The Art of Watchmaking

by fraser palfreyman on May 25, 2021

What is art? It’s a big question without an obvious straightforward answer. Stereotypically, you might think of the Mona Lisa hanging in the Louvre, or Michelangelo's frescos upon the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It could be Munch’s ‘The Scream’ or Van Gogh’s vase of rather uninspiring looking flowers. But if you think broader – the Eiffel Tower, a chassis of a beautiful sportscar – you realise that art isn’t just paints on a canvas. If art is the expression of creativity, made with the intention of eliciting some kind of emotional response from those who see it, then here’s our argument for why watchmaking deserves to fall into that category.

Why watchmaking is an art

It embodies centuries of craftsmanship. The art of watchmaking has been honed over half a millennium. But that’s not to say the fine watchmaking we encounter today bears much resemblance to the first attempts – many developments have been made along the way.

While there has always been a need for precise timekeeping, the invention of a portable means of timekeeping was the moment that changed everything. Back in the 16th century, when German clockmaker Peter Henlein created the world’s first portable ‘clock-watch’, his development was intended as a more of a decorative piece rather than an instrument intended to the rival today’s Atomic clock. Yet while the accuracy of Henlein’s clock-watch was hugely suspect, ending up hours out over the course of the day, it did deliver upon one of the two pillars essential in watchmaking. If a watch is essentially the point on an axis where precision and aesthetics meet, Henlein’s watch delivered on the latter, its delicately engraved cylindrical case a beautiful piece of engineering in its own right.

Of course, the aesthetics of a watch – the part that people can see and admire – are important. The focus on beauty is what led to the rise of the Swiss watchmaking industry in the first place, when the jewellers and craftspeople of Geneva turned to watchmaking to exploit a loophole created by reformist Calvin’s ban on jewellery. But aesthetics are nothing without performance, which is what makes the output of the Swiss luxury watchmaking industry and beyond so special. Even if the earliest watches were mostly for show, the progressions made inside have more than caught up since.


A watch is a living piece of art

Beyond the visuals of a watch, craftmanship applies just as much, if not more, to the watchmaking parts within. There’s a reason why the mechanical movement inside any watch is commonly listed as one of humanity’s greatest achievements (yes, even including the one inside that Chinese knock-off you bought off the internet out of curiosity). Nowadays, there are many aspects we take for granted: the ability to read the time on the go, along with the smooth sweep of the second hand. It’s only once you witness a movement whirring away through an exhibition caseback that the fine art of the watchmaking truly makes itself evident.

The mesmerising sight of a balance wheel oscillating. A pallet fork and escape wheel working in parallel with one another multiple times a second. A living, responsive piece of engineering. The mechanical movement is typically only millimetres high, yet within the space of a coin are centuries’ worth of various developments and micro-engineered parts, some barely visible to the human eye, all working together in perfect synchronicity. Hold your watch up to your ear, and you’ll hear a clear ticking sound, reassuring and steady. It’ll continue while you’re asleep, while you’re running for your train, even during that hellish moment when the door accidentally clunks your wrist. The movement inside your watch remains accurate to within seconds per day, despite whatever you subject it to.

And every movement is different. They may look the same, but the one inside your watch – think the Sellita SW330 inside the TRI-02 GMT 3 Timezone COSC, or the Soprod C115 featured in our TRI-03 Power Reserve GMT COSC and TRI-04 Power Reserve GMT Sport COSC models – will act in its own unique fashion. Someone else may have the same model as you, but try theirs on and it’ll feel different. You can tell it’s not your watch. Over time you build a unique relationship with that special combination of gears, springs and wheels that together make your watch’s movement. Look after them with care, and you’re rewarded with decades, if not centuries, of precise timekeeping.


