The Space Age with Pierre Cardin Watches
By Kwan Ann Tan
The 1970s is a difficult period to sum up in a single sentence. On one hand, it was a time filled with global conflict, environmental awareness, and nerve-racking struggles against marginalisation. On the other, it was also the age of a proliferation of rock, variations on disco and punk, the rise of pop culture as we know it, and the emergence of striking and quirky fashion statements.
For watches, however, the decade is inextricably linked to the industry’s biggest emergency: the Quartz Crisis. But in spite of that, we see that the decade was also an incredibly vibrant time for design, with watches being no exception. Just catching the tail end of mid-century design, we see that during this period the production of watches had become more standardised, allowing for more interesting shapes and forms to arise. We explore this phenomenon in the form of the Pierre Cardin Espace watches, produced in 1971, taking a closer look at their history, production, and their place in the watch-collecting community today.
In the past we have covered some of the watches with more outlandish and unusual case designs, hailing back just a bit further to the 1950s, proving that creativity never left the watch world. The mid-century was a rich period for watch design, with brands such as Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, and Cartier, among many others, releasing watches which are surprisingly at odds with their current archetypal image and representing a more experimental era of design.
A collector and author of several influential books on luxury watches, Auro Montanari – better known as John Goldberger to the watch community – puts the creation of these distinctive pieces into perspective. “The Espace Watch Line was an unconventional portfolio of unisex wristwatches with incredible packaging at good retail prices,” he says. “Only a few important Swiss watch brands such as Patek Philippe, Piaget, Chopard and, later, Longines presented pieces like these in their catalogues – wristwatches with a similar innovative design but manufactured with more expensive metals. However, Pierre Cardin offered stainless-steel and plastic watches with incredible design and good mechanical movements at reasonable prices for the first time.”
“Only a few important Swiss watch brands such as Patek Philippe, Piaget, Chopard and, later, Longines presented pieces like these in their catalogues – wristwatches with a similar innovative design but manufactured with more expensive metals. However, Pierre Cardin offered stainless-steel and plastic watches with incredible design and good mechanical movements at reasonable prices for the first time.'
The Pierre Cardin Espace watches were by no means the only ones inspired by man’s foray into space – other similar retro pieces that come to mind include the 1969 Spaceman, created by Catena and Zeno, or perhaps the Jovial Vision 2000, an elusive watch, produced in very low numbers and exhibited at Basel Fair in the 1970s, which makes use of references to space travel in their advertisements.
London-based dealer Alex Stevens says he saw his first Pierre Cardin watch at a watch fair. “In these things, you’re usually surrounded by a sea of watches, and I saw this – it jumped out at me out of a sea of nearly 100 watches,” he says. “I asked to look at it and when I had it in my hand, it just got me. I don’t really know what it was, as it’s not the sort of style I would generally wear or trade, but there was just something about it.”
Young collector Lorenzo Maillard concurs, recounting how his interest in the designer’s work in fashion first led him to the watches. “As someone who’s into vintage clothing, I first stumbled upon a vintage shirt by Pierre Cardin,” he says. “After doing some more research into his background and work, and the amount of things he designed, I was really surprised to see his watches and how funky they were in terms of design. What I felt was interesting about these watches was the fact that they aren’t really connected to the watch industry. Because of that, they don’t have the same boundaries that most brands do – it’s purely just design. You can really feel the freedom of design in these watches, whereas a lot of traditional brands have constraints in terms of the design and story.”
However, interest in these watches stretches further back; Montanari recalls that he bought his first Pierre Cardin watches quite some time ago. “I found these watches nearly 30 years ago now, while browsing the Paul Bert Serpette market [a section of the famous flea market in Paris], and discovered three examples of Pierre Cardin wristwatches at one of the stalls,” he says. “They were never worn, and still had their original bracelets – I bought all of them!”
A now much-maligned name in the fashion industry, brand founder Pierre Cardin was a pioneer of the “mod” style, introducing geometric patterns and removing collars, cuffs, and lapels to create new looks that have endured to this day.
