Some horophiles believe the art of the watch lies only in the mechanical heart that makes it tick. But for others, the ability to keep time is almost secondary to the usefulness of a watch to serve as a blank canvas for a range of decorative techniques that extend beyond the realms of chasing and engraving to those of miniature painting, enamelling, marquetry, lacquerwork and even micro sculpture.
One of the makers celebrated for its ability to transform both wrist and pocket watches into such wearable artworks is Patek Philippe, which has created some of the world’s most valuable enamelled watches since its founding in 1839, and last year demonstrated its mastery of the genre at a dedicated New York exhibition aptly named ‘The Art of Watches’.
An entire room is dedicated to showcasing what Patek calls its ‘rare handcrafts’, included a pocket watch carrying an enamel miniature of Mount Rushmore. Another shows the skylines of Manhattan and Brooklyn and a third depicts a herd of mustangs realised in hand engraving and cloisonnée enamel.
The gallery also housed examples of Calatrava models with wood marquetry dials depicting the Grand Canyon created from 209 tiny slivers of wood and 70 inlays, and a rodeo scene comprising 318 pieces of wood and 40 inlays to create elements as detailed as the rider’s spurs, his lasso rope and even the muscles of his bucking horse.
Perhaps the most remarkable art piece, however, was a pocket watch with an enamelled dial that showed astronaut Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission of 1969 — and it was so detailed that a close look revealed a full-length portrait of Neil Armstrong reflected in the visor of Aldrin’s space helmet.
But Patek was far from being the first to use a watch as a vehicle for figurative art. Horologists began to engrave and paint their creations as far back as the early 1500s, although it was between the late 18th and early 19th centuries that it became popular to adorn timepieces with enamel scenes, partly as a result of demand from the Asian market where ‘paired’ pieces — i.e. two pocket watches identically decorated — were especially popular.
Today the Swiss watchmaker Bovet is privately owned by Pascal Raffy, a fanatical collector of such pieces, who has ensured the artistic tradition is continued in the current collection. This explains why the brand recently launched a world first in the form of a series of watches featuring mother-of-pearl dials decorated with luminescent paintings to complement existing models with fired enamel dials by a Russian master miniaturist called Ilgiz Fazulzyanov and depicting, among other things, horse-riding mythological characters.
Yet there can be few more perfect horological ‘blank canvases’ than the one provided by Jaeger-LeCoultre’s celebrated Reverso watch originally created in 1931 with a flip-over case designed to protect the glass and dial while being worn by polo players.
It wasn’t long, however, before the metal back of the watch head — which was exposed when the dial was in the protected position — began to be used as a platform, first for engraving and then for the application of enamelled initials, coats of arms and other symbols. Today, Jaeger-LeCoultre employs a small, full-time team of enamellers and engravers to decorate the Reverso model, and designs can be commissioned at its boutiques around the world.
More than a decade ago, the brand took the art theme a step further with the introduction of Reversos with exquisitely painted dials showing reproductions of works by artists such as Renoir, Van Gogh and Alphonse Mucha.
This year, Jaeger-LeCoultre marks the centenary of the death of Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler with a series of three eight-piece limited editions, each featuring guilloche engraved and enamelled dials and a reproduction of a Hodler painting on the back, two showing views of Lake Thun, the third depicting Lake Geneva. Each watch uses a case made especially for the project and is said to take 50 hours to decorate.
Jaquet-Droz, meanwhile, which was founded as an automata maker in 1738, also has an extensive history of producing artistically impressive watches, which it furthers this year with new models that include a minute repeating wristwatch decorated with a superbly executed enamel image of tropical birds and a minute repeater pocket watch featuring a dial painted with brightly coloured parrots.
‘Art watches’ do not, however, have to be exclusively about traditional painting. Avant-garde maker Richard Mille, for example, has partnered with French–Vietnamese graffiti star Cyril Kongo to create a limited series of RM68-01 tourbillon models, each of which has a movement individually spray painted by Kongo.
Hublot’s growing art world ties, meanwhile, include a collaboration with French contemporary sculptor Richard Orlinski to create a ‘sculpted’ version of its Classic Fusion model and a partnership with ‘guerilla’ street artist Shepard Fairey, best known for his ‘Hope’ portrait of Barack Obama displayed at the Smithsonian’s portrait gallery.
Fairey’s design for Hublot resulted in two 100-piece editions of the Big Bang Meca-10 watch featuring ‘tribal floral’ engraved cases in blue or grey and using the artists’s ‘Star Gear’ symbol as part of the mechanism.
None of the above, however, are exactly cheap watches; a Richard Mille Kongo, for example, will set you back around £500,000. But if you want to wear your love of art on your sleeve (or somewhere near it) don’t despair because that king of the affordable plastic watch Swatch has been collaborating with artists for decades and has created special editions in conjunction with numerous major names including Keith Haring, Kiki Picasso and Helmut Newton. There are currently more than 200 ‘Swatch & Art’ editions in the catalogue — and they can be bought for as little £50.