October 2021 9 Min Read

Can We Compare Art and Watches?

By Russell Sheldrake

The similarities between art and watches have been discussed for years now. Some have been keen to point out that the same elements of aesthetics, craft, emotion, and individual vision are at play. Others, meanwhile, have argued that patterns can be identified in the ways the different markets behave, with art being an interesting case study for how collectable watches might someday evolve. However, are the worlds of art and watches truly comparable? Can we find meaningful parallels, which run deeper than the hyperbole sometimes employed to describe watchmaking? Or are the differences too vast for these two areas to be mentioned in the same sentence?

Here, we break down art and watches into their constituent parts – the objects themselves, their makers and, finally, the markets. Speaking with those who have experience in both areas, we explore whether this slightly overused comparison has any truth to it.

The Objects

Many romantic watch writers have waxed lyrical about the artistic qualities of certain timepieces. Whether it is the delicate balance of a dial design or the thoughtfulness with which a movement has been finished, there is plenty to discuss when it comes to the aesthetic merit of certain watches.

The Haldimann H9’s inscrutable display, courtesy of Haldimann.

If we look at the objects in their entirety and boil them down to their most basic of functions, they are arguably very different. “Watches have a functional component,” says veteran art advisor Todd Levin, who collects independent watches from the likes of Philippe Dufour and George Daniels. “People will often think of art in very abstract ways because it’s not utilitarian. Whereas watches, no matter how abstracted they are – even if you take the something like the Haldimann H9, with no display at all, where all you can hear is the tourbillon going round – still have a functional component to them, which is their raison d’être. No matter how abstract the design may be, they are still literal.”

This view on the functional difference is also shared by artist – and self-confessed watch obsessive – Wes Lang. “A lot of watch consumption is based on someone needing to tell the time,” he says. While some argue that the usefulness of watches has largely subsided, and that they are increasingly being appreciated for other reasons, they do remain tied to their core function for many people. Meanwhile, no one is consuming art out of a need. While Levin seems to argue that a watch can never rid itself of its functional origins, however hard it tries, Lang reminds us that many watches are still made and purchased for their timekeeping purpose.

Watches as functional objects: Omega Speedmasters accompanying astronauts on one of the earliest journeys to the moon, courtesy of the Omega Museum.

Of course, it is hard to ignore the level of artistry that can go into certain watches, especially those made by hand in small quantities. These often require a high level of skill and more than a small amount of imagination, if the design is original. This can be just as much an art form as anything else, which speaks to the high emotional value that we place on these objects today. It’s worth noting that this debate would likely not have taken place in the 1950s, when watches were largely seen as a practical necessity, and functionality mattered almost above all else.

The Makers

To compare those who make watches and those who make art is tricky. They are both such wide and varied groups that it can be hard to pin down solid definitions for both, not to mention the massive list of different disciplines that fall under each category. Very few – practically no one – can master all of them. There are traditional techniques that appear in both fields, such as sculpture and painting for art, or hand-finishing and complex movement construction in watchmaking, while a host of new skills have also become possible thanks to modern technology. Take, for example, NFTs (non-fungible tokens) in art or the use of computer design and CNC machines in watches.

The sculptor, Henry Moore, at work, courtesy of the Tate.

However, it is still possible to take a cross section and see if any similarities can be found. Levin has dealt with plenty of artists in his time. Growing up, his mother was an art collector who first introduced him to a host of the world’s top artists. He not only collected, but also personally knew, many significant artists from the 20th century, such as Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. He has also, through his watch collecting, been in touch with many of the most skilled watchmakers. While many might assume that they would talk about their work very differently – given the result is often very different – Levin would disagree. “Both will be very technical when they talk about technique. However, when it comes to design, composition, and form, they both become very conceptual.”

Andy Warhol working in his studio The Factory in New York in 1965, courtesy of David McCabe at Proud Galleries, London.

There are also some remarkable parallels in the way each learns their trade. While there are schools that one can go through to learn the prerequisite skills for each, there is still a tradition in both worlds of younger, more inexperienced craftspeople being taken under the wing of an older master. This system of apprenticing goes back generations in both professions, and is one that has seen a sharp decline, especially in watchmaking, as commoditisation of the industry has led to the need for a more formalised education structure.

There are also very similar strata to each profession. Students and apprentices, while learning, will often gain experience by making pieces for more established names. This ranges from Roger W. Smith helping George Daniels assemble his final pieces to Philippe Dufour creating commissions for Audemars Piguet. Similarly, in the art world, a big-name artist might have a whole team of assistants to help them create their vision. This allows them to be more commercially viable, while also increasing their output.

Close-up with the Philippe Dufour Simplicity, a blend of artistry and timekeeping.

While larger, more established brands will also employ an army of watchmakers, often in an assembly line, to construct their watches, they still require a few talented technicians to oversee the operation. There are also those who are highly skilled yet not quite able to branch out on their own, or sit at the top of the structure they’re in. These craftspeople help to assemble some of the more complex creations in both fields, whether it is a complications specialist at Patek Philippe or an artist who is capable of casting extremely detailed sculptures, yet still does so for others’ designs.

Then, at the very top of each profession, you have the masters who work under their own name and are celebrated for their fine craftsmanship. However, even in these, you have some delineation, whether they are like Philippe Dufour and Wes Lang, who produce all of their work in near solitude, or Andy Warhol and F.P. Journe, who build up a workshop of talent around them to make their vision into reality. No one would argue Journe is any more or less of a watchmaker than Dufour, just as no one would argue between Warhol and Lang, but the way each approaches his craft is unique to him, and his specific set of skills and sensibilities.