Cardin’s fixation on space is evident in his work – his design for the Beatles draws inspiration from spacesuits, and Cardin is supposedly the only civilian to ever put on a NASA spacesuit. As quoted in Jean Pascal Hesse’s Pierre Cardin: Legends, Cardin is recorded as saying: “The infinity of space is more inspiring than anything else.” Famously, he had a line of suits called the “Cosmocorps”, while the costumes of Star Trek, which first aired in 1966, bear a striking resemblance to Cardin’s androgynous, unearthly designs.
Anne of Francoise Paris, who actively trades in these pieces and has studied their origins, brings up an interesting point with regards to the cultural contexts of these watches. “For the case designs of the Espace collection there are hints of inspiration taken from contemporary space shuttles, but also from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was released in 1968, just three years before the launch of Cardin’s collection,” she says.
Mitch Greenblatt, an avid collector and dealer of retro-styled watches, comments that even for the period, the Espace watches were extremely unconventional. “Summed up, these watches were quite avantgarde, and totally unexpected in the early 1970s when they were launched,” he says. “Not only were the designs ahead of their time but this was at the zenith of Cardin's Space Age influence, shortly before he started licensing his name to just about anything. Originally, Cardin was a revolutionary fashion designer with ultra-futuristic proclivities.”
“Summed up, these watches were quite avantgarde, and totally unexpected in the early 1970s when they were launched. Not only were the designs ahead of their time but this was at the zenith of Cardin's Space Age influence, shortly before he started licensing his name to just about anything. Originally, Cardin was a revolutionary fashion designer with ultra-futuristic proclivities.”
Other fashion houses followed Cardin’s trailblazing path, says Montanari. “Cardin was the first designer to sell clothing collections in department stores in the late 1950s, and the first to enter the licensing business for perfumes, accessories and even food, which later drove profits for many other fashion houses,” he adds. “The Pierre Cardin brand and the Pierre Cardin man have a single personality and a single identity. They are one. Yet the perception of the brand is different in the eyes of different audiences. Pierre Cardin has not decided to focus on a single target: he has made his fashion, his style and his brand within everyone's reach. This was his challenge; this is [his] greatest victory. Innovation, branding, revolution: Pierre Cardin has been and continues to be all of this. Even now that the designer has disappeared, the signs of his vision and his ability to make his brand and logo global remain indelible.”
The dilution of the Pierre Cardin brand in many ways resembles the trajectory of certain independent watchmakers such as Daniel Roth or Roger Dubuis, whose work has similarly diverged slightly from the original spirit of their creation after being taken over by bigger brands. Today, the Pierre Cardin brand holds a very different significance than it previously did, but the watches themselves retain a distinctly retro feel, truly representing the spirit of the 1970s.
There were 26 models in total found within the collection, which Stevens notes lends itself well to collectors seeking to complete the full set. “Each watch has a number, and there are up to 26 of them – from a collectability point of view, it’s not as if there are five and once you’ve got all five, you’re done,” he says. “[It] could be a lifetime of collecting.”
Chauffeur- or drive-style pieces also crop up within the collection, complementing Cardin’s work with cars such as the American Motors Corporation ‘Javelin’, known for its flamboyant interior design and decoration. In 1971, one of the models within the Espace collection was found on the wrist of Chris Amon, who drove Matra cars on Formula 1 and Sport Prototypes. The fact that these pieces were genuinely documented as being used by at least one racer demonstrates how widespread these timepieces were at the time, and that they must have kept reasonable time despite their outlandish appearance.
During this period there was also a greater willingness to experiment with different types of materials, as can be seen with the colours and shapes produced within the series. From lucite to acrylic, smoky crystals and metal blocks, the Espace collection even goes a step further and combines some of these materials with stainless steel, creating previously unseen fusions. The 1970s was a rich time for synthetic materials, with everything from interior design to furniture embracing geometric shapes, chrome, and glass, emphasising the futuristic characteristics of the Space Age.
The straps and buckles on the Espace watches are also worthy of note here. In many cases, the strap was complementary to the watches themselves, often blending in with the dial to great effect. Anne says: “The wide shiny straps contrast nicely against the case, and many emphasise the unique case shape.” For collectors, finding a piece with an original strap is rare but highly coveted – another thing to consider if you are on the hunt for one.
LIFE ON MARS?
The movements found within these Espace watches are particularly contentious, and the origins of this collaboration have been the subject of some debate. If we look at the back of an Espace watch, we can typically see “Jaeger France” etched into the caseback. However, this makes the origins of the maker rather unclear. Several theories and explanations have been proposed as to why this might be the case.
