Art On Your Sleeve: The Timepieces Commanding Fine Art Status

A luxury watch that refuses to tell the time, another that offers only a hint. Is it pure folly or a sign of things to come?

Article by Luke Benedictus

Lady_Arpels_Planetarium_2310410Planétarium watch by Van Cleef & Arpels. Courtersy of Van Cleef & Arpels.

Haldimann’s H9 Reduction isn’t a watch in the conventional sense, more an exercise in wilful subversion. That’s because, despite costing more than $300,000, it can’t actually be used to tell the time. Inside its solid platinum case, it’s kitted out with a superlative movement that features a triple-barrel flying tourbillon that is painstakingly engraved by hand. Apparently, the dial includes perfectly functional hour and minute hands, too, but we’ll have to take Haldimann’s word for it. You can’t actually see any of this horological workmanship as it’s hidden behind a totally opaque black crystal. 

So, what is the H9? Is it still a timepiece if it doesn’t tell the time? Or is it an expensive joke designed for jaded billionaires? Or given that it triggers something of a philosophical thought experiment — a wrist-bound version of the old “If a tree falls in a forest and no-one is around to hear it” riddle on perception — is it that most controversial thing of all: an actual work of art?

The reason the H9 is so intriguing/infuriating, depending on your point of view, is that watches are supposed to be time-keeping instruments. There’s little doubt that, particularly at the upper end of the spectrum, watches can also be artistic objects that flaunt extraordinary levels of technical dexterity. Take Vacheron Constantin’s Métiers d’Art Villes Lumières series, featuring dials that offer bird’s-eye view miniature tableaus of various world cities by night (Sydney recently joined the list). The dials are made by the Japanese artist Yoko Imai using a technique that combines grand feu champlevé enamelling with a special powder made with particles of gold, pearl, platinum and diamonds to give the enamel its strange radiant power. All this specialised craftsmanship elevates it far beyond your average wristwatch, as its six-figure price tag suggests.


Similarly, the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Tribute Enamel Hidden Treasures series showcases the brand’s artisanal skills with enamel and miniature painting. Using the Reverso’s swivelling case as a canvas that can reveal or hide itself depending on its position, the collection reproduces three famous paintings that were assumed to have disappeared forever until being rediscovered and authenticated. The works, by Vincent van Gogh, Gustave Courbet and Gustav Klimt, were reproduced on a minuscule surface (about 20 millimetres wide), and this dinky scale forced the enamellers to wear binoculars to paint them. The guillochéd dials were then styled and coloured to match the spirit of each painting. 

Even the grumpiest heathen would have to concede that both of these collections exhibit artistic qualities. But they provide such wonders while still carrying out the basic function of a watch. By still telling the time, they retain their inherent sense of utility, however extravagantly packaged. Purported “watches” like the Haldimann H9 Reduction, however, are content to exist in a purely abstract zone.

Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunset at Montmajour” is replicated for Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Hidden Treasures series.

Then there are those pieces that work in a strange hinterland between the two camps. The Van Cleef & Arpels Midnight Planétarium, for example, refuses to tell the time with any meaningful precision. A golden shooting star revolves around the 24-hour scale that follows the perimeter of the aventurine dial, but it only gives a vague gist of the time. Specifics like the number of minutes passed aren’t on the agenda, because Van Cleef has its eye on a much bigger and altogether more cosmic picture. Inside the rose gold case, it presents a three-dimensional display that tracks the orbit of Earth, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, with each tiny planet crafted from a different precious stone. Astronomers may not be able to rely on it for their stargazing intel, but the Midnight Planétarium nevertheless combines its aesthetic charms with a degree of functionality. 

Some would argue that watches are no longer about utility anyway. This is, after all, the age of the smartphone, when watches are worn less for their time-telling purpose and more as an expression of an individual’s style, personality and financial status. Fretting about whether a certain piece qualifies as a watch or an artwork is therefore perhaps unnecessary in the current luxury market. If it’s sufficiently magnificent and expensive, it seems, there’ll always be someone willing to strap it onto their wrist.