Rado the Swiss watchmaker was the first to focus on design and technological innovations in watchmaking. Its latest breakthrough is in the development of colored high-tech ceramic, shown through a partnership with the Les Couleurs Suisse, the company exclusively mandated by the Fondation Le Corbusier.
Without question, the early to mid-20th century era offered the biggest transformations in the artistic fields. This was due to a variety of factors. Post-war liberation gave life to bold color palettes, but also challenged resource management. The two world wars, having consumed the world’s resources in the buildup of military needs, meant that recovering economies had to be smart about how it spent its existing wealth.
At the same time, design expounded on a new era of modernist language, one that was previously caught up in the crossover from a new modernism to the deconstruction of a post-modern world. The language of design was reduced to its raw, natural and minimalist form, which would later lend itself to a rough-hewn Brutalism that swiftly gave way to naturalist styles of a refined modern bent. It was in this era that modern architecture prevailed, with names like Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright constructing everything from homes to cities, all of which shared this need for authenticity, simplicity and a colorful elegance, an ideology that Rado has embraced.
Rado can be said to be the first 20th century watch label that opted to drive its story away from classic watchmaking lingo of tradition and heritage. It stood as the first mover of a new era of watch creation: a design-forward and design-first brand. This was a period which would give rise to watch designers like Gérald Genta and Jorg Hysek, gentlemen who would go on to earn themselves renown in the creation of watch icons in modern times. At the same time, Le Corbusier, who had already earned himself fame with the construction of the United Nations headquarters (in collaboration with Oscar Niemeyer and William Harrison), was embarking on the greatest project of his life — the development of Chandigarh.
Till this day, the gardens of Chandigarh are considered one of the seven man-made wonders of the world. Le Corbusier was personally contacted by India’s most famed prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru to come up with a design for the city.
He famously wrote, “It will be a city of trees, of flowers and water, of houses as simple as those at the time of Homer, and of a few splendid edifices of the highest level of modernism, where the rules of mathematics will reign.” He would later write in a personal letter to his mother that Chandigarh was “an architectural symphony which surpasses all my hopes, which flashes and develops under the light in a way which is unimaginable and unforgettable. From far, from up close, it provokes astonishment; all made with raw concrete and a cement cannon. Adorable, and grandiose. In all the centuries no one has seen that.”
Likewise, the refreshing and modern designs of Rado were a purist, formative and naturalist impulse. The brand’s innovative developments focused not on traditional watchmaking materials but a brand new technology: high-tech ceramic, based on zirconium oxide. Rado’s mastery of materials, particularly of high-tech ceramic and its qualities, were what shaped the brand’s designs as it pushed the boundaries of high-tech ceramic.
A Theory of Color
Le Corbusier wasn’t just an architect or designer, but he was also an avid painter. During his early 30s, just after he’d established his practice with his cousin Pierre Jeanneret, he encountered Cubist painter Amédée Ozenfant who inspired him to start painting and together they developed a new movement called Purism.
Purism evoked simpler forms and shapes than the Cubist style of art seen through the lens of geometry, and a more vivid use of color compared with its predecessor. Through his work, Le Corbusier would go on to develop the Architectural Polychromy color theory, still regarded as the most important in his field. While the practice of decorating architectural elements in a variety of colors (known as polychrome) dates far earlier in history, Le Corbusier was the first to create a coherent system of how they could work in unison.
A palette of 63 colors, divided into nine groups and created in two collections in 1931 and 1959, they can be combined in any way to create a harmonious effect. The purist palette of 1931 offered 43 shades in 14 series based on solid colors with brightened shades. These were indicated in the series “32xxx”, and the architect further created color keyboards with varying moods to define their use. The 1959 color palette added 20 additional colors that were more dynamic and powerful, with a color keyboard that mixed colorful and achromatic hues and varying brightness values. Architectural Polychromy defines his experience both as a painter and architect.
