July 2021 11 Min Read

How Collaborations Shaped the Watch World

By Randy Lai

Short of living under a planetoid-sized rock, you may have noticed that in 2021 consumer ‘collaborations’ are everywhere. From the millennial madness of K-Pop themed fast food tie-ins to the now-familiar churn of what feels like the millionth fashion ‘collab’ from Virgil Abloh, today’s society remains demonstrably fascinated with the idea of multiple, distinct personalities – be they brands or individuals – converging to create a singular product.

Of course, despite the collaborative process’s very tangible influence in various strata of pop culture (e.g. music, fashion, food) it is also integral to many storied historical occupations: it’s the invisible thread that brought the Dadaists together, a catalyst for ambitious breakthroughs in engineering à la Skunkworks – even the Grammys recognise ‘collaborations’ as their own category of achievement. Point being, wherever there are mutual challenges to surmount and spoils to be shared, collaboration is as inevitable as competition – an observation with uncanny applicability to the world of watches.

The latest release from the collaboration between Japanese architect Tadao Ando and Bulgari, courtesy of Bulgari.

Few other industries boast as rich a living tradition of collaboration as that of watchmaking. In recent years, this has been most literally expressed in the form of the ‘watch collab’: an intersectional creative exercise consisting of a limited product, reflecting a mixture of eclectic worldviews. Often, one amongst those ‘brands’ involved won’t even be a watchmaker – emanating instead from broader cultural spheres like sports or art. According to Ming Liu, a contributing writer at the Financial Times, such partnerships are very much a strategic play. “We’re seeing more [collaborations] now because horological culture has evolved beyond appreciation of a purely mechanical nature,” says Liu. “These collabs have helped to extend the industry’s reach into other subcultures – gaining access to audiences who previously might not even have considered wearing watches.”

Since watch collabs aren’t going away any time soon – there’s an argument to be made that they’re just beginning to hit their stride – now feels like an opportune moment to unpack, at some length, the nature of collaboration in the watch industry. Within that rubric, we recount a handful of important historical instances in which Swiss watchmakers have worked alongside third parties; ask the (somewhat nebulous) question of what goes into a ‘successful’ collab; and just for fun: cover off a few of the extant releases we think have stuck the landing.

Collaboration: The spirit of watchmaking in the 20th century

Despite how it has become synonymous with a product that’s very much of the moment, for most of the 20th century the word ‘collaboration’ expressed the entire ethos of the Swiss watch industry. For collectors like Tony Traina, founder of Rescapement, this track record of creative and technical solidarity amongst casemakers, movement manufacturers and retailers – now threatened by the widespread pivot towards ‘in-house’ watchmaking – is one of the industry’s most admirable qualities. “There was a certain humility to this approach,” says Traina. “A renowned casemaker didn’t quibble if their work was ultimately paired to a dial signed ‘Patek’, ‘Cartier’ or ‘Doxa’ – they took pride from the fact that they were making the best cases possible, and in so doing, contributing to the creation of the ultimate in luxury/practicality for the consumer.”

The hallmark of master casemaker Jean-Pierre Hagmann on the back of the lug of a rose gold Patek Philippe ref. 3974 minute repeater with a ruby dial, courtesy of Revolution.

That willingness to engage outsiders, to look beyond the horizon of one’s own experience, is a theme that recurred frequently in 20th century watchmaking. In telling the now-legendary tale of the Nautilus’s creation, it’s impossible to disavow the influence of designer Gerald Genta; and yet some 20 years prior, the house of Patek Philippe had in fact already forged a similar (if more regimented) relationship with none other than Gilbert Albert.

Renowned as the mind behind the Ref. 3424 (or ‘Ricochet’) wristwatches, Albert spearheaded Patek Philippe’s design department between the years of 1955 and 1962. Under his tutelage, the brand crafted a succession of striking, unconventionally shaped timepieces. As one leading French art magazine observed, they were all typified by a “fragile, mysterious equilibrium” – diverging from the settled dictats of classic watchmaking. Rarely ever pure in geometry, Albert’s designs for Patek Philippe drew on a wealth of influences that were alien to the industry: the triangular Ref. 3412 spoke to his deep affinity for the modernist sculptures of Constantin Brâncuși; whereas his ‘Futuriste’ pocket watches utilised unconventional materials, to better recreate the beauty of the natural world.

The ref. 3412, another of Albert’s designs that shows clear influence from the work of Brâncuși.

