The Name Game
Ask yourself this: would the Explorer, the Calatrava and the Moonwatch occupy the same emotional real estate in collectors’ minds had they been called by their reference codes instead of their names?
Most possibly not. Sure, you might wax lyrical about your preference for the typeface on the 1016 over that on the 14720 (1016>14720 any day of the week, don’t @ me) but the real tingle in the loins comes from your brain knowing that, within its folds, both these watches are linked conceptually as Rolex Explorers.
Speedmaster is another great name of course, but not all Speedies are Moonwatches, and in that crowded and convoluted Omega catalogue, the word Moonwatch is an essential communication tool. It says, “... sure, we have other Speedmasters, but once you’ve bought the Reduced and the Mark 2, this is the one you really want.”
As far as communicating an idea goes, Formex has done an excellent job by baptising its halo line as the Essence. Sure, the word lacks the lyrical esotericism of a Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe, but that, I imagine, is not Formex’s point. Looking at their catalogue, you would get the idea that the Essence is its centrepiece. It starts you off with the brand, introduces you to its thinking. What the Oyster Perpetual is to Rolex, the Essence is to Formex, just on a more affordable scale.
Our example, the Essence Chronometer 43 mm does plenty to show why this small Swiss independent is worth, at the very least, more than a lingering sideways glance.
Before cracking on, it might be advisable to read Part I of our ongoing Identity trilogy. In that piece we looked at another 43 mm, the Ball Fireman II, and tried to answer the millenia old thought experiment:
“By the time all the planks of a given ship are replaced, one by one, could we legitimately call this ship that original ship, or, with all its hardware replaced, is it another ship altogether?
“And if not, then at what point does it become another ship?”
The origin story of Formex is less glamorous than Ball’s, and yes, I know the name sounds a lot like that of another, slightly more historic brand.
A portmanteau of the French “forme” and “extrème” (“extreme shape” - so we’ll let this one pass?), their heritage is one of hulking race chronographs with names like “iBoard” and “4Speed” with powerboat and Le Mans sponsorships.
With the “Essence”, the industrial design brief seems to have been deceptively simple: design a less dressy, more angular modern sport watch that can be used as a reference point for all other Formexes. To achieve this, the Bienne-based outfit seems to have taken a proverbial horological tiki tour of some major modern hits.
Yet during my fortnight of testing, I did not once look at the Essence and think it was trying to replicate something else. That is because for each one of its inspirations, Formex applies a healthy dose of remix.
Screws that actually do something…
Consider its horizontal teak deck patterned dial, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the Aqua Terra. And like that Omega, the date is at 6, though in this case I am sure it was more a case of consumer preference than inspiration. To complement the horizontal cuts, Formex have applied vertical brushing on the dial surface.
Its broad-lipped brushed bezel with a polished outer might remind some of an ersatz Nautilus, but there is a method to this. Its visual weight is broken up by screws on each of the corners. Unlike those on the Royal Oak, these screws actually do something. They join the head of the watch to its angular, muscular case where one can experience Formex’s patented special sauce, its “Case Suspension System”. A technology from the brand’s early days, it was conceived as a means to allow the watch head to be lifted off the rest of the case using a spring loaded system, presumably to help it move around while you were driving a racecar or a powerboat. It just means the watch is more comfortable as it moves around your wrist on the daily, especially if you like a snug fit.
If you stare long enough at the dial you can see a certain Oyster influence. The indices are batons, with recesses that accommodate the BGW9 lume. The 12 is a double-baton for orientation. The remix comes with the hands. If you look at the dial straight down, with no tilt, they appear slender. Their width is the same, but the length differentiation makes it a breeze to tell the hours from the minutes. Tilt it slightly though, and you can see flanks that angle down from either side.
As a person for whom watches live and die by their hands, this little detail is a treat. They catch the light and complement the rest of the case’s design language. From there, it is angles all the way down. That means the on-paper 50 mm lug to lug doesn’t feel that number, as the lugs turn down rather aggressively. It’s only 10.6 mm thin too.
Unlike the Ball, which was a 43 mm watch that wants to present as a 43, the Formex is a 43 mm watch that wants to present like a 41, and overall, it succeeds. This was the first Formex I have ever handled, and I came away quite impressed. The brown dial is not something a lot of brands would try, and here, it works.
The 22 mm metal bracelet has a good feel, sure, but is elevated by two features which Formex pushed earlier than most other brands: an easy-removal system and a hidden micro-adjustment mechanism. When you consider the clasp is a butterfly, that is quite the feat. If you like your straps from the source, you can have a gander at their line of accessories, including a very tasty looking adjustable deployant clasp for when one might want to swap out the bracelet.
Inside ticks a COSC certified Sellita SW-200, which, depending on how accuracy-focused you are, could be quite a plus. Water resistance is at that 100 m sweet spot.
What this all means…
Formex has come a very long way from its Y2K roots. Their new naming system is more mature, almost ironically so. Their field watch is called the “Field”. Their pilot watch? The “Pilot”. You won’t believe this, but their chronograph is called “Motorsport”.
The brashness is not gone, but recalibrated. Whereas the iBoard, with its square case and large Arabics drew almost comically true inspiration from Bell & Ross (a company that launched in 1992, seven years before Formex), its current chronographs, while maintaining a youthfully FTW aesthetic, retain a certain playing within the rules vibe.
And if it were a ship, one might make the argument that you could make both arguments. Yes, it is a different vessel, because its basic design has changed. It is no longer a carrier, but more a cruiser, quick to listen to customer feedback and iterate. You might also argue that nothing much has changed at all: the same family still owns a stake in the business and their design aesthetic has retained a lot of the angularity of the original pieces, and everything that has changed has been merely at surface level.
So I leave you with this. Watches like the Essence hold a mirror up to us, collectors, flippers, experienced connoisseurs alike: just how original are we prepared for a watch to be? The Essence is a tad risky, because none of your mates will recognise it, but that might also be why you could be into this. It is a functional everyday piece that doesn’t look cheap, and hides in its bracelet and case two clever mechanisms that you can start a conversation with.
Are you not entertained?