiko 1968 Marinemaster, and some Breitlings of the Chronomat era.
JW: And are there any recent releases that inspire you, and you would add to that list?
GM: Almost every watch from Ressence is also very inspiring.
JW: That’s interesting as Ressence pushes the boundaries of both design and technique. As you and Simone have both studied industrial design, what was your philosophy for the Unimatic designs? Did you try and strip as much as possible from existing designs, or did you build it from the ground up?
GM: I think it is very difficult to start from scratch and come to anything better than existing for a very accomplished item, such as a wristwatch. Unless you take the shortcut of adding decoration to a watch. That’s an approach we don’t like.
So our design process starts with researching and trying to decrypt the good practices of the past, looking for state of the art in both product and graphic design. This leads to some archetypes or constraints we try to use harmonically to come up with an updated and hopefully original take on design.
Getting rid of decorative elements
JW: After playing around with the many design elements, what is the most crucial element divers’ watches can go without?
GM: Any form of decoration is what divers’ watches don’t need in our shared opinion.
JW: Do you also feel you created a different aesthetic with the U-1FM that is less diver and more stylish and minimalistic? It takes inspiration from a tool watch but has become a brilliant stripped-down version that stands out on its own.
Many seem to appreciate the Modello Uno also in the more iconic and graphic iteration.
GM: That was the whole idea. We have a lot of friends and customers that are into Unimatic more from a fashion perspective than from a watch or diving angle. The U1-FM you had for review and the previous stripped-down models are an experiment in this direction of creating something new and different. And many seem to appreciate the Modello Uno also in this more iconic and graphic iteration. (which was proven quickly as the U1-FM sold out during the making of this piece)
JW: That mix of designs seems to be the strength of the Modello Uno. You have already released quite a few different versions. Is there a personal favorite?
GM: This is an impossible question for me to answer. All of them are so very meaningful to me as each one is a part of the Unimatic journey and, therefore, of my life as a person. If I must answer, I need to say U1-A as it’s the one that made everything else possible.
Improving the Unimatic Modello Uno
JW: Did you find a philosophy for every new release after the U1-A? Will you be releasing new versions regularly to see what is possible, or will you also re-release models that are part of the archive in new limited runs?
Our idea is to avoid any re-release.
GM: Our idea is to avoid any re-release. This is a bit hard sometimes because for some specific references we get daily requests we can not fulfill and that’s when we have to disappoint people, unfortunately. We do feel that this is fair to our existing customers and collectors. It maintains the ultra-rare collectible status that many of our watches have been lucky enough to attain.
And the other reason is that we try our best to improve the design, the product, and the process release after release. We rather do that instead of cashing in with the “classics.”
JW: You explained that because you started out collecting Seiko watches yourself, the use of Seiko movements was only logical for Unimatic. Could you see this change at any point in the future?
GM: At this price point, I think it is harder to pick a better option than Seiko. It is likely that at some point, for some special functions that Seiko might not be able to provide what we need. If that happens to be the case, we will need to look in other directions.
A mixed target audience
JW: You were speaking of price. The combination of design and the affordable price has put you in a position where many different groups of people have come to appreciate your watches. From watch enthusiasts to more design and fashion orientated people. They all seem to enjoy what you do. Do you feel more at home with either one?
It is simply great to see that so many people with various backgrounds can find an interest in the same product.
GM: I was lucky enough to meet amazing people from every single group you just mentioned. To me, it is both fascinating and a great joy to be able to connect with people I would never have had the chance to talk to without our watches. It is simply great to see that so many people with various backgrounds can find an interest in the same product.
JW: You mentioned it shortly, but do you already see people collecting the different models you have released?
GM: Yes, we have a good number of recurring customers. Some have 15 or more Unimatic watches in their collection. One exceptional customer and friend from the United Kingdom has them all from the first to the last.
Future new releases
We will soon be releasing an all-new military watch, the Unimatic Modello Quattro.
JW: And for the people that would like to know what is next for Unimatic, have you got any plans you can share with us?
GM: Absolutely! We will soon be releasing an all-new military watch, the Unimatic Modello Quattro. And we will also be releasing a new colorway of the Modello Due. More info on that soon.
For me, Unimatic Watches is the perfect proof that there still a lot to discover within the watch designs we think we know so well. By taking their minimal approach to watch design, Moro and Nunziato show there is still a lot to unpack when it comes to watch design and I can’t wait to see what’s next.
For more info on future and current releases, visit the official Unimatic Watches website here.