Art and watchmaking have always got along. For centuries, watchmakers have turned to craftsmen and women skilled in engraving, enamelling, miniature painting and other arts to embellish their timepieces. Over the years, this meeting of minds has evolved into something of a fusional relationship. Is it merely coincidence that, in the days before Covid-19, the watches shortlisted for the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève were put on display in the city’s Museum of Art and History, or that the exhibitors taking part in the first editions of Dubai Watch Week were hosted by contemporary art galleries? Probably not, as watches and artworks engage in a mutually enriching conversation. Whereas this juxtaposition used to be the preserve of brands with a strong artistic vision, recent developments are revealing a less conventional side to this union of art and time.
Most people will have heard of blockchain by now, but what about non-fungible tokens (NFT)? These units of data, which are stored on a blockchain and, unlike cryptocurrency, cannot be interchanged, authenticate a unique digital asset, such as an artwork, and provide proof of ownership. This is the route taken by independent Russian watchmaker Konstantin Chaykin who recently announced that, on May 22, the Ineichen Zürich auction house will present the first ever digital art project by a watchmaker, namely NFT-Joker on Ethereum blockchain. Konstantin Chaykin rose to fame with the Joker watch, a piece of cinematographic pop art inspired by the DC Comics super-villain that shows hours and minutes in its eyes, and moon phases with its tongue. For NFT-Joker, Chaykin is in the process of making 42,480 digital images: one per minute over 12 hours, every day from March 13 to May 11, 2021. They will be completed by a collage of 720 images from each of these 59 days to form a digital picture of 26,373 x 216,000 pixels. In printed form, the collage will measure 1.15 metres high by 14 metres long.
Proceeds from the sale of NFT-Joker – assuming, says Chaykin, they are sufficient – will go towards supporting young Russian watchmakers. The Swiss-based Raphaël Lutz design studio is also counting on the proceeds from the sale of its Côtes mécaniques, the first digital wall clock to be sold on an NFT marketplace, to finance the making of the actual physical clock. The buyer of this unique digital asset will be able to play the animation, which accelerates 12 hours of time into 30 seconds, on his or her TV or in their personal digital environment.
Watchmakers that aren’t moonlighting as artists themselves are happy to call on professional artists to stage a backdrop for their latest timepieces. Especially when the timepiece in question is a new milestone in the brand’s production. Hermès did exactly that at the recent Watches and Wonders Geneva where it launched the H08, no doubt set to become a pillar of its collections. While the fair took place entirely online, Hermès moved physically into Bâtiment des Forces Motrices, a magnificent industrial building in Geneva’s city centre, where it set up a streaming studio together with a large-scale installation by Clément Vieille and Pierre Pauze, both graduates of the Le Fresnoy contemporary arts research studio in France. Their scenography combined the tensegrity architectural principle with digital technology to trace the H08’s creation in Hermès’s typically poetic language.
Similar stagings can be found at Zenith, which last year handed over the façade of its manufacturing facilities in Le Locle to artist Felipe Pantone, or at Jaeger-LeCoultre which worked with the American artist Michael Murphy as part of the year-long celebration of the Reverso’s 90th anniversary. As the brand explains, “Michael Murphy has invented an entirely new formula for rendering two-dimensional images as suspended, three-dimensional mobiles. These anamorphic installations comprise a multitude of objects hanging at various heights and distances. Depending on the viewer’s line of sight, they appear to change form: from a seemingly random and chaotic jumble of shapes they coalesce into a highly organised and recognisable image.” This travelling installation, which represents the new Reverso Tribute Nonantième, will be shown in cities worldwide over the course of the year.
NFTs and installations aside, limited editions are still the most popular form for artist x watch brand collaborations. Hublot, which has numerous partnerships under its belt with the likes of Shepard Fairey, Marc Ferrero and Richard Orlinski, recently worked alongside Takashi Murakami, often called the “Japanese Andy Warhol”, on a Classic Fusion All Black. Bulgari once again teamed up with Tadao Ando for the Octo Finissimo that carries the renowned architect’s name, unveiled earlier this year. Latest to take the plunge, Roger Dubuis is working with the Urban Art Tribe formed by two urban culture creatives – Dr. Woo, a tattoo artist, and graffiti artist Gully – on what almost qualifies as a philosophical endeavour: “Brought together to unite a wider community of daring minds, Roger Dubuis and the Urban Art Tribe hope to encourage people to challenge the way things are.” Before watch brands started questioning the fourth dimension, it was only ever a matter of… time!