Despite technically being an employee, Patek Philippe accorded a significant amount of autonomy to Albert – something that’s apparent from the miniscule production numbers of almost every reference he worked on. His rhomboid and triangular creations were never runaway commercial successes, yet Albert was able to continue pushing the boundaries of watch design because of his personal relationship with Henri Stern. The president of Patek Philippe was determined to create watches which epitomised the spirit of the Jet Age; and for that, he needed an outsider with their own, independently formulated ideas. In the eight years he worked at the manufacture, Albert’s strange and wonderful creations – all of which espouse his unique comprehension of form language – were symptomatic of a relationship in which, clearly, there was room to share the limelight. Even by today’s standards, that dynamic remains revelatory.

A pocket watch that was part of the Ricochet collection of Gilbert Albert at Patek Philippe, courtesy of Collectability.

At around the same time, companies specialising in the production of ‘raw’ movements (‘ébauches’) were in their heyday, supplying completed mechanical kits to various watchmakers, many of whom competed with one another. Among the handful of movement makers specialising in manually-wound chronograph ébauches, Valjoux is deservedly cited. Although it persists – in a manner of speaking – as part of the Swatch Group, its most significant rearview contribution to the Swiss watch industry is traditionally considered the eponymous Valjoux 72. Itself a variation of an earlier movement, the 72 foreshadowed the supremacy of the triple register display: a style that remains the jumping-off point when designing chronograph layouts.

A manual from Ebauches S.A. from 1965 detailing the cal. 72.

The Valjoux 72’s collaborative credentials are best exemplified with reference to its many permutations. Although the standard ébauche remained popular in the 36 years it was manufactured, there was a practice, amongst certain of Valjoux’s clients, of requesting that increasingly optimised variations be made for their exclusive use. It was at the behest of Rolex, under just such circumstances, that the Valjoux 722 made its debut. Now equipped with a Breguet overcoil and adjustable-inertia balance wheel, the 722 was an important ‘transitional’ movement for Rolex’s then-burgeoning series of Daytonas: in 1969, Valjoux iterated it into the calibre 727, with the latter remaining in service until the arrival of the ‘Zenith era’ in 1988.

Crafting a ‘successful’ collaboration: An inexact science

Evidently, the Swiss watch industry possesses a storied tradition of cooperation between players of all shapes and sizes, but what about modern watch collabs? For the kind of projects we regularly see embarked upon in the digital era – designed, marketed, and perceived accordingly – what does the collaborative process actually entail? If you’re Daniel Sum, co-founder of collectors’ community Shanghai Watch Gang, the answer has a great deal to do with balance. “By definition, collaboration watches usually involve multiple ‘brands’, all likely different in terms of hard product, DNA, and positioning,” says Sum. “The key is in how the end-product manages to balance each individual’s identity.”

The recent collaboration between Seiko and Rowing Blazers seems to be one that struck a chord with both the horological and fashion communities where two brands of very different DNA, product and positioning came together cohesively, courtesy of Rowing Blazers.

Inevitably, that perception of collaboration-as-balancing-act doesn’t sit well with those looking for a ‘one size fits all’ approach, but there are certain unifying themes that do carry over across a range of different (albeit equally successful) watch collabs. Among the most important qualities one should look for is synergy: when a watch is ‘elevated’ to a plane of desirability that, put bluntly, wouldn’t be possible were each party involved to tackle the project separately. Watch collabs that fail to address the significant disparity between those involved – as much a creative issue as it is technical – risk turning their joint efforts into something that, at best, feels overburdened by one side’s involvement, and at worst, fails to capture the essence of everybody.

It’s arguably of equal importance for a co-created watch to express an emotional viewpoint: depending on each collaboration’s unique context, that might take the shape of nostalgia, cutting social commentary or solidarity with a ‘tribe’ (e.g. a watch club or forum). In a world where most mechanical watches have outlived their original purpose as practical instruments, brands are faced with the much trickier prospect of imbuing their modern descendants with a quality that’s, dare we say it, ‘fun’. “Generally speaking, watches in the 21st century are products,” says Sum. “[The vast majority] are for purchase and enjoyment by consumers – a fact that brands undertaking collaborative projects would do well to remember.”

A collaboration that many felt fell short of the mark, Cartier and Ferrari, courtesy of Revolution.

So a watch collab may fail because it lacks sufficient synergies, feels too much like a one-brand show or is devoid of the pathos that figures prominently in modern collecting culture. But even when unsuccessful, these ‘empty’ collaborations can often be a surprisingly useful learning tool: some are too mundane, others inauthentic, and then there are those releases that are simply so nonsensical that they transcend their shortcomings to emerge as an object of morbid curiosity. “That’s how I feel about the Ferrari/Cartier partnership”, says Traina. “It’s right up there as one of the most convoluted collabs of the 80s.”

