We all know that wristwatches in today’s world are not a necessity. We have smartphones and tablets that show the time. However, wristwatches are a grand statement of style, taste, and personality. Indeed, luxury watches are horological works that combine mechanical technology and masterful precision, but they’re also a wonderful blank canvas waiting to be filled by the most creative master artisans—and certain watch brands are delivering powerful and unique finished canvases. Referred to as métiers d’art, artistic watch dials have become standard for certain brands.
Design motifs often recall nature, with birds in flight and animals on the prowl emulated in intricate detail. Sometimes the artist reinterprets a scene, an entire city, or even a fantasy concept, such as an enchanting mermaid, all in an effort to offer a masterpiece that captures the heart as well as the eyes.
Featuring techniques like hand enameling, cloisonné, marquetry, and mosaic work, today’s luxury watch dials rival art found in the world’s finest museums. To create these masterful dials, different brands employ design approaches that run the gamut from hand-painting using ancient methods to engraving to sculpting to adding moving parts.
Though some brands seek out and employ the finest artisans who work in miniature to develop dials that make a supreme statement of unparalleled excellence, other brands work directly with artists, architects, designers, and myriad creative types to bring their ideas to fruition.
Movado was a pioneer in this field, having introduced its Artists’ Series back in 1987 with the unveiling of the Andy Warhol Times/5, a bracelet watch consisting of five individual cases, each featuring a Warhol-photographed New York cityscape. From there, the brand went on to work with numerous artists, including Israeliborn Yaacov Agam, whose four collections reflected his idea of the changing landscape of time; American abstract expressionist James Rosenquist; Swiss artist and architect Max Bill, who created the extremely colorful Bill-Time watches; Brazil native Romero Britto; and Kenny Scharf. Last year, Movado announced a new collaboration with royal wedding photographer, author, and activist Alexi Lubomirski. Also regularly on the cutting edge of artistic masterpieces, Swiss watch brand Hublot works with a host of different artists and designers, including tattoo and street artists, to develop entire collections.
“Partnerships like these are about opportunities, meeting more people, and expanding your scope,” says Ricardo Guadalupe, CEO of Hublot. “We live in a global world, and art is a platform that allows you to express yourself through another type of communication, combining the art of watchmaking with real art put into a watch.”
Easily one of the most intriguing relationships Hublot has is with sculpture artist Richard Orlinski, whose incredible stylized sculptural takes on King Kong and other icons can be found all over the world. Working with bold colors and geometric angles, Orlinski brings his design aesthetic to the watch case rather than the dial, with Hublot creating three-dimensional cases made up of geometric angles and mixes of matte and polished finishes. For other artists, the dials and colors are the focus. Hublot works with street artist Shepard Fairey; London-based tattoo artist Maxime Plescia-Büchi, of the Sang Bleu studio, who just last year designed the Big Bang One Click Sang Bleu Steel Turquoise; and, most recently, the late kinetic artist Carlos Cruz-Diez. The final result of the latter collaboration, revealed in December by Hublot and the Cruz-Diez family, features watches with dials that are constantly in motion, thanks to multiple levels and rotating discs that reflect the Venezuelan artist’s love of color and movement.
From Fantasy Scenes to Rock and Roll
Ulysse Nardin has formed partnerships with different artists for certain collections and maintains an incredible in-house artisan studio, where master enamelers, painters, and engravers work side by side to bring works of art to fruition. Recently, the brand teamed up with Italian comic book artist Milo Manara to fashion a series of erotic watches. Manara created 10 illustrations of a mythical mermaid and a beautiful young woman that Ulysse Nardin’s master artisans then miniaturized and micro-painted onto the watch dials using fine single-hair brushes and high-intensity microscopes. Each dial took approximately 50 hours to complete, and each is incredibly detailed, yielding almost incomprehensible depth and dimension. Each is sold with an original signed and numbered Manara print.
