You look at your watch on average 65 times per day, but have you ever really paid attention to the numerals? Without looking at your wrist (no cheating please), can you recall whether your timepiece has Roman or Arabic numerals, in serif or sans serif? Or maybe it has applied gold baton indexes, or diamonds, or a mix of both? Not sure? Well, don’t worry, because you aren’t actually supposed to notice them.
A watch font that is immediately noticeable can often cause a distraction from the overall design of a dial and spoil the harmony of the watch altogether. It is a little like the music in films which is supposed to set the scene – not have you reaching for your phone to Shazam a tune.
Having said that, paying attention to the details is all part of the appreciation of a fine timepiece, and looking into the world of horological fonts reveals a rich history that spans the fields of archaeology, printing, IT, psychology, art, design and much more.
A brief history of numbers
The story of where written numbers come from is intimately linked to timekeeping. Early civilisations needed to keep track of the days, the phases of the moon and the cycles of the seasons for their own survival. The first written numbers were recorded using a tally system, where lines would be carved into a stick or bone. Almost all number systems started in this way and most number ones still use a single line to mark its distinction. As time evolved, and the need to record greater quantities arose, the numbers evolved with it to include a bar across four lines to mark five and a cross to mark ten. This system was the precursor of the Roman numeral system that is used by almost all watchmakers today in at least one of their collections.