Watchmaking is increasingly being written with four hands. Brands now openly invite other watchmakers, designers or artists to design watches with them. A symptomatic example, the unique pieces offered for the Only Watch charity sale have never had so many double signatures, nine out of a total of fifty-three. François-Paul Journe thus works hand in hand with Francis Ford Coppola, De Bethune and Kari Voutilainen each create a side of their Kind Of Magic, Trilobe presents a clock designed with Daniel Buren. The tiny watchmaker Svend Andersen, one of the gray eminences of the trade, asks Edward Sexton, tailor of Savile Row, in London, to create for him the motif of a finely engraved dial. In the previous edition of 2019, there were barely three of these cross interventions.
As usual, watchmaking swings from reluctance to runaway. Indeed, watch brands have been slow to accept that the addition of talents does not amount to a subtraction of their prestige, but to a multiplication of success. A mistake that was reversed in the space of five years and is experiencing an unprecedented acceleration. If the “collab” is commonplace for fashion, sneakers and design brands, which leave a place in their creative process, in watchmaking, it goes against mentalities. In this sector structured around subcontracting, the brand still reigns alone and does not reveal the origin of its components or the name of its designer.
A claimed collective
In 2001, however, a manager threw a stone in the pond. Maximilian Büsser, then director of Harry Winston watchmaking in Geneva, created the Opus project. Each year, he invites a well-known partner watchmaker to create and sign watches as he pleases, as long as he uses the fundamental codes of Harry Winston. It also brings a movement of its own design, giving rise to fourteen anthology pieces, out of the ordinary and all of them surprising. The man founded in 2005 MB & F, for Max Büsser and Friends, a brand built on the claimed collective and which proudly presents all the players in each model instead of hiding them. Later, Rado entrusted some of its flagship models to designers for modification, an approach that continues today.
The watchmaking collaboration was therefore born in the margins, where it remained confined for a long time. It was not until the end of the 2010 decade to see stars emerge. One of these pioneers is the Briton George Bamford. Called in 2017 by Zenith to customize existing watches, his specialty, he created such success that it raised the profile of the brand of the LVMH group, then in difficulty. From then on, the collab was emulated. The brands adopt the capsule collections, the featurings, the letter x. In 2017, Richard Mille x Cyril Kongo; Ulysse Nardin x Devialet and TAG Heuer x Fragment in 2019; Jacob & Co x Supreme or Bulgari x Tadao Ando in 2020. Since the start of 2021, everything has accelerated. Louis Erard x Atelier Oi, Zenith x Felipe Pantone are added to a plethora of partnerships that are regaining strength.
Like other sectors, the watch finds its most fertile associations between brands that speak the same language and do so on an equal footing. “ Collab is a balance. We must put aside the egos, with all the difficulties that this represents. But that’s how we get a result up to the task ”, explains Laurent Picciotto, director of the Parisian boutique Chronopassion, specializing in high-level watchmaking.
The typical operation of the collab is often based on the box / dial duality. On the one hand, the inviting brand provides the case and, if applicable, the metal bracelet that accompanies it. On the other, the guest works on the dial. All the subtlety lies in a preserved balance between identities, aesthetic interest and technical relevance. MB & F and H. Moser have pushed logic to its limits: each has created a piece with the ingredients of the other, exchanging movements as a bonus, to give birth to two sister projects and a dazzling success, the nine series of fifteen copies running out in less than a week.
Cobranding or aesthetic dialogue?
This belated recourse to collaboration is surprising on the part of a sector familiar with cobranding. The signing of another brand from another sector was until then a standard way of raising the profile of homes looking for impact, typically thanks to car manufacturers. The latest partnerships between TAG Heuer and Porsche or Girard-Perregaux with Aston Martin are just the last episodes in a long saga. It is about importing codes, details and logo in a construction which is essentially marketing.
“Co-branding is rarely justified. If the brand is up to the task, it doesn’t need it. Unless the affinity is obvious and the result interesting, which is rare ”, considers Laurent Picciotto. Even if we are far from collab in the sense of aesthetic dialogue between creators, the recipe is inexhaustible and often a success.
For its part, Hublot will have waited for its partnership with Richard Orlinski in 2018 to really diversify its type of partnerships, until then limited to sports clubs without any real creative signature. The design of Hublot Classic Fusion Richard Orlinski watches, like those designed with Takashi Murakami, dares to go beyond the brand’s creative framework. “But beware, Orlinski and Murakami are such strong artists that they have become brands. The collaboration is interesting, but it is actually a co-branding ”, tempers Laurent Picciotto. Behind the apparent innovation of the collaboration, business as usual is therefore never far away.
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Watchmaking at the time of four hands