Some of the most important artists of the 20th century were inveterate watch fiends. Picasso had a collection that any Hodinkee reader would drool over—it included, among others, a Rolex GMT-Master, a Jaeger-LeCoultre Triple Date Moonphase, and, for good measure, a Patek Philippe Triple Date Moonphase. Warhol was even more obsessed: He amassed a collection of 313 watches, including Rolexes, Patek Philippes, Piagets, and the various Cartiers he was known to wear (but not wind). Even today, Hockney is rarely pictured without one of several slim gold wristwatches poking out from under his cardigan sleeves.
And yet, for many years, aside from artists dabbling as connoisseurs, the worlds of fine art and mechanical timepieces rarely crossed orbits. But that’s changing rapidly as a new cultural and aesthetic convergence gains momentum. Jaeger-LeCoultre, for example, paid tribute a few years ago to none other than Vincent van Gogh, adorning the dials of special-issue Reversos with painstakingly rendered enamel reproductions of the Dutch Postimpressionist’s works. (The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam even sold some in its gift shop.) Luminaries like Seurat, Xu Beihong, and Ferdinand Hodler were similarly celebrated on Reversos.
Now, some watchmakers are collaborating directly with artists—a move that seemed downright revolutionary back in 1986, when Keith Haring worked with Swatch to create four custom pieces for his Pop Shop. Today, we’re not just talking about $100 Swatches but rather six-figure creations that rise to the level of contemporary art themselves. Hublot has worked with Takashi Murakami, Richard Orlinski, and Shepard Fairey, among others, on limited-edition reinterpretations of the brand’s iconic timepieces. Murakami’s latest creation features a transparent sapphire-crystal case and a rotating smiling-flower-motif dial executed with 384 colored gemstones, at a cost of $106,000—a bargain, in a way, considering what the artist’s works have fetched at auction over the years.
Luckily, you don’t need that kind of money to afford a piece of wearable art. Swatch now collaborates with MoMA, making affordable quartz-powered timepieces emblazoned with works from the likes of Klimt and Mondrian. Haring’s original Swatch models are sadly out of production, but vintage examples on eBay can go for anywhere from several hundred to a few thousand dollars each.
Art lovers and watch lovers are, of course, kindred spirits. The mediums might be different, but, as the noted international art collector and adviser Fabien Fryns explains it, both instill a unique admiration for the creator. “You can see the hand of the craftsman in a watch, just as you can see the hand of the artist in a painting,” he told me. “I don’t know of a substantial car collector who also has a great art collection; I’m sure there are some, but I often encounter art lovers who collect watches, and vice versa.”
In the ultimate sign of true convergence, there is a new appetite to display watches as art, bringing them from wrists to the vitrines of major cultural institutions. I speak from experience. I was recently approached to help a leading collector prepare his collection—mainly Patek Philippes—for an exhibition. The show would not be at a hotel or private club, as many watch-world meetups often are, but at the Design Museum in London, where the watches would be displayed as the objets d’art that they are.
While Patek Philippe has staged international exhibitions, this will be the first time a private collection mostly comprising wristwatches by the blue chip maker will be put on show at a museum. I hope it will not be the last. As the collector pointed out, “People have been exhibiting their art collections for years, centuries, so why not watch collections?”
To put it another way: Don’t be surprised if, in a few years’ time, you’ll be asking for directions at The Met to find the Hall of Hyped-Up Horology.
A version of this story originally appeared in the March 2022 issue with the title “Excuse Me, Is That a Murakami on Your Wrist?”