Art and watchmaking form a happy couple and have done for centuries. We only need look at Haute Horlogerie’s companion crafts of engraving, enamelling, gem-setting and other métiers d’art to see how the measuring of time would be nothing without this consideration for creativity and beauty. Now this age-old symbiosis is taking on a new dimension, where it is no longer enough to explain and highlight the work of the finest master artisans. Rather, the watch itself is aggrandized through its proximity with art – including when this means funding the artist tasked with creating this new environment. As if, through mimesis, the watch becomes an artwork comparable to the painting, sculpture or installation displayed alongside.
Sponsorship of the arts has become an accepted, even expected, activity for a watch brand. Vacheron Constantin and Rolex are two whose commitment is particularly strong. Vacheron’s highly praised Métiers d’Art collections are evidence of its interest in and encouragement of the arts, in particular music and dance. Rolex, meanwhile, is at home in the world of opera. Virtuoso mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli and baritone Bryn Terfel are among the several Rolex Testimonees from the operatic stage. The brand’s partnership with cinema is also well-established, not to mention its Mentor and Protégé initiative which, since 2002, “brings masters from a variety of artistic disciplines together with highly promising young artists for a period of creative collaboration in a one-to-one mentoring relationship.”
"Art is merchandise"
In recent years, however, brands’ patronage of the arts has gone well beyond partnerships or targeted initiatives, with a multiplication of exhibition venues and foundations emblazoned with the name of this or that luxury giant. Where Cartier led the way with the opening of a contemporary art foundation in Paris in 1984, the likes of Prada, Kering, Louis Vuitton, Chloé, Yves Saint Laurent and Fendi have followed – to the extent that a group of artists, writers and philosophers elected to criticise the role of corporate patrons in an article published in 2014 to coincide with the opening of the Fondation Louis Vuitton; a billowing glass structure by starchitect Frank Gehry that stands in public parkland on the west edge of Paris, and was visited by 1.4 million people in 2017. As well as condemning luxury boutiques in their self-appointed role as “the prototype for a world in which merchandise is art because art is merchandise”, the thirty-six signatories inveighed “the new entrepreneurial culture and its belief in events as a new god. Production line and sales force have been replaced by finance and communication. Art, whether good or bad, is its own event, sometimes unwittingly so and often to its disadvantage. (…) It provides financial consortiums with an ideal showcase. It can be brandished as their existential project.”
Beyond this burst of indignation, the fact remains that luxury, art and watchmaking share values of creativity, beauty, rarity and respect for heritage, all of which strike an emotional chord. But can we ignore the commercial side of the coin? Art lovers are, almost by definition, potential buyers of high-end timepieces, and so it is no coincidence to see that Hublot is no longer the only brand to “love art”. For Hublot, this means incursions into street art, with Shepard Fairey, tattooing, with Sang Bleu, and the monumental sculptures of Richard Orlinski – all forms of expression that are in phase with the brand.
Since 2013, Art Basel has been the main vector for Audemars Piguet’s activity in the field, steered by a commission which advises the brand when selecting the artists it will support on an annual basis. The resulting works, which are subjective interpretations of the cultural and geographic origins of the Manufacture in Le Brassus, are shown inside the brand’s Collectors Lounge at the Art Basel fairs in Basel, Hong Kong and Miami. And this is just one facet of the brand’s involvement with art. “Artists and craftsmen are ultimately very similar,” suggests Olivier Audemars, vice president of the board of directors. “There’s no real reason why anyone should hang a painting or a photograph on a wall any more than there is a real reason to wear a mechanical watch. We all have the time on our mobile phone. Yet some things appeal to the heart rather than the head. This is why artists and craftsmen speak the same language. Both elicit an emotional response and both make us happy.”
Anything that has a use, a function, doesn't appeal to me. What I care about is art.
The same determination to interact with the senses inspired Maximilian Büsser for his brilliant M.A.D. Galleries (Mechanical Art Devices). After the original gallery in Geneva, three more of these giant “toy boxes for adults” have opened, in Taipei, Dubai and Hong Kong. All the works in the galleries capture the same kinetic appeal as MB&F watches. Speaking at the opening of the Hong Kong outpost at end 2018, Büsser confessed his love of kinetics and all things mechanical, but insisted “it’s the human factor that interests me most. Nothing you see here serves a purpose. Anything that has a use, a function just doesn’t appeal to me. What I care about is art, the human capacity to create the sublime. The person behind each piece.” Another brand founder, Richard Mille, shares similar preoccupations. After a deal with Frieze, one of the most highly regarded platforms for contemporary art, the brand signed a three-year partnership with Palais de Tokyo in Paris, a world-renowned space for experimental creation. It also supports street artist Kongo and has acquired Les Editions Cercle d’Art, a publishing house founded by Pablo Picasso. Seeing how closely-tied art and watchmaking have become, should it come as any surprise that the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève has chosen institutions such as the Geneva Museum of Art and History to host a travelling exhibition of the watches competing for this year’s awards?