Iregret that I did not attend the Laureus Charity Night in Zürich last November. Laureus is the organisation that arranges the awards known as the Oscars of sport. But it is not a new-found interest in athletics or football that makes me wish I’d been there; it is the news that Georges Kern played a drum set on stage while Aloe Blacc sang.
Now, before you rush to your Encyclopedia of Popular Music to look up Georges Kern and find out which bands this drummer has played with, I can save you the trouble. Although pretty handy on the hi-hat and the snare drum, he is the CEO of IWC, the Schaffhausen-based watch brand. As a maker of sports watches and of watches favoured by sportsmen, IWC is a major sponsor of Laureus, but as Kern and Blacc demonstrated on stage, popular music is also proving to be an increasingly important part of watchmaking.
It is not unusual for a high-quality mechanical watchmaker to involve itself with classical music to demonstrate its sophistication and heritage. For instance, 261-year-old Vacheron Constantin was patron of the Opéra National de Paris when the Chagall ceiling at its Palais Garnier home was being restored, and so produced a watch that reproduced the ceiling on the dial. Closer to home, Vacheron supported the composition of an opera about famous Geneva citizen Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
This is not the only example of patriotism surrounding the musical involvement of leading Swiss brands. Most of us are familiar with Omega’s relationship with George Clooney, James Bond and Cindy Crawford; less so with another of the brand’s ambassadors: Helvetian singer Bastian Baker. One of Baker’s breakthrough appearances came a few weeks after his 20th birthday in the summer of 2011, when he appeared at the Montreux Jazz Festival, which, as it happens, is sponsored by Parmigiani Fleurier.
Each year Parmigiani takes inspiration from the festival’s poster to create men’s and women’s watches in the Métropolitane and Métrographe models (Métrographe, £10,000). Made only in tiny quantities, some are presented to musicians and a small number are sold. There is an haute-horlogerie model too; last year a marquetry dial depicting an acoustic guitar was designed around a tourbillon, which appeared in the sound hole.
Parmigiani began sponsoring the Montreux Jazz Festival 12 years ago, which is said to be around about the time that Eric Clapton bought a Patek Philippe 2499. “Musician buys watch” may not sound like news, but in collecting terms the Patek 2499 occupies a hallowed niche not unlike, say, a Ferrari GTO or a Picasso from the Blue Period. Nor was this just any 2499; it was executed in platinum in 1987 – two years after the model had officially been discontinued. Clapton sold it at auction in 2012, when it fetched over $3.5m. As well as the watch’s beauty, its extreme rarity accounted for this price; the only other platinum 2499 is owned by Patek Philippe. It is about as sophisticated and rare as the wristwatch gets.
This sale confirmed the arrival of the rock star as highly respected collector, according to prominent watch auctioneer Aurel Bacs. “Rock star is a relatively young category of provenance,” he explains. “Increasingly there are young rock stars who are active collectors, although at the moment they are buying more than selling.” He feels that watches are uniquely appealing to those who, like rock stars, lead a nomadic life. “If I am on the road 250 out of 365 days, I don’t see my house, my dog, my paintings – but I can travel with watches, and these are works of art that accompany me when I am on the move.”
R&B has done much to promote watch collecting among younger musicians, as Audemars Piguet CEO François-Henry Bennahmias recalls. He used to run Audemars Piguet in the US and on his arrival he heard that Jay Z was wearing a Royal Oak. He invited him to the AP office, where he set up a sound system pumping out Jay Z’s music. By 2005 they had collaborated on a special edition of the watch to raise money for the musician’s charity. “We decided to celebrate his 10-album career with a series of 20 special Royal Oak Offshores – the 10 is picked out in diamonds and each watch came with an iPod with his 10 albums downloaded. They sold out within two months; since then only two have appeared at auction, and both sold for more than twice the retail price.” In 2009, a limited edition with Quincy Jones followed, this time in the oval Millenary case with a piano keyboard dial.
The impact of these pieces went far beyond their sales. Audemars Piguet became the watch of choice for this sector of the music industry and artists began to drop the name of Audemars Piguet into their lyrics. Beyoncé’s “Partner, let me upgrade you, Audemars Piguet you” is one of the better known. Now a younger generation of artists is following, among whom Bennahmias cites Tinie Tempah as “someone who loves our watches and we might support. Singers talk about watches in their lyrics, – educating people about the watch world.”
