A wearable legacy: A brief history of Jony Ive creating the Apple Watch

Why the Apple Watch became Ive's passion project
Wareable is reader-powered. If you click through using links on the site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Learn more

Well, they did it. They finally set Jony Ive free from the white room. The design guru, hired by Apple 1992 during Jobs’ wilderness years, has announced he’s leaving Cupertino to start his own company, but will be contracting Apple as his first client. Pretty savvy, Ive.

But it might be less great news for Apple. Truth be told, it’s felt like Ive has slipped into the background in recent years, but there’s no denying that this is a big moment in Apple's history, as the man responsible for designing so many of Apple’s biggest product walks away, taking his unusually large collection of white pants with him.

Read this: Apple Watch Series 4 review

Ive's fingerprints can be found on all of Apple's most iconic products, but his design DNA is arguably more present in the Watch than any other Apple product. Perhaps it's because it was the first major product category launched post-Jobs, or perhaps it's because Jony Ive just really likes watches (Apple's chief operating officer Jeff Williams has in the past credited the Watch as very much Ive's work).

Either way, it's been fascinating to watch unfold. Ive has always been an elusive figure - even by Apple’s standards - but on the rare occasion he's sat down to be interviewed we've unravelled a little more about how the Watch came about. Here's a brief history.

Jobs wasn’t involved with the Apple Watch

We love to speculate about origin stories, but Ive insists that he and Steve Jobs never discussed watches. In fact, as per an interview with Hodinkee, Ive said the first kernel of the Apple Watch didn’t manifest until after Jobs passed away.

“The first discussion took place in early 2012, a few months after Steve’s passing. It caused us to take time, pausing to think about where we wanted to go, what trajectory we were on as a company, and what motivated us.”

This is slightly contradicted in a New Yorker interview where Ive says a conversation about a wearable became a "still tentative and very fragile" project.

This, from the piece:

At first, the designers put little on paper. After years of collaboration, “we just get it,” Ive said. “We know exactly what somebody means.” They first discussed the watch’s over-all architecture, rather than its shape. Ive’s position was that people were “O.K., or O.K. to a degree,” with carrying a phone that is identical to hundreds of millions of others, but they would not accept this in something that’s worn. The question, then, was “How do we create a huge range of products and still have a clear and singular opinion?”

A wearable legacy: A brief history of Jony Ive creating the Apple Watch

Jobs might not have had much interest in watches, but Ive's long-term friend Marc Newson, creator of luxury watch brand Ikepod, certainly did, and so Ive brought him on board. People tend to focus on Ive, but Newson is the missing link here. The Apple Watch took its Sports Loop band from Newson's Ikepod watches, and Newson has been a huge influence on the Watch in other ways too. On Newson's Horizon watch shown above, the symmetries are pretty clear.

The Digital Crown and button weren't dead certs

A wearable legacy: A brief history of Jony Ive creating the Apple Watch

Another tidbit from that Hodinkee interview. Considering the iPhone was lauded as a revolution in input, proving a touchscreen could do it all, why would Apple go back to buttons for the Apple Watch? The Watch launched with a touchscreen, yes, but there's also a Digital Crown and a button on the side, but the decision to include these, says Ive, wasn't exactly a no-brainer.

"It took a modicum of courage to understand that this secondary device – the crown – was a fantastic solution for scrolling and making choices. It also allowed us to offer a “second button” on the device. We were predisposed to thinking direct manipulation was sort of a panacea".

"Switzerland is f**ked"

A New York Times column in 2014 teased the as-yet-unannounced Apple Watch by way of an anecdote, told by a designer working under Ive at the time:

"According to a designer who works at Apple, Jonathan Ive, Apple’s design chief, in bragging about how cool he thought the iWatch was shaping up to be, gleefully said Switzerland is in trouble — though he chose a much bolder term for 'trouble' to express how he thought the watchmaking nation might be in a tough predicament when Apple’s watch comes out."

Best guesses on what word Jony really used on the back of a postcard, please. But more importantly, the story underlined Ive's behind-closed-doors hubris; at a time where smartwatches were going nowhere, Jony knew Apple was going to shake things up. To be fair to him, it did.

