Where Art and Timekeeping Meet

New York Times, January 19, 2015

MIAMI — On a breezy morning in early December, the Dutch kinetic artist Theo Jansen paced back and forth on the beach, struggling to get a 42-foot-long self-propelled mechanical creature called Animaris Suspendisse to walk alongside him.

Known as a Strandbeest, the wind-powered life form was one among several of its kind on display in December during Art Basel in Miami. Conceived and built in Leidschenveen-Ypenburg, the Netherlands, over the past quarter-century, the creatures made from yellow PVC tubes, bottles and bicycle pumps are intended to patrol the country’s beaches to defend against rising seas.

“If you look nowadays at watchmakers, they also restrict themselves in materials because they don’t want to use electronics,” Mr. Jansen said in a video shot by the Swiss watchmaker Audemars Piguet, which partnered with the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., to sponsor the Strandbeest exhibition in Miami. “We have a love for mechanical things in common.”

At an afternoon panel discussion on the beach, Michael L. Friedman, a watch historian at Audemars Piguet, elaborated on the similarities between Mr. Jansen’s creations and watchmaking.

“In the spring, I visited Theo in Holland and was able to go to the factory to see the Strandbeests,” Mr. Friedman said. “We were able to engage in very technical conversation about how they stored energy, how they released energy, how they were regulated — all questions that are central to watchmaking.”

In the video, which features shots of Mr. Jansen fine-tuning his creatures interspersed with images of watchmakers at work, Mr. Friedman suggests that the timepieces manufactured at Audemars Piguet’s factory in the Swiss village of Le Brassus are, like the Strandbeests, objects of kinetic art.

The question at the heart of Mr. Friedman’s line of inquiry — can a timepiece be considered a piece of art? — has become something of a preoccupation for people in the luxury watch industry.

“I feel very strongly that watchmaking is an art,” said Maximilian Büsser, founder of MB&F, a 10-year-old brand based in Geneva. “But only for a very few of us.”

He referred to his latest creation, Horological Machine No. 6, which comes in a fantastical curved case studded with domed crystals that recall a miniature cyborg. He said the reaction to the timepiece, aptly named Space Pirate, was extremely polarized — a sign that it belongs to the world of art more than the world of commerce.

“Fifty percent of remarks on social media were ‘wow, incredible,’ and in the other 50 percent, I discovered the word ‘fugly,"’ Mr. Büsser said. “You don’t generate hate with something boring and reassuring. You generate hate when you take people out of their comfort zone. It’s tough for me to read those comments, but it assures me we’re on the right track.”

What’s more, Mr. Büsser continued, the distinguishing characteristic of MB&F’s timepieces — especially the HM6 and its aviation-inspired predecessor, the HM4 Thunderbolt — is that they celebrate the obsessions of his childhood, from muscle cars to “Star Wars.”

“In 10 years, you’re going to put 20 MB&Fs on the table and you will not see at all the trends of the market, fashion or trends in watchmaking,” Mr. Büsser said. “I’m writing my autobiography. And you can’t make a larger statement than that.”

Mr. Büsser may be making a personal statement. But is he making art?

“Historically, when you talk about fine art, you’ve got sculpture as a primary form and then painting,” said Andrew Davies, survey manager and art historian at AXA Art, a London-based insurance agency. “And pretty much everything else is craft.”

Here’s where things get tricky. Unlike makers of ceramics, jewelry or furniture, watchmakers have, for most of history, identified themselves equally, if not entirely, as mechanical engineers.

Starting around 1500 B.C., when the ancient Egyptians made the earliest sundials, horology has been defined as the science of measuring time. With each successive generation of timekeeping device, the goal was improved accuracy. As the decades progressed, however, clocks began to feature more artistic elements — cloisonné enamel, detailed engravings or miniature paintings.

“Let’s go back to the 12th century and the first mechanical clocks,” said John Reardon, the international head of Christie’s watch department. “Looking at these early clocks, they were absolutely decorative — made more for status than for science.”

Mr. Reardon referred to the upcoming sale of the Abbott-Guggenheim Collection of Renaissance and Baroque sculptures, clocks and works of art at Christie’s New York. The Jan. 27 auction includes a 17th-century German clock depicting Bacchus, the Roman god of wine.

“It has a big chubby guy sitting on a keg of beer,” Mr. Reardon said. “He tells time and strikes the hours by raising a stein to his lips. Four hundred years ago, it was easily considered a piece of art.”

Watchmakers of the era took their cues from the ultimate Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci, for whom art and engineering were twin pursuits. The understanding of watchmaking as both an art and a science reached its apogee in the early 17th century when artistically inclined Huguenots fleeing persecution in France produced some of history’s most elaborate and gilded timepieces.

The advent of the Industrial Revolution prompted a shift in priorities, favoring makers that placed a premium on functionality. In 1714, England’s Parliament announced a prize for anyone who could measure longitude successfully. Between 1730 and 1770, the watchmaker John Harrison built a series of marine chronometers as part of his single-minded pursuit of the prize.

That mindset prevailed well into the 20th century, culminating with the quartz revolution of the 1970s, when the Japanese introduced battery-powered watches, considerably more accurate and far less expensive than their mechanical Swiss-made counterparts. Practically overnight, watches were transformed into cheap functional objects that lacked any pretense of artistry.

Although the quartz crisis nearly decimated the Swiss watchmaking trade, Mr. Reardon contends that it was essential to the industry’s evolution because “watchmakers were forced to become artists in order to survive.”