F. P. Journe (left) and Rexhep Rexhepi (right), masters of watchmaking.

The Markets

This is where things start to get even trickier. The markets, both primary and secondary, for these two sectors are in a constant state of flux and susceptible to exterior forces. “Collecting is economically driven,” Levin argues. “It’s a market dynamic and you can’t just talk about art and watches anymore. As soon as you talk about collecting, it implies a market.” Many have tried to compare the two markets, with some claiming that the watch world is simply a younger version of art, especially when it comes to auctions. “A big difference is that all artwork is a one-off, whereas that is rarely ever the case in watches,” points out Levin. With many now considering both an “asset class”, people can be forgiven for making such a connection. There are certainly financial considerations in every collection of watches and art, but it certainly isn’t the only priority for all who study and purchase them.

The Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci, a painting that would be immediately recognisable to most, courtesy of the New York Post.

Levin points us to Fashion, an essay written by Georg Simmel, in which Simmel dissects the psychology behind collecting and fashions in an incredibly insightful way, especially considering it was written in 1895 and published nine years later. Simmel concluded that there were two basic reasons why people collect things. Firstly, it was to be part of a group, to signal to the world that they belong to a certain class, social set, or cultural clan. The other reason was to set themselves apart from everyone else; to show that they are unique and singular in their thoughts and outlook. Simmel talks about the fine balance that we all find between these two, as we surround ourselves with the various objects that we amass. While Simmel was only talking about fashion, his theories can be extended to the worlds of watch, art, or any other type of collecting. This is one of the very few similarities between collecting art and watches that Levin points to.

The mentalities behind these two collecting fields vary wildly – particularly the idea of where these items are meant to be displayed. “To get an idea of someone’s taste in art, you have to enter their domicile,” Levin points out. This implied privacy can lead to very different collecting habits when compared to the innate public and outwardly facing nature of a wristwatch. While many watches are kept inside a box or safe, their primary purpose is still to be worn. By choosing a watch and putting it on your wrist, you are saying something about yourself and signalling this to those around you.

The Rolex Daytona Rainbow – what signals are being sent by the wearer of this watch? Courtesy of Hodinkee.

The act of buying both art and watches can be done in extremely private ways. These days, almost any transaction concerning large amounts of wealth can be carried out with surprising amounts of anonymity. You can bid at auction over the phone, or by proxy, and then there is the option of going through a dealer with even the purchase price remaining a secret. At the highest levels, you can also contact the artist or watchmaker directly and commission one-off creations that never see the open market. Given these secluded routes to acquiring pieces in both worlds, it becomes harder to not only properly evaluate a market, but also the motivations behind such purchases.

However, Levin points out that while you can have a showy watch, you can also have a showy piece of art. “Just as some people might buy a Rainbow Daytona and show it off on Instagram, you might get people buying a KAWS piece and doing something similar. The interesting crossover here is that non-watch people will realise that a Rainbow Daytona is an expensive watch, just as non-art people will recognise a KAWS.” Countering this, you have collectors like Lang who buy those small independents, only identifiable by the smallest minority of watch collectors. Equally, in the art world, you have pieces that can hang on a wall and never draw attention to themselves, yet could have been painted by an old master. Curiously, Levin points out that in both collecting spheres, these loud and quiet pieces can, and often do, live in the same collection.

An example of KAWS art decorating a home, courtesy of Home Journal.

One of the great barriers to entering the art market is the knowledge gap. The idea that in order to make an informed purchase, there is a massive amount of knowledge that needs to be obtained first has helped to keep the art market exclusive for many years. “Art is made to feel very exclusionary,” Levin tells us. This is why people like him exist – art advisors who are not only well-connected, but also knowledgeable about the current market, the history of the pieces and what constitutes a smart purchase for their clients’ collection. For many, they act as gatekeepers to the art world, able to bridge the knowledge gap, whether real or perceived. However, art advisors never hold any stock and they are never trying to sell anything. They provide a service, and that’s it. This is what separates them from dealers, auctioneers, and gallerists.

This knowledge gap also exists in the watch world, which has contributed to keeping it closed off for such a long time. From assessing the originality of vintage pieces to discerning interesting independent watchmakers within the crowd, there is a similar perception that knowledge and experience is vital. Therefore, Levin wonders why people like him – who have great connections, but never hold stock – don’t exist. At times, it can feel like most of those trying to give advice in the watch world are also trying to push a product. For Levin, this is a major difference between the two markets, and it may be due to the commercialisation and commoditisation of watches. There are so many pieces floating around on the secondary market and being produced every day that it can be so much harder for someone to operate successfully in this space without making the most of this and selling something more than their service. It could also just be a sign of how much further the watch market has yet to grow if it is to truly align itself with art.

Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory, courtesy of The Dali Archives.

Parting Thoughts

The thought of comparing art to watches, and vice versa, is one that will likely continue for years to come. Yet the comparisons start to fall a little flat once you dig deeper. The commercialisation of each is clear, but watches are now produced on a far larger scale than art. After all, many would argue that art, by definition, must be unique, otherwise it is simply a print or something you might find in a gift shop.

Certainly, the makers of both have their parallels. The technical skills required in both fields often take many years to truly master and the paths they take to reach the top of their professions bear a striking resemblance. However, some, like Levin, will be quick to say that comparing these two worlds is almost impossible – and he might be right. Yet, one thing we can say for certain is that there is always plenty more to learn, no matter which subject you’re more passionate about.

We would like to thank Todd Levin and Wes Lang for providing their insight across both art and watches, helping to inform this article.