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What is art? It’s a big question without a 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.