And the sentiment runs deeper, as Jean-Claude Biver, head of LVMH’s watch brands, points out. “Music is universal. People listen to music because it conveys emotion and as watchmakers we create emotion.” At Hublot he produced watches with Depeche Mode (Big Bang Depeche Mode, £13,400) and later made contact with the management of The Rolling Stones. The result was the discovery that the Stones are keen on watches and a special edition Zenith (El Primero Chronomaster 1969 Tribute to The Rolling Stones, £9,700). “When I met Ronnie Wood in Zürich, he was wearing a Zenith. I said, ‘Ronnie, did you put it on your wrist because you were going to meet me?’ and he replied, ‘No, I bought it at auction’.”
Since taking over Tag Heuer, Biver has been working with David Guetta. “He is a friend of my daughter and I met him at her wedding. He is transgenerational, talking to both young people and older people, so I thought of him and Tag Heuer. When we made a special edition with him [the Formula 1 David Guetta, £1,850], he gave us suggestions different to what we thought he’d say. At first we designed a very modern watch with a little bit of colour, slightly psychedelic, and he wanted a more classic look, which surprised us.” He also added a GMT function because he travels a lot.
Caroline Scheufele, co-president of Chopard, has also found that musicians enjoy getting involved in the design process. Recently she has had fun making extravagant watches (and a gem-set “Elvis” belt) for Robbie Williams. But it is with Elton John that the brand is most associated, harnessing not only his name, but his creativity across a range of special watches, from Mille Miglia sports watches to diamond-set jewellery ones (among them a sumptuous mother-of-pearl piece, £28,900), sold to benefit his Aids charity. “Elton was really engaged in what we do and how we do it, and gave us his input.”
And there are times when the rock star’s imagination outstrips what is actually possible, as Richard Mille has found since working with Pharrell Williams, who dropped the brand’s name in his duet with Gwen Stefani Can I Have It Like That (“She knows the time, she sees the Richard Mille/Flat double skeletal tourbillon”). Mille and Williams have been collaborating on some designs that will debut next year (with the singer meanwhile promoting models such as the tourbillon pocket watch, £386,500). “As well as being a musician, Pharrell designs for Adidas. He is a very cool guy, open to very different kinds of concepts, mostly in terms of jewellery watches.” One such was a musical watch, but although they worked on some designs, alas “the drawing was technically impossible”.
The opportunity to work on watch designs allows musicians to express their creativity as artists through another channel. An art school graduate, Bryan Ferry has always had a particularly highly developed sense of aesthetics, as can be seen on his album covers. When designing the artwork for Manifesto, he used a typeface he’d found in his first edition copy of Wyndham Lewis’ Blast, the 1914 magazine that featured, rather appropriately, the vorticist manifesto. And the same careful eye has been applied to watches he has designed with H Moser & Cie. For example, he went through its archives until he found dial designs that would impart a sense of Jazz Age elegance, combining bold Arabic numerals with blued-steel hands (Endeavour Small Seconds Bryan Ferry, £12,600).
As Ferry’s oeuvre shows, the iconography of a record cover can have real staying power, and some of the most enduring covers have been made for The Beatles. It is the playfulness of the Yellow Submarine cover that currently appeals to George Bamford. Since its foundation in 2003, Bamford Watch Department has become world famous for its customisation of watches, in particular for applying cartoon characters such as Popeye and Snoopy to Rolex watches. “It was great to get actual snail mail on Apple letterhead – I am getting it framed,” says Bamford of the letter giving him permission to make a watch (Yellow Submarine Datejust, £13,500) featuring a tiny yellow submarine on end of the second hand and delivered in a box inspired by the eponymous underwater vessel.
In the past it has been film stars who have tended to bequeath their names to certain models of Rolex, among them the Paul Newman Daytona and Steve McQueen Explorer. Now it is the turn of rock stars. This is immortality of a sort, and it seems that musicians can find it in the watchmaking atelier as well as the recording studio.