Once the Swiss industry began to recover in the late 1980s, watchmakers who came of age during those troubled years were free to experiment. Such was the milieu in which the French-born watchmaker Vianney Halter found himself in 1996, when he devoted his free time to building “a watch for myself, not for people around me,” he said.

A science fiction aficionado enthralled with the work of the French comic book author Enki Bilal, Mr. Halter designed the retro-futuristic Antiqua, a Jules Verne-like wristwatch in the steampunk tradition, to correspond to his vision of what the characters in Mr. Bilal’s “Memories of Outer Space” might have worn on their wrists. Urged by his fellow watchmakers to showcase the radical-looking timepiece, Mr. Halter exhibited his creation at the 1998 watch fair in Basel, Switzerland.

“On the first day, a lot of people came to see the crazy watch,” Mr. Halter recalled. “My feeling at the end of the day was not very good. It was like I made a show for people who wanted to laugh. But on the second day, it was completely different.”

Mr. Halter’s groundbreaking watch caught the eye of many passers-by, among them the young Mr. Büsser, who was about to embark on a seven-year stint as managing director of Harry Winston Rare Timepieces. In 2003, the up-and-coming watch marketer persuaded Mr. Halter to collaborate on the Opus 3, the third edition of Winston’s well-regarded Opus series, which saw the brand partner with independent watchmakers to market exotic timepieces.

Also in 2003, the celebrated watchmaker Franck Muller, dubbed the “Master of Complications” for his expertise in making tourbillons, introduced his iconic Crazy Hours model, whose approach to time display was irreverent yet artful. The numerals indicating the hours appear around the dial in an unpredictable order; for example, the number 8 appears at the traditional 12 o’clock position. When the hour advances, the hour hand jumps to the correct numeral, which may or may not be found in its usual location.

“You mustn’t be too tired or too drunk when you’re trying to read the time,” said Nicholas Rudaz, director of Franck Muller.

Mr. Rudaz said Mr. Muller had the idea for the model at a New Years’ Eve dinner party in the Caribbean. “Everyone was in fancy dress and behaving very well and he wanted to be a bit crazy,” Mr. Rudaz said. “So he got everyone to jump in the pool.”

The Crazy Hours timepiece was Mr. Muller’s idiosyncratic way of urging his clients and admirers to break from convention. Over the past decade, the watchmaking iconoclasts at the Swiss brands Urwerk and De Bethune have mirrored his antiestablishment ethos. Both companies have distinguished themselves in a crowded marketplace by embracing far-out case shapes and espousing philosophical ideas about the nature of time. (The name Urwerk is meant to evoke the ancient Sumerian city of Ur, where timekeeping began.)

Which is not to suggest that only watchmakers who specialize in experimental styling are art-world contenders. Mr. Reardon makes a comparison between contemporary art and the work of the Old Masters. “If you ask me about a basic Patek Philippe Calatrava Ref. 5119, a simple round watch with a hobnail bezel and simple white dial — this is to me the height of horological art in its simplicity and design,” he said.

Watchmakers who excel in the decorative arts also make a compelling case for considering their work as art. Take Van Cleef & Arpels, the Paris-based jeweler and watchmaker known in horological circles for its “poetic complications,” timepieces featuring mechanical movements designed to reflect a narrative conveyed on the dial.

“These pieces are explained, promoted and shown for their artistic dimension,” Nicolas Bos, chief executive of Van Cleef & Arpels, said. “The stories they tell and the way collectors react to them has nothing to do with telling the time.”

Likewise, Stephen Forsey and Robert Greubel, the watchmakers behind the prestige Swiss brand Greubel Forsey, placed time display low on their list of priorities in their latest wristwatch, Art Piece Hommage Robert Filliou, a tribute to the French Fluxus artist.

“It’s the mechanism, the art, the finishing, the skills and craftsmanship, which are the vital elements we want to focus on,” Mr. Forsey said. “Timekeeping is not necessarily the most important thing.”

Further blurring the boundaries, Mr. Forsey and Mr. Greubel enlisted the British artist Willard Wigan to contribute his trademark nano-sculptures to the timepiece. Visible through a microscope on the caseband, Mr. Wigan’s teeny-tiny stylistic representation of Mr. Filliou’s works flying out of a hat is lodged inside the movement.

Collaborations between watchmakers and artists are, of course, nothing new. Thirty years ago, Swatch began inviting artists to treat its dials like canvases for the wrist. In 2012, the watchmaker Ikepod worked with the graffiti artist Brian Donnelly, a.k.a. KAWS, to design a limited edition of its iconic Horizon timepiece. Recently, Schmutz Watches began allowing customers to commission custom dials from its stable of painters.

Whether or not fine art galleries and discerning museum curators will deign to show timepieces alongside their sculptures and paintings in the future remains to be seen. But either way, watchmakers are not likely to stop using the “A” word to describe their work.

“Art is a good meeting point,” said Mr. Davies, the art historian. “You can see why people like Audemars Piguet use art as a soft marketing tool. It’s not threatening or pushy; it’s a meeting ground, and once you have a meeting ground, it’s easier to sell.”

Unless, that is, you’re marketing to artists, who, it must be said, are notoriously tough sells. Take Mr. Jansen. Despite wearing an Audemars Piguet timepiece in the video, he described himself as “too chaotic for watches.”

His feelings about wristwatches mirror his feelings about art: “I like art, I like to look at art, but I don’t have to own it.”