We’re ready for the next art movement in watchmaking

When I lived in Hong Kong, I heard Max Büsser tell the story that when he first started out, watch dealers recommended he try selling the Horological Machine 1 in art galleries, and art galleries recommended he sell through watch dealers. By breaking the mold, Max was stuck in no-man’s-land somewhere between art and watchmaking. 

Of course, the pendulum has swung significantly for MB&F as well as other “avant garde” independent watchmakers over the past ~20 years. What was impossible to grasp and weird (in a bad way) has become popular and weird (in a good way). Rather than struggling to sell one timepiece, many of these brands have sold all their timepieces for the next five years. 

While the rise in popularity tells us that the markets have matured, there’s other writing on the wall: we’re ready for the next art movement in watchmaking.


The development cycle of art movements

I often feel uneasy by how casually the term art is thrown around in the watch industry — across journalism, marketing, and auctions. However, I will categorize the futuristic / avant garde watchmaking of the late 1990s and early 2000s as a distinct art movement. Those involved in this broad aesthetic awakening were Vianney Halter, MB&F, Urwerk, De Bethune. Their rise over the last ~20 years exhibit many of the characteristics of an art movement in other disciplines for example painting or sculpture. This group bears the core characteristics of an art movement in that they break with established convention and they stylistically overlap and collaborate with one another.

In the early days of every art movement, breaking with convention means encountering a lack of comprehension from critics, collectors, and the general public. We hear that experience in Max Büsser’s anecdote above. When we look back at the arrival of other art movements in different disciplines, we can see that with Renoir’s naked women portraits, considered hideous due to the coloring used to capture sun spots on the models’ bodies. The painting that launched Cubism (and the rest of modern art), Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, depicted sex workers in a bordello and was labeled reprehensible both in style and content. The list goes on and on. 

In the case of avant garde watchmaking of the late 1990s and early 2000s, we’ve moved far beyond initial confusion and criticism. Now, this aesthetic is so well established and trendy that we see more and more “homage” timepieces. While some may decry derivative creations, larger production volumes and lower prices will further cement the early pioneers as legends in the art of watchmaking. 


What’s holding back the next art movement in watchmaking?

I am optimistic that the next art movement will arrive in the coming years. That said, there are some strong headwinds that young, talented watchmakers will have to overcome in order to push the tradition forward. From my vantage point, there is one primary challenge and it has to do with the business playbook on social media.

We live in the algorithm era. We all see what performs well on social media. Many young independent watchmakers build their brands, sell their creations, and maintain their relationships to clients, journalists, distributors through social media. It’s flattened everything in both good and bad, productive and unproductive ways. On one hand, it’s great because it broadened awareness of independents and propelled massive growth in the market. The rising tide has lifted all boats in terms of baseline survival – creating and selling watches. 

On the other hand, those that follow this established playbook tend to stay within the aesthetic lines drawn by the algorithm. With a solid-sized following, regular social media posting, and some press coverage, there are many examples where a well-finished, classically-designed timepiece is sold at low and high prices.

To be clear, I view this as a great thing. More and more watchmakers are earning a living as independents. Some watchmakers (I hope) will use initial releases to establish a foundation that they can use to create timepieces that move the needle in the future.  And not everyone is supposed to focus on pushing the watchmaking tradition forward, but some are. Otherwise, the industry stagnates and fine timepieces will become increasingly undifferentiated commodities. 

So what can do we to help usher in the next wave of creative watchmaking? 


What we can do: encourage artists to be artists

Here’s the deal. Most of us, myself included, are not watchmakers. We’re not leading the charge. Our role is that we support those that do. We buy into the vision, often literally with our money, or we cheer from afar with likes and comments. When we do so, we should be asking watchmakers, “are you making the watch that you want to make, or are you making the watch you think the market wants?” 

Real art is something that has to be expressed, from the heart or the mind, regardless of its commercial feasibility. All of the legendary watchmakers and brands today, all those mentioned above as members of the 1990s and early 2000s avant garde, were all commercially unfeasible, bizarre projects at their inception. We need more of the weird, more of the seemingly unfeasible creations. As collectors, the patrons of the industry, we should be supporting more forward-thinking watchmakers and designers.

We need fewer renditions of sports watches and more things that startle us. Encourage that and, if you can, put your money where your mouth is.


Another day with the beast,

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