He stopped the heart rate sensor being put in the strap

A wearable legacy: A brief history of Jony Ive creating the Apple Watch

Bob Messerschmidt joined the Watch project when Apple bought his startup, and led the team responsible for putting the heart rate sensor in the Apple Watch. But Messerschmidt originally envisioned having the sensor beneath the wrist, due to the higher level of accuracy, even though this would mean placing the it in the strap. Here he tells Fast Company why that didn't happen, and while Ive isn't explicitly name-checked, we can only assume he was making these decisions.

"I went to a meeting and said I’m going to put sensors in the watch but I’m going to put them down here (he points to the underside of the Apple Watch band he’s wearing) because I can get a more accurate reading on the bottom of the wrist than I can get on the top of the wrist. They (the Industrial Design group) said very quickly that 'that’s not the design trend; that’s not the fashion trend. We want to have interchangeable bands so we don’t want to have any sensors in the band.'

"Then at the next meeting I would go 'we can do it here (on top of the wrist) but it’s going to have to be kind of a tight band because we want really good contact between the sensors and the skin.' The answer from the design studio would be 'No, that’s not how people wear watches; they wear them like really floppy on their wrist.' That creates a set of requirements that drives you toward new engineering solutions."

He also considered weird ways to show images on the Watch

In the New Yorker interview mentioned earlier, we get a bit of insight into the thought process behind where VP of industrial design Alan Dye describes a "pivotal moment" where Ive and the team decided “to avoid the edge of the screen as much as possible.

Buy Dye also said that the studio decided it would be weird to not show the edge of a photo, so in the end decided not to banish the screen edge.

From the piece:

“Don’t get me wrong, we tried! I could list a number of terrible ideas.” They attempted to blur edges, and squeeze images into circles. There was “a lot of vignetting”—the darkening of a photograph’s corners. “In the end, it was maybe putting ourselves first,” he said.

The Hermès partnership meant breaking a vow of silence

A wearable legacy: A brief history of Jony Ive creating the Apple Watch

This, from an interview with the Wall Street Journal, sheds lights on how the Hermès partnership - which continues to this day - came about.

"To make Apple Watch Hermès, Apple had to break some traditions. Mr. Ive approached Hermès about collaborating on a watch last year, before Apple had announced its first wearable device.

“'It’s something highly unusual for Apple to do—to talk about an unannounced project,”'said Mr. Ive, 48 years old. They decided to partner over lunch in Paris, where Hermès is based, last October."

He still doesn't think the Apple Watch is a watch

“No, I think that this is a very powerful computer, with a range of very sophisticated sensors, that is strapped to my wrist," he told the Financial Times. That’s neither very descriptive nor very helpful.”

Amen to that, Jony.

But Ive is also responsible for Tom Ford's worst idea and I will never forgive him

A wearable legacy: A brief history of Jony Ive creating the Apple Watch

As you might expect, Jony Ive and Tom Ford are pretty tight. Just a couple of design dudes doing design things and appreciating one another's work. But Ford's appreciation veered into the unacceptable when he went and turned Apple's wearable into a pocket watch.

Tom, I respect you as a designer and even as a movie director, but this is not to be tolerated. Thankfully it's no longer available to buy. Let's keep it that way.

TAGGED Apple Watch

How we test

Hugh Langley


Now at Business Insider, Hugh originally joined Wareable from TechRadar where he’d been writing news, features, reviews and just about everything else you can think of for three years.

Hugh is now a correspondent at Business Insider.

Prior to Wareable, Hugh freelanced while studying, writing about bad indie bands and slightly better movies. He found his way into tech journalism at the beginning of the wearables boom, when everyone was talking about Google Glass and the Oculus Rift was merely a Kickstarter campaign - and has been fascinated ever since.

He’s particularly interested in VR and any fitness tech that will help him (eventually) get back into shape. Hugh has also written for T3, Wired, Total Film, Little White Lies and China Daily.

Related stories