The purity of design also began to shape watchmaking from the ’70s into the ’90s. Rado rendered design down to its most minimal, relying on the same ideas of mathematics determining design as Le Corbusier did. The Rado True Thinline collection represents this best, a simple and refined circular case, with needle-like hands and an integrated bracelet that fuses into the watch like a stylish bracelet. The True Thinline renders the watch into a sliver of a case, thin as a wafer and made in high-tech ceramic.
CEO Matthias Breschan explained that the True Thinline was the ideal collection to launch this project, focused on showcasing the quality and beauty of Rado’s colored high-tech ceramic. “In many ways, high-tech ceramic is a wonderful material because of its impressive physical qualities, but we think of it as a noble material, one that’s ageless and timeless. And the more we work with it and research it further, we begin to discover even more interesting properties about it. With the True Thinline, the high-tech ceramic case and bracelet is the center of attention of this watch; that’s what we wanted.
“We decided to develop a collection based on Le Corbusier’s Architectural Polychromy because of its significance to our modern urban environment today. This meant greater challenges as the Foundation and Les Couleurs Suisse required us to match the nine key colors precisely.”
Rado, Les Couleurs Suisse and Le Corbusier
The Rado True Thinline Les CouleursTM Le Corbusier is a collection designed to be unisex and uni-age, timepieces that transcend demographic ideology. Breschan adds, “We don’t think of our customers in terms of demographic breakdowns anymore. We want them to connect with our watches on an emotional level, and that meant rethinking how we start to develop watches completely.”
Rado is the only Swiss watch company that is certified by the Les Couleurs Suisse, which manages all licensing for the Foundation Le Corbusier based in Paris. An agreement between the two parties allowed Rado to use the designer’s Architectural Polychromy palettes, originally developed for a wallpaper range for a Swiss firm, for its watches.
Breschan adds that the project had been ongoing for a while, even before the company signed the agreement with Les Couleurs Suisse. “We actually started on this project five years ago on our own, and the decision to base the watch colors on Architectural Polychromy was made without any discussion with them. It feels completely appropriate, especially since Le Corbusier lived just a few miles away from where we manufacture our high-tech ceramic, to pay homage to his work.”
High-tech ceramic is a material that offers plenty of benefits, from scratch resistance to light weight and hypoallergenic qualities. However, its superb physical qualities also make its manufacturing a challenge. Says Breschan, “While high-tech ceramic is now commonly seen in watchmaking, colored high-tech ceramic is a development and production challenge. This is due to the inclusion of additional compounds, kept under five percent to ensure the physical qualities of the ceramic material isn’t affected. However, we have to test each combination of pigment compounds with zirconium oxide extensively to ensure they can endure the sintering and firing processes.” Rado began developing high-tech injection molding in 1990, finally perfecting it with a single block injection molding process in 2011. In addition, over the years, it’s spent an immense amount of time and energy developing colored high-tech ceramic in bold tones, rather than the subdued hues usually seen in other ceramic watches.
Injection molding is a process that’s usually used in the manufacturing of small, precisely shaped components, and is often applied to materials that experience thermal shrinkage, as high-tech ceramic does. However, it has its own challenges, such as color streaks that can occur due to an uneven mixing of the raw material. By careful application of modern technology, Rado has minimized these problems. In addition, with the development of a single block injection molding, the brand has been able to create monobloc cases and components to precise measurements down to micron accuracy, and in all shapes and forms. That’s how it’s able to create a True Thinline watch that’s 4.9mm thin, housing a quartz movement that’s designed to run steadily for years on end.
The collection is available in a total of nine colorways, with five from Le Corbusier’s initial work from 1931, and four additional tones that have a more vibrant, almost hipster-friendly presence released in 1959.
From an eggshell “cream white” to a grapefruit-like “powerful orange”, each watch is restricted to 999 pieces and makes for a playful, charming wrist addition. Priced at an affordable US$2,100, these watches are, in Le Corbusier’s own words, “adorable and grandiose”, designed to transcend age, gender and style. It’s a statement of its own.