Firstly, there is a prevailing assumption that Jaeger-LeCoultre themselves were directly involved in making the watches, but if this was the case, then why not make it clear that this was a collaboration between the two brands? At this point in time there has been a long-lasting tradition of double-signed watches – and the merger of Jaeger-LeCoultre was already well-established – so it is perhaps surprising that they would choose to minimise their involvement in the watches.
It is unclear whether Jaeger-LeCoultre and Jaeger France were completely separate entities at the time (Pierre Cardin watches were produced in France rather than Switzerland). Yet, this explanation does not seem entirely satisfactory. Further observations on how the Jaeger* name was used in isolation on instruments such as barometers and travel clocks produced between the 1950s and 1960s, suggest that this could, instead, have been an issue of branding, with the company using different names for different regions, suggesting that Jaeger-LeCoultre was still involved in some way.
While Jaeger France may have operated independently from Jaeger-LeCoultre in Switzerland, the brands appear to have been still connected, as the signature style bears a strong, close-to-identical resemblance to modern Jaeger-LeCoultre styling. Furthermore, it has been suggested that the watches produced by Jaeger France were a way for Jaeger-LeCoultre to distribute some of its lesser-known movements that were not their flagship pieces.
Through our own examination of the movement, it has been revealed that the calibre is the FHF 36, which stands for the Fabrique d'Horlogerie Fontainemelon, a Swiss ebauché manufacturer which was founded in 1793 to supply ebauchés to the cantons of Neuchâtel and Berne. FHF would go on to be absorbed by Ebauches SA in 1926, and later on became part of ETA in 1985. As part of Ebauches SA, the FHF took on the bulk of production, forming the standard for many of the manufacture’s movements.
However, as the calibre itself still bears only the “Jaeger” signature, it’s unclear which manufactures might have collaborated with the FHF to bring us these watches. Furthermore, little information is available to the public regarding Pierre Cardin’s use or collaboration with Jaeger France or Jaeger-LeCoultre on these watches, and these thoughts should be considered as speculation, rather than hard fact.
Over the last few years these watches have begun to gain some interest, in part because they are intriguing to photograph, and because they are rarely the sort of watches that one might come across while scrolling through Instagram.
While their presence is small, it has been persistent. Stevens says, “Historically, these have been collected heavily, but only by a very small group. However, I think it’s been spreading a bit recently. I bought my first piece perhaps 18 months ago, and since then quite a few more people have been posting other variants of the collection. I think people are probably starting to think, ‘Wow, that’s actually such a crazy design, and it’s something quite rare and historically interesting from such a renowned designer, of all things.’ Especially because at the moment, the price is so accessible to everyone.”
Montanari asserts that these timepieces continue to be undervalued, despite the relative success of the designer’s other work. “Today, Pierre Cardin’s aesthetic is globally recognised and continues to have a major influence in the fashion world,” he says. “He is recognised as one of the founding fathers of modernist fashion. In turn, the Cardin timepieces are underrated, and the prices are very low compared with auction prices of the furniture [he] designed in the same period.”
The watches are popular among seasoned collectors, says Anne. “Those who have a deep experience in watches tend to be drawn to the Pierre Cardin watches, recognising the impact of their unique designs,” she adds. “Indeed, however daring these watches look, they wear very nicely on the wrist, which is real proof of how successfully the watches push the boundaries of form and function.
“These watches are obviously different and they make you smile when you look at them. They make a statement; they stand out and look like no other, in a good way. The fact that they are enjoyed and endorsed by seasoned collectors is also a popularity booster. Today, the world of watches is overrun by Rolex, Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe [and] the Cardin watches bring something different that contrasts with conventional designs.”
Retro fashions from the 1960s and 1970s have started to make a comeback and these pieces are experiencing a second life, once again acting as game-changers in the watch scene. Despite their short-lived existence, they now serve as a reminder of the quirks of the 1970s, representing the spirit of the age.
Our thanks to Alex Stevens, Lorenzo Maillard, Francoise Paris, Mitch Greenblatt, Auro Montanari, and the Pierre Cardin Archives for sharing their experiences and knowledge about these surprising watches.