Parmigiani Fleurier worked with artist Marcello Lo Giudice to release 12 unique Tonda 1950 Marcello Lo Giudice timepieces that represent the Italian painter’s “Eden Universe, Eden Ocean” exhibition, displayed last year at Opera Gallery in New York. The watches’ dials feature bold colors and abstract landscapes, formed using a specially developed laser technique that adds volume and texture to the flat surface. The artist then hand-painted the color pigments to match Lo Giudice’s paintings exactly.
The list goes on and on, from Rado working with Fondation Le Corbusier to develop a licensed and certified Les Couleurs collection based on the architect’s use of polychromatic colors to brands that work with street artists, singers, songwriters, musicians, and more. In fact, British brand Bremont worked closely with the iconic Ronnie Wood—acclaimed Rolling Stones guitarist, songwriter, and artist—for the brand’s The 1947 Collection, launched in late 2019. What makes this watch so unique is the fact that Wood actually created paintings during his career and used those as his baseline inspiration. More important, though, is the fact that he hand-painted each of the dials himself. There are 47 limited edition dials in 42mm white gold cases that feature Wood’s signature on the movement back. “I look at some of the dials, and it brings back memories of having painted them on tour in places like Chicago, Seattle, or Philadelphia,” Wood says. “In different places, I’d get a little time to spend doing some art in between looking after those little twins and the music, of course.”
Richard Mille also recently teamed up with award-winning singer and songwriter Pharrell Williams for a nearly $1 million RM 52-05 namesake tourbillon watch. Williams says he often seeks out new perspectives in order to make his innovative music and, for him, the sky is a constant inspiration. So he wanted to show it in a new way. For this watch, he imagined the perspective of looking at Mars through an astronaut’s helmet. The center of the dial is a helmet, and the red planet comes to life via 5N rose gold— sometimes called red gold—engraving, and enamel work.
“I’ve always been fascinated by looking up at the sky,” Williams says. “What could be more inspiring than all that ever was and all that ever will be? Space, before your eyes. It’s yours to see. It was here before the Earth, before this solar system. It’ll be here after us, and nothing’s more meaningful than that. When I look up at the sky, I’m looking at God. I feel part of so many different parts of a whole.”
Although working in collaboration with established artists and designers leads to new and different results, some luxury brands prefer to push the envelope with what one might refer to as traditional art, created by in-house artisans that range from enamelers to woodworkers to engravers to gem setters and other craftspeople, many of whom have spent their entire lives honing a single skill. Hand-enameling, engraving, or laying mosaics or marquetry in miniature may seem traditional, today’s artists pull out all the stops when breathing life into these complex and unique dials. Additionally, they’re always finding new ways to express themselves. In the past decade alone, we have witnessed mosaic and marquetry dials made of hundreds of pieces of straw, rose petals, butterfly wings, bird feathers, animal hair, leather, wood, mother-of-pearl, and additional unusual materials that make these watches both alluring and dramatic.
Some brands turn to engravers and specialty metalworkers to craft miniature sculptures on the dial, and others even use moving parts, called automatons, for astounding and enchanting masterpieces. Particularly daring brands will employ multiple arts on a single dial.
Others push the limits when it comes to hand-painting, lacquering, and enamel work. A single hand-painted or enameled dial can take hundreds of hours to make and can cost upwards of $50,000, due to the incredible painstaking work that goes into it. Generally, dials like this offer vibrant colors, lush flowers, or animals so detailed you can see every hair. After the artist spends days painting in miniature, a single firing—and the dials undergo dozens of firings in an 800-plus-degree kiln—can leave bubbles or breakage, requiring the artist to start again.
Because of the sheer amount of labor and time that goes into the making of these métiers d’art watches, they are often created as one-of-a-kind pieces. Additionally, because each dial is made by hand, every watch is unique, adding even more value to the finished piece. These watches are meant to be enjoyed and showcased. And what better way to display art than by wearing it on your wrist?