Originally commissioned in 1983, with the benefit of hindsight it’s almost impossible to describe the collaboration between Ferrari and Cartier as one borne of earnestness. At the outset – despite directives from il Commendatore himself – they were never designed or built by watchmakers working internally at Cartier. History has subsequently revealed that the task of their creation was outsourced to Baume & Mercier: likely because of the brand’s acquisition by Cartier, as part of a broader takeover of Piaget in 1988. These so-called ‘Cartier’ watches, decorated with the Scuderia Ferrari livery, were made in a bewildering array of configurations: none of which feature any explicit branding from the Parisian jeweller, much less its characteristic vision of watchmaking as an exercise in shape, proportion and aesthetic clarity. In comparing the shortfalls of those watches to an ongoing partnership like that of Berluti and Hublot – here, the popular critique seems to centre on how the collection utilises industrially-made third-party technology, despite an attempt to appear artisanal – you can perceive a dramatic gulf of difference in how each collaboration might go astray.

When it all comes together

Truth be told, as with every industry playing in the increasingly nebulous sandbox that is ‘luxury’, there are always going to be collaborations which fall short of their stated goals. But to focus too intently on those is to discount (unfairly) the exciting new developments that are happening in the space constantly: from limited-run projects that galvanise the excitement of the online watch community; to big-name partnerships that give a platform to original, unexpected voices from beyond the world of haute horlogerie.

A collaboration born of a company founded on the concept of collaborating, the Hodinkee Limited Edition LM 101.

Since 2010, one of the industry’s most impactful collaborations – with specific reference to how it altered the dynamic between brands and enthusiasts – has been the MB&F LM101 – released in conjunction with online publication Hodinkee. In the intervening years there have certainly been bigger splashier collaborations, but we’re obliged to consider the Hodinkee LE (as part of our wider discussion) because of its far-reaching influence, years after release. In 2015 a risky venture for both Max Büsser and Hodinkee, its success was predicated upon an assumption that the creative dynamic between these brands would prove sufficiently appealing to the community.

To ensure this particular LM101 felt ‘collaborative’, a number of unique traits were agreed upon: the dial was coloured a unique ‘metallic’ brown; cases were all made in stainless steel (a first for any LM101); and – in a small, but thoughtful gesture – three straps were included to broaden the watch’s wearability. These tangible deviations from MB&F’s extant offering were then situated within a desirable philanthropic context, with a portion of proceeds going toward a non-profit playing a pivotal role in watch culture – the Horological Society of New York. Within hours of going online, all 10 limited editions had sold – a vote of confidence by enthusiasts in the viability of small, personality-led collaborations. In the words of Büsser himself: “it was as much an eye opener for [Hodinkee] as it was for me – the beginning of a new era”.

All three of the Tadao Ando Octo Finissimos for Bulgari, a partnership that has shown a cohesive partnership across disciplines, courtesy of Bulgari

These smaller collabs, driven largely by grassroots organising from across the enthusiast community, now coexist alongside the celebrity partnerships traditionally favoured by luxury brands. There are the usual deluge of crossovers with athletes and entertainers – verticals in which brands like Richard Mille have had much success – but one of the more intriguing high-profile collaborations to gain traction is that of Bulgari and Japanese architect Tadao Ando. An ongoing dialogue that has produced three models thus far, it’s immediately separable from most celebrity-backed watch releases owing to the clear and substantial input Ando has had in designing each of the Octo Finissimos that bear his name. Point in fact: the catalyst for this partnership occurred only after Fabrizio Buonomassa (Bulgari’s Director of Design) saw the various works in Ando’s architectural practice. In projects like the Fabrica Research & Communication Centre, Buonomassa was able to perceive parallels between the way in which Ando championed light and shadow (through complex manipulations of negative space) and Bulgari’s architectural understanding of the Finissimo.

Collectors often cite Ando’s first watch with the brand (launched in 2019) when looking to illustrate both parties’ synergistic design principles, but their newest Finissimo goes even further – giving the Japanese architect room to express his own well-documented fascination with traditional art movements. Within a framework of sandblasted black ceramic, the treatment of the dial conjures up scenes of a crescent moon projecting onto the surface of rippling water – a motif commonly depicted in Japanese woodblock prints of the Shin-hanga era. Even if we weren’t fans of the dial’s aesthetic qualities – and that’s a big ‘if’ – there’s an immediate sense that the product draws, in contemplative fashion, on the most distinctive design codes each brand has to offer. It is, to borrow a phrase, a product that’s more than the sum of its parts – what greater compliment is there to those in the business of working together?

We would like to extend our thanks to Ming Liu, Tony Traina, and Daniel Sum for taking the time to speak with us personally and lend their insights to the discussion of collaboration in the watch industry.