Watchmakers embrace the art world

Tattoo and graffiti artists add their flair to watches

French graffiti artist Cyril Phan – better known as Kongo – is used to facing obstacles in his work, such as staying dry while painting on the side of a building in the rain. But a recent project posed a less predictable obstacle, as he decorated the delicate parts of an $800,000 stainless-steel tourbillon watch for the Swiss watch brand Richard Mille

“It was a fantastic technical challenge, because we sometimes work with elements that are a tenth or a hundredth of a millimetre,” said Mille, the brand’s founder. “Our objective was to produce the precision of painting in a very, very small scale.” The company first spent six months creating a special airbrush that would control the distribution of minute amounts of brightly hued paint.

The project might seem unlikely, considering the sensibility of street art: edgy, youthful and more immediately suggestive of trendy bohemian surroundings than heritage Swiss craftsmanship. But other brands are working with artists whose usual medium is graffiti or even tattoos in an effort to expand their reach to a younger generation with sensibilities very different from those of its elders.

The Big Bang Sang Bleu watch by Hublot reached stores last November, designed in collaboration with Maxime Buchi, a London tattoo artist whose clients have included Kanye West. At slightly less than $19,000, the timepiece is available in a limited edition of 200. To help promote its release, Buchi set up a temporary tattoo studio in Miami, timed to coincide with Art Basel Miami Beach.

And earlier last year, Romain Jerome introduced a timepiece with hands designed to resemble tattoo needles and straps featuring a flourish design by French tattoo artist Xoil, for $24,500.

“The watch world has a lot of similarities with the tattoo world.There’s something about the really small space in which you work that’s the same when you’re tattooing”

The trend is resonating at lower prices and in other ways. Shinola, whose watches are $475 to $1,500, recently opened a boutique in downtown Los Angeles where customers can also get tattoos. It will be overseen by Scott Campbell, a tattoo artist whose work adorns the skin of high-profile figures including the designer Marc Jacobs. The British brand Mr Jones Watches is introducing two styles with a design inspired by 1980s-era graffiti, each priced at about $1,250. And the designer Philipp Plein’s recent collaboration with Filfury – the British artist Phil Robson, who is known for creating artwork using images of sneakers – included a chunky chronograph priced at a little more than $700.

These partnerships target, at least in part, the coveted market of millennials, many of whom might be more inclined to buy a smart-watch or simply check the time on the phone.

“Part of the future is the people that are 15, 20, 25 or 30 years old today,” said Jean-Claude Biver, president of the watch division at LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, which includes Hublot. “We found that next to a certain way of wearing clothes or a certain way of listening to music, they are interested in the tattoos. Therefore, I said, ‘If the tattoo is, or is becoming, an art of the 21st century, we cannot just let this go.’

“If we partner with an art of the 21st century,” he continued, “that’s a way for us to be connected to the 21st century.”

Collaborations with cool artists are also a way for some brands to differentiate themselves in a crowded marketplace.

“Since we are a newcomer and a new player in the industry, for us it was essential to give a different and more innovative and contemporary message to our watches,” said Manuel Emch, chief executive of RJ Watches, which produces Romain Jerome. “We noticed that most of our customers are in their late 20s, 30s and early 40s – so a rather younger customer base – and we also noticed that most of them share the same cultural references, if it comes to contemporary art or video games, for instance. Tattoo is one of these specific expressions of art of this generation.”

In the case of graffiti art, rising prices of work by artists like Banksy have led to an increasingly affluent clientele, many of whom also buy expensive timepieces.

“High-net-worth people are the people that are buying street art; they buy vintage cars, and they buy very high-level luxury watches,” said Sebastien Laboureau, an art adviser who specialises in graffiti. “When you’re a watch company and you want to open up new marketing means, it makes sense to target what is very relevant in the art world today, which is street art and urban art.”

Some critics have called such collaborations a bit forced, but the artists involved don’t feel that way.

“The watch world has a lot of similarities with the tattoo world when you’re a tattoo artist,” Buchi said in a recent interview at his studio in the London neighbourhood of Dalston, with tattoo needles whirring loudly on clients’ skin in the background. “There’s something about the really small space in which you work that’s the same when you’re tattooing.”

In July, Buchi established an Instagram account, labelled watchesandtattoos, to showcase images of high-end watches on heavily inked wrists. Recent posts have included a chunky Audemars Piguet timepiece over a hand covered by a lion’s head image and a stainless steel Rolex Explorer juxtaposed with an ornate tattoo of a large black skull.

“I can’t say that we have customers coming in saying, ‘I have seen this artist and therefore I’m interested in the brand.’ It hasn’t translated to that, but at the same time, it opens up the brand”

The official collaborations between brands and unconventional artists aren’t the only kind of experimentation going on. Unauthorised, street-smart tweaks of luxury timepieces also are popping up.

Bamford Watch Department, a customising company based in London whose work is sold at tastemaker stores like Dover Street Market and Colette, has been adding new faces and matte-black bands to new Rolex watches; it also has collaborated with street-savvy artists like José Parlá of Brooklyn and Wes Lang, the Los Angeles artist whose Deepsea Rolex with an image of the grim reaper retails for £19,000. And in late 2015, a stainless-steel Rolex Submariner with the logo of the skateboard and clothing company Supreme sold for $50,000 at Stadium Goods, a consignment store in Manhattan that specialises in collectible sneakers, according to John McPheters, the store’s co-founder.

For watch collectors, the long-term investment value of such timepieces isn’t as reliable as that of a more traditional design. “The question is how impactful is tattoo and graffiti culture going to be several generations from now,” said Ariel Adams, founder of the watch website aBlogtoWatch. “All these artists, they may have some popularity within niche groups, but in the future they’ll only have popularity within niche groups, and that’s going to prevent the watches from being truly collectible.”

Ruediger Albers, president of the American Wempe Corporation, a luxury watch retailer, had a similar observation. “It gets a lot of attention — that doesn’t mean that it translates into a whole lot of sales, but there is a market out there,” he said. “I can’t say that we have customers coming in saying, ‘I have seen this artist and therefore I’m interested in the brand.’ It hasn’t translated to that, but at the same time, it opens up the brand.”

Most of the watch houses say that in the end, sales volume isn’t the main priority. “I want the young generation to dream about my brand,” Biver of LVMH said.

“If they can buy it or not is not my concern now. It’s my concern later: later they will do their own buying with their own money. They will remember their dream and later they will say, ‘I have dreamt so much about this watch, now I want to buy one.’ That’s my strategy.”