The Debate: Can A Watch Ever Be Art?
Illustration by Ms Ana Yael
“It’s like a work of art on your wrist.” If we had £1 every time we’d heard this line, or similar, well, we would probably at least be able to buy a Timex. Watch collectors love to rhapsodise about their passion (see also any reference to meticulously researched vintage watch trivia as scholarship) and that’s fine. We’re all here because we like watches a bit too much, but it got us thinking. We talk about watches like art. The most desirable ones certainly sell like art and, if we’re honest, the look of a watch is the biggest factor behind 90 per cent of our purchases. So, maybe it’s not just hyperbole. Maybe a watch can be art. We asked NET‑A‑PORTER’s Fine Jewellery and Watches Editor, Ms Charlie Boyd, and our very own Watches Editor, Mr Chris Hall, to settle it once and for all.
Ms Charlie Boyd
Art, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. When Banksy first lifted spray can to wall, when Ms Tracey Emin first littered squalid sheets or when Mr Damien Hirst first dabbled with formaldehyde, these renegade creatives began forging their own definition of art. They do not embody the same skill set as classical fine artists, but the way in which their works are admired, collected, critiqued and sold is no different. The same is also true for watches.
The watch itself is an artistic canvas, its dial adorned with countless examples of age-old artistic techniques – painting, enamelling, engraving – applied by expert artisans who trained for decades as apprentices under great masters. These craftsmen battle an artist’s battle, finessing their skill to tortuous detail day after day. Yet to define a watch as art in and of itself requires somewhat deeper analysis.
“Fine art is that in which the hand, the head and the heart of man go together,” said the Victorian art critic Mr John Ruskin. When admiring the complex ingenuity of a skeleton movement, where it is possible to see the very beating heart of a timepiece and, by extension, the hive mind and collective passion that were poured into it, hand, head and heart are most certainly fused.
Mr Vincent Van Gogh argued that “art is to console those who are broken by life”. Since the pandemic, sales of quick-fix fashion buys, such as designer shoes or bags, have stagnated, but hard luxury has flourished. Shoppers have been investing in fine watches for their longevity and intrinsic value, but also because they want to buy something handsome. They want a pick-me-up purchase to lighten the mood of the last year’s global malaise. A gleaming new watch can make us walk a little taller or encourage us to dress a little smarter, and don’t we all feel a little less broken for that?
“Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life”
Mr Pablo Picasso asserted that “art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life”. If you’ve ever been to a watch auction, you will know that nothing sweeps off the dust quite like the thrill of the sale room when in pursuit of an elusive treasure. Echoing the art world’s success, watch auctions are now booming. In 2020, Sotheby’s global watch market made almost eight times more sales than in 2019 and 2021 has already proved itself as the year that timepieces will sell for record-breaking sums. The recent Geneva Watch Auction: XIII pocketed an astronomical $42,290,938, the highest ever result for a non-thematic or charity watch sale. Coincidentally, Picasso’s Michael Z Berger wristwatch went up for sale last month at the Bonhams Paris Luxury watch sale and fetched a princely sum, perhaps due to its double dose of artistic credentials.
Much like the art world, fine-watch devotees comprise amateur enthusiasts and connoisseur collectors alike, but both groups crave novelty and rarity. New models unveiled at trade fairs are received by an impassioned community of critics in a fashion hardly different from that of the works of the Old Masters, albeit with a few more Instagram posts. Collectors are also increasingly seeking out private commissions for one-off models, emulating wealthy patrons of the arts during the Renaissance period. Some even seek out every triumph of their preferred maison and amass a mono-brand collection that can be put on display in a dressing room, rather like their own private gallery.
Perhaps, though, in our desire to quantify or qualify the artistic merits of watches, we are missing the point of great art and design. “Don’t think about making art, just get it done,” said Mr Andy Warhol. “Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.” Art or not, I’m just going to enjoy the beauty.
Mr Chris Hall
I’ve been lucky enough to handle some of the most exquisitely produced watches ever made, from major luxury brands, including Vacheron Constantin, Hermès and Piaget, as well as true artisans of watchmaking, such as Messrs Kari Voutilainen and Andersen Genève. Make no mistake, these are spellbinding creations, which often employ multiple disciplines and the most incredible microscopic skill. There’s no doubt a watch can be a platform for art – just look at Jaeger-LeCoultre’s latest series of Reversos, where famous works are replicated on the case back – but is the watch as a whole a work of art? I don’t think so.
When a watch is sensationally decorated, artistic skill can be deployed, but this is purely decoration. It is embellishment of an object that has a role to play beyond the art itself. I’d argue that the finest watches, with their hand-polished movements and dials are home to world-class displays of craft, and when we love the look and feel of a mass-produced watch, such as an IWC Mk XVIII or a Zenith El Primero, that’s the result of good design perfectly executed. It may bring you as much pleasure – or more – as a Mr Jeff Koons sculpture or a Caravaggio painting, a Mr Jimi Hendrix solo or a Mr Giachino Rossini opera – but that doesn’t make it art. It’s true that product design and craft, along with architecture, interior design and even photography, are sometimes described as applied arts, but when we ask, “Is it art?”, there’s a stricter definition in place.
“An unworn watch is like a car that’s never driven”
The Dadaists said anything could be art if an artist said it was and Warhol said art was whatever you could get away with. Aestheticists in the 19th century promoted the idea of art for art’s sake and rejected any moral, utilitarian or socio-political purpose in favour of beauty alone. Definitions of art are many, but one basic tenet runs through them all: it has to have been deliberately created as art and not as anything else. A work of art can provoke thought and emotion, but the moment it starts carrying out another functional purpose, it’s not art. It’s a tool, a commodity, a contrivance – in this instance, a device created to tell the time.
You might point out that functional items have been incorporated into artworks (light switches and tents and fully stocked pharmacies and basketballs), but once designated art, they cease to perform their original function. If Hirst’s Pharmacy started employing trained pharmacists and dispensing prescriptions, it wouldn’t be art any more. Mr Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain may be a perfectly ordinary urinal, but you try peeing in it and see where that gets you.
Many watch collectors treat their watches like art. They protect them from the elements and display them in cases or store them in bank vaults, but treating something like art does not make it so. Even if a watch never ticks, if its hands never move and it fails to tell the time, it is still a watch. Put on a plinth or languishing in a safe, an unworn watch is like a car that’s never driven or wine that’s never drunk. It’s not art; it’s a shame.