There’s something about a watch you could actually buy with your current bank account, right now, that gets the heart thumping and the synapses firing. These watches — specifically, the ones that cost less than $1,000, many of them less than $500 — are the subject of our new series “Time Is Money“.

I
was sitting in the doctor’s exam room recently when I noticed something upsetting: the Braun BN0035 ($300) watch I was wearing, a modern-style chronograph that had up until then made me feel like a European railway-station designer, matched the ugly surroundings perfectly. A bigger version of it would’ve blended in nicely as a wall clock right there in the exam room: pristine white dial plastered on the glare of ultra-white walls, thin black numerals clear and soulless in the harsh light of buzzing tube overheads, trio of second, hour and minute subdials ticking away time wasted waiting for the doc to finally turn up. What happened to my Euro chic timepiece? Did people see my watch and squirm, thinking of large-diameter syringes, prostate exams, and doctors with the bedside manner of JCVD-movie prison guards?

Outside, free of the oppressive lighting and sterility, the watch regained its composure, and so did I. Tucked under a gray wool sweater’s cuff the watch once again looked masculine and legible. But I decided I needed to learn more about a style that could make a watch so manic — or rather, one that made me feel so manic about a watch.

This has always been the deciding factor in my all-around distrust of products labeled “modern design”. “Clean” seems another word for “cold”. “Utilitarian” — try “plain”, or worse, “boring”. Perhaps I was simplifying, but it seemed this school of thought equivocated austerity and beauty. I’ve always liked a good flourish.

Which is not how Braun does watches. Or any of their products. You know their electric razors; the company was a subsidiary of Gillette from 1986 to 2005 and is today wholly owned by Proctor & Gamble, though De’Longhi bought the rights to make their small appliances in perpetuity in 2012 for somewhere north of $240 million total. In yesteryear, before this string of corporate ownership, Braun was a central figure in the modern design movement, and proved the chops of now-prolific designers like Dieter Rams and Dietrich Lubs.

Braun’s products are a great case study in modernism because they stand at the intersection of the design’s intimidating theories and the relatable utility of everyday items. Its place in modern design — which (and this is very general) rejected the ideals of the enlightenment period and plenty of the norms that had become entrenched in the arts like realism in favor of newer, somewhat bombastic practices like self-consciousness and the impressionist style — took Ezra Pound’s “Make It New” and translated it into Max Braun’s “Weniger, aber besser” (the very German “Less, but better”).

Braun’s products stand at the intersection of modern design’s intimidating theories and the relatable utility of everyday items.

More specifically, the company’s pathfinders, their designers, were products of the Bauhaus, literally the “house of construction” or “school of building” that operated in Germany from 1919 until it was shut down by the National Socialist party in 1933. Again, to simplify: Bauhaus opened post-WWI Germany’s societal veins and created an artistic theory that argued for the needs of society, an underlying guideline of which was William Morris‘s (and others’) assertion that form and function need, for artists of all kinds, be the same thing.

And so Braun’s lead designers were what we today call Functionalists, who valued this form/function relationship above most else. In practice this meant the company’s products, from electric razors to scales to speakers to clocks, consisted prominently of white fields, with black, red and sometimes yellow accents; simplicity reigned; design facilitated ease of use. If you look, for example, at their AB 20 alarm clock, you’ll see it: the time just about slaps you in the eyeballs.

Which is clearly the inspiration for Braun’s new line of watches. They’re actually made by the UK-based Zeon group (the largest importer and distributor of watches in that country), which purchased rights to the watches in 2010. There are 28 or so different styles covering time-only, date, GMT, chronograph, sport and ladies’ watches, all buried deep within this midcentury modern look, the vast majority with simple, efficient quartz movements, and all well under the $1,000 mark. My chronograph, the BN0035, won an iF award and an honorable mention Red Dot award in 2012 and has a matte silver stainless steel case with square hooded lugs; the hour and minute markers, numerals and hands are all borrowed from one version of past Braun clocks or another. The chrono pushers are elliptical, the black leather strap is extremely comfortable, and I thought it very handsome until I had my miniature breakdown in the doctor’s office.

Sportier watches accomplish their functions with loud, aggressive design. And that’s just not what Braun and other midcentury modern watches are after.

I asked James Lamdin, a professional vintage watch procurer and the founder of the watch site Analog/Shift, why the watch might feel uncomfortable to me and other collectors. His answer was all about where modern design fits in with today’s watch trends.

“This sort of Bauhaus mid-century thing is really cool”, Lamdin said, “but it is not desirable in the current collector format. People don’t really go after these sorts of things. Could that change? Yes.”

I told Lamdin I had thought the watch looked cold. “It is cold”, he said. “But so’s a fuckin’ iPhone, if you really think about it. There’s no soul to this device at all”, he said, picking up his iPhone. “Is it beautiful? It is. And it is really thought out. But this [watch] is a design that will appeal to technology consumers, not traditionalist collectors” — and then he said something that really got me thinking — “particularly with this new generation of consumers and collectors coming up the pipeline that have more interest in clean aesthetic and pure functionality, as opposed to patina and ‘form follows function’.”

Clean aesthetic and pure functionality, as opposed to patina and form following function. Lamdin wasn’t seeing the Braun as an example of Functionalism’s credo. To him and many other modern collectors, a watch’s purpose isn’t solely telling the time, but serving as a versatile style item (sporty with jeans, suave with a jacket), surviving deep-sea dives and sweaty hikes, displaying mechanical beauty and history and heritage — and its sporty, aggressive form need follow those functions. These sportier watches often accomplish their functions with loud design, rather than a plain, straightforward utility. I had been sucked into this great, albeit romanticized, notion, too.

And that’s just not what Braun and other midcentury modern watches are after. The function of their BN0035 is singular: tell the time. Stylized in Braun’s particular ways, yes; the “clinical” versus “clean” debate will never end. But, after my time spent wearing the Braun, I feel my eyes have been opened just a little bit wider. The BN0035 isn’t my favorite watch, but I hear its accented voice ticking a soft question in the back of my head now when I look at divers with their broad bezels and pilot’s watches with their filled-out, sporty looks: Ist weniger besser?