It’s the end of the Seventies. The hippie summer of love is giving way to yuppie ambition. Disco is burning up the dancefloor when an outsider appears out of nowhere: punk. A blueprint for anarchy, expressed through musical rage and radical wardrobe choices, punk was a coat of many colours: the wild provocation of Iggy Pop and the Stooges, the raw glam of the New York Dolls, the leather-jacket garage of the Ramones and the Clash, Patti Smith’s arty poetry, the French chic of Stinky Toys. But the band that best captures its essence has to be the Sex Pistols. Punk is forever associated with their safety-pin style, anti-establishment lyrics, ransom-note posters and all-round bad attitude. Punk was decadent DIY. Punk was exuberant and excessive (sometimes tragically so). Punk was fast and it was frenzied.
Forty years on, this relentless energy is still the symbol of an era that said and did what it liked, regardless of what others might think and unconcerned by what the future might hold. Because there was “no future”. Such spontaneity can’t be faked but you can borrow its attributes. Details confiscated from Sid Vicious and friends add just the right frisson to luxury goods. Think studded Valentino bags and Louboutin shoes. And before that, Liz Hurley and the safety pins holding together that Versace dress.
Inspiration taken from a fiercely confrontational stance is not incompatible with Haute Horlogerie. Punk is the unequivocal name that Hautlence gave to a version of the HL2.3 that is bristling with spikes and stamped A for Anarchy. Before that, in 2015, Audemars Piguet released its Diamond Punk, whose imposing diamond-studded bracelet mirrored the pyramid form of studs on a leather jacket. A year later, the Diamond Fury took the concept even further, with an aesthetic straight out of the futurist-punk world of Mad Max: Fury Road, followed, the year after, by the Diamond Outrage whose sharp spikes shout out to the studs on Siouxsie Sioux’s leather wristbands.
But punk cannot be defined simply by studs and spikes. Because deep down, what does it mean to “be punk”? It means not trying to please, doing things your own way, creating your own style, a middle finger to convention. For an individual, punk can be self-destructive. For a brand, it’s suicidal. Definitely risky. Modern marketing has given it a name: disruptive. Once upon a time, that meant subversion à la Vivienne Westwood, the grande dame of punk who, at 80 years old, is as eccentric and avant-garde as when she was running her shop, Sex, on London’s Kings Road. Today it’s ArtyA and its founder, Yvan Arpa, whose Coup de Foudre collection goes through an astonishing process of “destroying” the box in a Faraday cage. Certain dials are customised by Arpa’s spouse, Dominique Arpa-Cirpka, who leaves traces of the artist’s hand through collage and deliberately imperfect brushstrokes.
Some might dismiss Yvan Arpa’s boundary-pushing as a gimmick. Is there any real point to incorporating fragments of steel from the Titanic or genuine moondust? Any real interest? Maybe it’s irony; a form of self-criticism from within a system in constant search of the exceptional. Like when H. Moser & Cie., days before the opening of SIHH 2018, unveiled a mashup of design tropes from several leading manufacturers. A bit of Rolex, a bit of Patek, a bit of Audemars Piguet… and to hell with copyright! Taking a swipe at contemporary watch brands’ “lack of substance”, the Swiss Icons Watch (or rather Frankenwatch) caused a massive outcry. Very punk. The culprits immediately withdrew it and apologised. Not so punk.
Because it takes a certain panache to shoot yourself in the foot and derail your business! When TAG Heuer debuted the Carrera Heuer 02T skeleton tourbillon at around $15,000, journalists didn’t know what to make of it. No, this isn’t missing a zero, some wrote. For customers, the question now was, why go on paying six-figure prices? Any attempt to knock an industry off its pedestal can be seen as an act of rebellion. Even when it has an eye on the bottom line. When the Swatch came out in 1983, all colourful plastic, the impact was probably equivalent to standing next to the amps at a Sex Pistols concert. Limited editions and collectibles would make it as much of an icon. It’s hardly a surprise, then, to see the brand release the S-Punked, emblazoned with the word Punk and worn on a tartan strap, or collaborate with Jeremy Scott, the outlandish pop-punk fashion designer who loves to take a shot at consumer society.
Purists will tell you that punk started in 1976 and ended in 1980. Four years during which hundreds of bands formed, crashed and burned, before marketing and politics muscled in. Punk’s short existence is inversely proportional to its ability to still fascinate and an iconography that fine watch brands have barely begun to explore. In the meantime, what’s to stop you from fastening your watch strap with a safety pin?