A watchmaker is like an artist

Art is typically made by gifted individuals operating at a level beyond most ordinary people. (Most can probably make a good attempt at a stick man drawing; a Renaissance portrait, not so much.) Now if you placed someone with no prior knowledge at a watchmaker’s bench and asked them to piece together a mechanical movement, there’s more likelihood they could push water uphill. The experience would reaffirm the dedication required for the individuals involved in both professions. And while the occupations of artist and watchmaker might seem different at first, they actually share a lot in common.

Just like an artist might sit down with an easel, a canvas and some paints, so a watchmaker also needs the right tools to complete their job properly. As you might expect for a role that deals with a highly sensitive instrument, a watchmaker’s bench needs to be a clean area, free from dust and wind (getting dust on the inside of a watch’s crystal is a cardinal sin). Tools for watchmaking are also optimised to work with very small and delicate parts; a steady hand is required, along with precision and patience.  

Another similarity between a watchmaker and an artist is that both roles require dedication and time. When a watchmaker sits at their bench, they don’t just need to know which components goes where; they need to understand the relationship between the parts in front of them too. Fundamentally, the art of watchmaking is about the flow of energy through a sequence of components, resulting in the movement of the hands on the dial. If a watch’s movement develops any issues, it’s ultimately the job of a watchmaker to diagnose the issue and fix them. Using time-honoured tools and techniques, the watchmaker relies upon the centuries of experience before them to maintain their craft.

There’s the same room for tradition and progression

As with any topic that people care about, there are purists and those who believe in ripping up the rulebook. The same is true within the art of watchmaking. Some collectors will only invest in a watch that has Swiss watchmaking history engrained into it – you’ll see the word heritage banded about a lot in this industry – and that’s absolutely fine. Many older brands have enjoyed the successes they have upon the back of centuries of craft, the name on the dial essentially a guarantee of tradition and reputation. Yet does that all come at the expense of moving forward and trying something different?

The beauty of the variety within Switzerland’s borders means that for every brand seemingly entrenched enough into Swiss watchmaking history they were founded by the first Huguenots who settled in 16th century Geneva, they’re countered by another brand willing to take a risk. At TRIBUS, that means an array of bright dial colours in our TRI-01 Small Second COSC, or combining two industries that couldn’t be more at odds with one another in the TRI-06 My Dog Sighs Limited Edition. Because why shouldn’t the worlds of street art and Swiss watchmaking be combined together?

Like you might go to the National Gallery or the Tate Modern, the same is true within the world of horology. You can opt for a mechanical watch or a quartz one; or if you fancy something that displays the best of what the Swiss have to offer, there’s a range of chronometer-certified TRIBUS models available too. After all, life would be dull if we all liked Rembrandt instead of Picasso.


Watches also tell stories

Art can act as a mirror to society, capturing the spirit of what was going on at the moment of its creation – the influences, the trends, the politics. Our TRI-05 303 Squadron P8331 Limited Edition features a disc of metal from Spitfire P8331, an aircraft shot down during the Second World War, alongside design cues of the 6b/159 aviation watches worn by pilots of the period. Meanwhile, the Polish Air Force’s chequerboard and 303 Squadron ‘Kościuszko’ crest pay direct tribute to the the vital role played by Polish airmen during the war. Proceeds from each are helping to return P8331 to airworthy condition, whilst raising awareness of the Poles’ valiant and unrecognised efforts.

There are many watches available today that have stories associated with them – and we’re not talking about ones resulting from multi-million-dollar sponsorship deals. Forget that a particular model was sported by a particular fictional secret agent; the best watch stories are the ones you make, and don’t let anyone tell you any different. Whether it was the story of how you discovered it, or the escapades you were involved in whilst wearing it (we’re talking about the stag do more than the wedding), the connections you build with your collection are priceless. The memories may slip further and further into the past, but whenever you put the watch back onto your wrist, they’re revived just as timeless as ever. A possession that combines timeless engineering with sentimental value? It could only be the art of watchmaking.

Why watchmaking isn’t an art

It is. The end.

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