Buyer's Guide

From Watch to Wearable Art

Harking back some 60 years, collaborations between watchmakers and artists produced some of the most special editions, likely to be expanded with new technologies and creative implementations.
By Maya Garabedian
Oct 15, 2022

For those who appreciate the fine craftsmanship of a wristwatch, a wearable work of art, it comes as no surprise that big names in watchmaking have long collaborated with big names in fine art. The Swatch brand collaborations are arguably the first that come to mind for watch and art lovers alike – it’s nearly impossible to talk about wristwatch and artist collaborations over the years without mentioning Swatch. As one of the early brands to adopt the idea of watch-wearing as a fashion statement, on par with any other accessory, they pioneered a new development tactics in support of that idea. First, they collaborated with artists and other luminaries to create unique, head-turning versions of their Swatch Watch, and kept production quantities low to build desire and drive demand – an unusual choice given that the Swatch Watch, a well-made watch with a plastic utilitarian design, had previously been known for its accessibility – and while scarcity economics is a key concept of the modern day, it was relatively new in the context of history. Both of these decisions, in the mid-1980s, were game-changing decisions that impacted the industry as we know it today – but people often incorrectly attribute this genre of watchmaking to Swatch.

Alfred Hofkunst for Swatch, Swatch Watch Vegetable Set, 1991. Courtesy of Swatch and Highsnobiety

Beyond their presence in the everyday market, Swatch Group is also often considered to be the pioneer of limited-edition artist collaborations because it attracted people who previously weren’t reached by the watch industry – creative, eclectic people – and simultaneously highlighted the craftsmanship and artistry to those who purchased watches for practical purposes. In this regard, Swatch art was particularly groundbreaking. A great deal of artistic freedom was granted to the artists, whether they wanted a portion of their work to be reproduced on the watch face, like Keith Haring in 1986, or dreams of a full Pop Art structural upheaval like Alfred Hofkunst in his food-inspired models of 1991. By having such overt artistry on their watches, Swatch drew attention to the energy behind the design of every watch, reminding consumers that it is always a work of art, irrespective of what can be seen on the surface. For this reason, they are still a valued collectible and have been featured in major museums across the country.

Piaget x Salvador Dalí, The Golden Dalí, 1967. Courtesy of Piaget

Despite the dominant narrative offering Swatch the title of collaborative pioneer, a more precise historical analysis would place Piaget at the forefront of the limited-edition artist collaboration movement – showcasing what happens when an artist makes a watch with a watchmaker rather than for one. In fact, some 20 years prior, Piaget had attempted the very same concept, likely getting less traction due to its reputation as a luxury brand. Salvador Dalí’s Piaget collection is nothing short of breathtaking, with original artwork produced on each watch, not simply a reproduction. Ahead of their time, Piaget partnered with the surrealist artist in 1967 to create gold watches, in 18k and 22k, mostly in the form of bracelet wristwatches for both men and women. Dalí was already known to mint his own coins in four values and sizes, called Dalí d’Or, but he used them seldomly, typically to pay debts he owed to friends. In his partnership with Piaget, he used these coins, immaculately decorated with facial profiles of himself and his wife, fleurs-de-lys, laurel leaves, and eggs, in their jewelry and watches. Symbolic of not only familiarity and kinship with the artist, but also of rebirth and hope, the pieces of the collection – handmade, signed, dated, and with a manual backwind – strike an interesting balance between slowing down to live life, and keeping time in pursuit of tomorrow.

Cyril Kongo x Richard Mille, Calibre RM 68-01, 2016. Courtesy of Richard Mille

While limited-edition manufacture collaborative pieces have become more common in recent years, there are some that stand out more than others, as they mark the shift of creating art with a watchmaker, following in the path laid by Piaget. First is the Cyril Kongo (née Phan) x Richard Mille collection, which made history by having an artist work with the moving components of the watch. Kongo, who is part of Paris’s graffiti scene, decided against the traditional route of collaboration in his work for Richard Mille. Instead of designing the watch face or the external form, his work is applied directly to the hand-wound tourbillon calibre. A tourbillon watch is already one of the most impressive pieces of engineering a watch manufacturer can produce, and having an artist design the integral parts of the timepiece – the bridges, baseplate, and micromechanics – had never been done prior to 2016. To avoid jeopardizing the equilibrium of the systems inside and the longevity of the watch, Kongo spent more than a year developing airbrush technique that applied one droplet at a time and used paints that adhere perfectly to titanium.

Parmigiani Fleurier x Marcello Lo Giudice, Tonda 1950, 2018. Courtesy of Professional Watches

Taking the immersive process used by Richard Mille watchmakers and Cyril Kongo a step further, Parmigiani Fleurier and Marcello Lo Giudice embody a true attempt at erasing the distinction between watchmaker and art-maker. Each of the 12 timepieces in the 2018 collection feature identical reproductions of portions of Lo Giudice’s work Eden Universe, Eden Ocean – abstract landscapes on canvas that are painted after building volume, creating abrasions, and adding texture to the surface. The brand’s founder and CEO, Michel Parmigiani, followed a similar process when it came to making his watches serve as the canvas. Using a special technique, each of the 12 dials were made with a highly precise laser, taking the raw plate of the dial, engraving its trace, and changing the materials structure by building volume on the previously flat surfaces of the watch. The watch hands have a sage leaf shape keeping the focus on the frescos without compromising visibility and function, while also playing into the earth and ocean theme. Likewise was the decision to work with ultra-thin round watches with polished surfaces, 18k rose gold, and a hand-stitched alligator leather strap by Hermès in the color “Abyss Blue.” Coincidentally, the watch is also water resistant up to 30 meters.

Following the precedent set by Piaget and Dalí, and the modern-day shift signaled by the Cyril Kongo x Richard Mille 30-piece collection, several exciting collaborations have taken place, finding new ways to work together and take risks with form, without compromising the functional integrity these brands have long been known for. With the help of new techniques made possible by technological advancements, and the ever-expanding definition of “art” to include watchmaking, it is inevitable that we will continue to see monumental shifts in design through limited-manufacture pieces from big name brands.