An artistic blend

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 November, 2008, 12:00am

Consumer demand has led to the creation of 'moving sculptures' that combine science and creativity to develop sophisticated mechanisms

An appetite for extraordinary timepieces, art and sculpture by consumers - and the precision of micro-engineering - are rapidly converging to create some of the most spectacular contemporary watches. It is prompting watchmakers to push the envelope in artistic design and the development of more complicated movements.

'People not only look for a timekeeper today, but also for a luxury product. They want to wear art on their wrists,' according to Swiss watch brand Corum. 'The shape, the design, the materials, the dial's layout and the movement all create a moving sculpture.'

Watch industry sources agree that watchmaking is as much a science as it is an art. Unable to separate the technical from the artistic, successful brands blend both, developing sophisticated mechanisms that are aesthetically beautiful inside and out.

'In watchmaking, both the art and science elements complement each other. In a mechanical watch, the heart is the science and the exquisite craftsmanship, needed to create a stylish and appealing product, is the artistic touch,' said a Harry Winston spokesman.

'Timepieces are certainly appreciated as works of art if you consider the years taken to develop one piece, the exquisite craftsmanship, the research of new materials and the innovative complications that contribute to creating a unique masterpiece,' added the spokesman, noting that Harry Winston's Opus series, launched in 2001, continued to push the boundaries of haute horology by developing rare timepieces.

Some, in fact, would go so far as elevating watchmaking above other art forms on account of the work's durability and timelessness. 'The artistic value of timepieces is much higher than a painting because it implies not only a timeless design, but watch know-how, state-of-the-art technology, innovation and traditional craftsmanship,' said Roland Buser, Chopard's managing director (Hong Kong).

Creativity in terms of innovation and timeless design, quality materials, practicality and functionality, and originality all contributed to the characteristics through which the artistic value of a watch would be judged, Mr Buser said.

With the development of cutting-edge technologies and access to greater resources, watchmakers have been able to be more dynamic in their creations in recent years, testing new movements and experimenting with state-of-the-art materials, such as palladium and ceramic, that has resulted in even more innovative and artistic projects.

For example, Vacheron Constantin's Les Masques series in its Metiers d'Art collection is testament to one of the most labour intensive and artistically intricate projects ever pioneered.

Inspired by the Barbier-Mueller Museum collection of primitive art masks in Geneva, the watchmaker replicated every detail of a specific mask on the watch dial - a considerable feat given that the life size mask had to be shrunk down to a 2cm watch dial but without compromising its authenticity and originality, said Yann Bouillonnec, managing director of Vacheron Constantin, Asia-Pacific.

Challenges included sourcing suitable materials, finding engravers skilled enough to labour over the delicate reliefs, embossments and hollows, and chisel away to reproduce the effects of each mask from a different continent.

'The demand for artistic timepieces has been strong. In particular, Asians like open work and skeleton pieces,' Mr Bouillonnec said. Works involving intricate handicraft, such as painted dials and enamel work, are also popular.

Though Sarcar is renowned for its diamond jewellery watches, earlier this year it forayed into oil painting watches to meet the emerging market demand.

Oil paintings featuring the Great Wall of China and a botanical series showcasing various flowers on the dial had been well received, said Steve Lau Tsz-chung, regional brand manager at Supreme Elite, Sarcar's distributor in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.

'These watches have been very popular in the Greater China market as people want something unique they can wear on special occasions; a watch that will set them apart from others,' Mr Lau said.

Oil painting timepieces had only emerged in the past two years, he said, and had already filled a market niche to create an additional choice for consumers.

Rolf Schnyder, president of Ulysse Nardin, said the value of a watch laid mostly in its movement. 'No one would pay extra because there is gold in a watch,' he said. 'People typically buy watches based on its movement or enamel work.'

A case in point is Ulysse Nardin's Genghis Khan watch which features 497 movement pieces, requiring a team of more than 12 craftsmen, and takes about a year to produce.

Named after the legendary Mongolian warrior and conqueror, the dial of the watch displays exquisite details showing four figures fighting with curved swords, using a spear to catch a ring and horse riders.

'If you make an exceptional watch, people will appreciate it. The hardest part is coming up with the concept in the first place,' Mr Schnyder said.