The Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie (FHH) is a non-profit organization that was founded in 2005 by Audemars Piguet, Girard-Perregaux, and the Richemont Group as “a point of reference and neutrality for all subjects relating to watchmaking.”  Its mission is to spread the “influence of watchmaking” and its culture throughout the world, and, in fact, considers the watch as an object of art and culture.  But is it really?

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According to the former president of the FHH Cultural Council, Franco Cologni, “The watchmaker’s art is not Art, but art applied to watchmaking.  This is something quite different,” declared Cologni.  “The Artist has full creative freedom, whereas the designer is free within certain limits, for he is obliged to respect the rules of the product, the rules of the brand.  His art is linked to the primary function of the product hence he cannot stray from this function or ignore it.  Nor does he sign his work as an artist would.  He is one of several; his work does not belong to him.  If watchmaking is an art, then one could call it a minor art.”

But what is art, really?  Is it poetry, painting and sculpture?  Is it music?  Is it architecture?  Is photography considered art? What about cinema and comic strips?  Like watchmaking, cinema and architecture are surely collective arts and depend to a large extent on their producers and clients, while music usually doesn’t stray far from the artist’s chosen musical genre, once again confining it.  

So again, what exactly is art?  Perhaps it will be easier to define it by something that it is not: useful.  That’s right, utility is the most compelling argument of what art is not.  The second an object is useful or has a function automatically cancels out any aspirations it may have of being a “true” work of “art.”  Indeed, a purposely designed and crafted object serves a predetermined function, which in the case of watchmaking, or more specifically watches, is to tell the time.  

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According to filmmaker, and Europa Star Editor-in-chief, Pierre Maillard, the real power of art is purely symbolic, completely reflective, and totally aesthetic.  It is in itself elusive.  “Conditioned by its function,” said Maillard, “watchmaking looks to art with envy, and continually seeks ways to appropriate some of the nobility we associate with it.”  

So can watchmaking be considered art?  One thing’s for sure, throughout its history watchmaking has collaborated with artists and has directly or indirectly found inspiration in their work.  Look no further than the Richard Mille TM 68-01 Tourbillon Cyril Kongo for example, the movement parts of which were hand-painted by the French street artist in his vibrant and abstract style; or the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Tribute Enamel Hokusai ‘Amida Falls’, which pays tribute to the famous Japanese artist with a hand-painted enamel dial depicting the ‘Amida Falls’ from Hokusai’s famous ’36 Views of Mount Fuji’ series.  Then there’s the Vacheron Constantin Métiers d’Arts series, the timepieces of which feature intricate dials inspired by actual works of art from the Louvre museum, no better example of how art is applied to watchmaking if there ever was one.

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In a reversal of inspiration, watchmaking inspired art with a trio of watch “artists” recently attempting to give the staid, “traditional” craft a viral twist thereby bringing horology into the all-too-now “meme era.”  Indeed, Gabriel Lau, Julie Kraulis and Teun Van Heerebeek sought to rewrite (or redraw) the definition of watch appreciation by cleverly transforming watches into veritable pop art, the results of which were as varied as they were painstakingly playful.

Introduced to luxury watches while still in university, Gabriel Lau fell in love with the design of high-end watches for how it made him “feel.”  Alas, he couldn’t afford to buy them, so he decided to express his passion in a way that was “not normal.”  Not interested in merely taking a wristshot and posting it on social media, Lau instead combined his passion for watches with his passion for art. “I wanted to tap into creativity that was innocent and rough,” said Lau, “And show respect to the watches I loved by drawing every single, small detail to show my passion in an artistic form.”  

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That’s right, Lau is famous for his recreations of luxury watches made from paper, cardboard and cling wrap.  Sharing his work on Instagram under @labeg, Lau is even being supported by notable watch collectors.  “People ask me to create watches that are sentimental to them,” said Lau, and explains that his work brings joy to people who cannot get their hands on the watches they love, either because they are no longer available or are simply unaffordable.

Canada-based visual artist Julie Kraulis, on the other hand, fell into watches quite unexpectedly in 2015 after coming across an article about iconic timepieces, and uses graphite to sketch larger-than-life, poster-sized portraits of iconic watches such as Paul Newman’s exotic Rolex Daytona 6239.  “I rendered the entire piece with a motion blur, and it is one of the trickiest things I’ve ever drawn,” says Kraulis, and required an incredible amount of both “focus and lack of focus”.  “Drawing is a process of learning how to see,” continued Kraulis.  “And you never arrive, you just continue to improve.”


Then there are the watch cartoons of Teun Van Heerebeek, which were initially presented to the world via Europe-based watch magazine Fratello.  “I thought the world of watches needed a more delightful or funny way of interacting with and talking about it.”   He believes his illustrations encourage “radical thinking which is out-of-the-box”, and urges watch fans to explore their interest beyond reading watch blogs.

“Watches should put a smile on your face from time to time, instead of [being thought of as] as mere economic investments,” says Van Heerebeek.  “Every watch has a unique face, but they all do the same—they tell time.  One is more accurate than the other—but time is also something we cannot grasp. We cannot stop it.  From an artistic point of view, that is very interesting.”

As for Lau, he wants people to see that his art encapsulates something expensive.  “It’s interesting because there can be value in something (that costs very little); it’s just the way you look at it and how it’s interpreted.” 

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Similarly, Kraulis hopes that her artwork gives a new perspective on these objects of time that we love.  “One of the key features of the [art] from the start was scale.  When you play with size and the context of an object, you see things differently with fresh eyes.” She also believes there is a profound connection between art and time.  “Watches symbolize so much—beauty through craftsmanship and engineering; objects documenting the most precious resource of time.”

So maybe watchmaking is art after all.