Watches have long been the grail for designers whose main careers exist outside of horology. Practitioners of fine art, graphic design, animation, product innovation, architecture and tattooing have all been invited to collaborate with the world’s top watchmaking houses, bringing a fresh, new dimension to the contemporary industry.
Of course, a high level of artistic craftsmanship has always had its place in watchmaking stretching back to the highly decorated pocket watches of the 16th century. Brands from Patek Philippe to Jaeger- LeCoultre, Jaquet Droz and Vacheron Constantin have ensured these metiers stay alive, but beyond the traditional enamelling, engraving and gem-setting, recent decades have seen a plethora of new skills appear on dials, cases and straps.
From Piaget’s work with Salvador Dalí’s Dalí d’Or coins and Andy Warhol’s Times/5 collaboration with Movado in the 1980s, to the recent unique dials for Bremont by Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood and Alec Monopoly’s (now working with Jacob & Co) TAG Heuer mash-up, art and time seem destined to co-exist.
One artist with no worries of running out of commissions is Johnny ‘King Nerd’ Dowell, a 15-year gun-engraver at James Purdey & Sons, who has developed a unique, modern style and has found his services in great demand from the watch world. Since going freelance, Dowell’s incredibly intricate work, taking upwards of 90 hours per watch, has appeared on cases from independent companies including Bamford Watch Company, Linde Werdelin and Urwerk. His recent Franck Muller x Bamford x Arsham x King Nerd Casablanca sold out in under an hour, as did the limited-edition Casio King Nerd x G-Shock – in fact, any watch bearing Dowell’s hallmark is fast becoming a collector’s item.
In pop art, Hublot undoubtedly leads the way having spearheaded enough collaborations through its ‘Hublot Loves Art’ collection to fill a gallery. Current partnerships exist with design, typography and tattoo studio Sang Bleu, sculptor Richard Orlinski, street artist Shepard Fairey and painter Marc Ferrero, as well as with the estate of the late Venezuelan Op Artist Carlos Cruz-Diez. Most recently the brand has joined forces with the man known as the ‘Warhol of Japan’, Takashi Murakami, the most commercially and critically successful Japanese artist working today. The first watch from the partnership, the Classic Fusion Takashi Murakami All Black, released in January, sold out in a matter of hours.
Speaking of the open canvas style of the partnerships, Hublot’s CEO Ricardo Guadalupe says the aim is, “to integrate the art and the philosophy of the artist into the watch. We don’t do a watch inspired by an artist, it is the designer’s reinterpretation of the watch.” Emphasising that the collaborations come about organically, he continues: “We choose [the artists] through encounters. The choice is emotional, not rational. They bring their art, their vision, their creativity. And thanks to open discussions we create timepieces that represent both our universes.”
Also boasting a long relationship with the art world, Swatch has partnered with some of the most famous names of our time from Keith Haring to Damian Hirst and, in 2019, a four-legged, curly tailed painter going by the name of Pigcasso. Earlier this year, the programme known as Museum Journeys that began in 2008 and has involved collaborations with some of the world’s top galleries, expanded to bring works from New York’s MoMA to Swatch dials including Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night (1889), Gustav Klimt’s Hope II (1907-08) and Henri Rousseau’s The Dream (1910).
At the launch event, MoMA’s deputy director for curatorial affairs Sarah Suzuki said: “These collaborations are really an opportunity to extend an invitation to MoMA to those that may or may not be able to visit us here in Midtown Manhattan. and they’re also a chance to really represent the range of the exhibitions and activities that we have here.”
The world of animation also provides a deep well of inspiration, stretching back to Ingersoll’s original Mickey Mouse watches that have been reinterpreted over the years by Gérald Genta, Citizen and Gucci, among others. The past 12 months has further seen Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak Concept ‘Black Panther’ Flying Tourbillon, the first in a series of Marvel collaborations, Seiko’s fabulous Studio Ghibli designs, the latest of Omega’s highly covetable ‘Silver Snoopy’ Speedmaster models, Bamford Watch Department’s Popeye GMT and Undone’s joyous Loony Tunes dials.
Of course, as a utilitarian object, the wristwatch has always been fair game for product designers, especially those from the Deutsche Werkbund and Bauhaus movements. Bauhaus student Max Bill famously designed for Junghans, creating prototypes that are still in production today, Braun’s most enduring designs are straight from the drawing board of German industrial designer Dieter Rams, while the Nomos aesthetic also stays true to these arts and crafts roots.
A 1980s’ design movement that is starting to gain recognition, the Memphis Group began in Milan with the work of Ettore Sottsass and his experimentation with colourful, abstract shapes and modern composite materials. As well as furniture, lighting, fabrics and various objet, Sottsass turned his talent to watchmaking, designing for Tissot, which has for 2021 re-issued the designs in small limited editions.
Tissot’s Swatch Group stablemate Rado is a name that is synonymous with cool design, having collaborated with some of the world’s best, as well as many up-and-coming designers from Jasper Morrison and Ross Lovegrove to Bethan Gray and Evgenia Miro. It also sponsors the Rado Star Prize competitions around the world and has worked with Les Couleurs Suisse, the company that controls who is allowed to use the colours from architect Le Corbusier’s Architectural Polychromy.
Le Corbusier was also the inspiration for three watches made by Girard-Perregaux in 2012. The Le Corbusier Trilogy, celebrated the great architect’s work in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Paris and Marseille. The limited edition Vintage 1945 watches featured dial representations of Le Corbusier’s work in brushed and engraved steel, mother-of pearl marquetry and concrete.
More recently, Bulgari – a brand that owes many of its designs to the classical architecture of Rome, and one that has expanded its signature style into 21stcentury hotels – has also collaborated with architects in its watches and jewellery. The Zaha Hadid B.zero1 ring in 2016 was one of her final projects before her death and involved uniting two very different styles to create a piece of jewellery in perfect harmony.
And following the success of its Japan-only, 2019 limited-edition, titanium and carbon Octo Finissimos made with Tadao Ando, the house has this year created a worldwide Octo Finissimo Tadao Ando Limited Edition. A 40mm, time-only watch in black ceramic with midnight-blue dial, the face is said to represent a black hole. Engraved concentric circles spiral out from the off-set seconds hand at 7 o’clock, while to the right, a gold crescent moon is held in its own orbit, avoiding being sucked into the abyss of the sub-dial.
Whether it’s the embracing of pop culture icons, the reproduction of famous works in timepiece form or simply the sheer creativity that comes through collaboration, the watch world has fully embraced designers and artists from other fields – and it’s produced some of the most playful, intriguing and sometimes downright crazy pieces out there.