Are watches art? Are watchmakers artists or craftsmen?

We sometimes refer to watches as works of art and watchmakers as artists. But is this true? Are these watches art or perfectly crafted objects and are their watchmakers artists or craftsmen?

What is the notion of art exactly? Does it imply a certain creativity? If yes does that mean that for example a MB&F Horological Machine n° 2 is a work of art because of its immense creativity but that one of the worlds best made time only watches: The Philippe Dufour Simplicity is not?

Does the use of enamel, skeletonising or engraving make a watch into a work of art?

I don’t have an answer but I define art more as the emotion I feel when I see the object rather than the craftsmanship that has gone into. Therefore for me, if I see a watch that grabs me emotionally I would not hesitate considering it as art (in this category I would but the Vianney Halter Antiqua, Urwerk 103 and 201, Vacheron Les Masques etc...)

Would love to have your opinions on this.

Interesting question and in most I agree with you. Watches are not
02/11/2008 - 16:27

works of art but functional objects which can be perfectly crafted. However, once in a while you do have watches which mix creativity and imagination with craft and those for me are art.

It is less the use of what can be considered artworks such as painting on enamel, sculpting or engraving which would make a watch a work of art but the emotional effect it can have on the beholder and for example the Masks or MB&F watches are works of art in my book but not perfectly craftet timepieces such as the Simplicity or Voutilainen's Observatory watch.

Just my 2c

Examples of art.....
02/11/2008 - 18:35

Re: Are watches art? Are watchmakers artists or craftsmen?
02/11/2008 - 18:55

This is another debate with no right or wrong answer… Although watches can stir a lot of emotions in me, I do not consider them, in general, pieces of art. I see them rather as perfectly crafted objects. “Generally art is a product of human activity, made with the intention of stimulating the human senses as well as the human mind; by transmitting emotions and/or ideas”. Paintings, sculpture, music, for me this is art. A piece of art is usually a piece unique, and is not intended for mass production (obviously these days there are lithographs, but IMO these are not art themselves, but rather a reproduction of a piece of art). The main raison d’etre for a piece of art is to stimulate emotions. While a lot of human labor goes into the production of a watch, I do not think that this makes it art. A watch’s raison d’etre is to serve a functional purpose, telling time. The birth of a watch is mainly the result of engineering work. I do think that some models, for which there is more enamel work or sculpting (such as Les Masques), are closer to being work of art, as each piece can be slightly different from one to the next...  I am buying the 47212 because of the intense emotions it is creating in me every time I look at a picture – I see A LOT more emotional value than functional value in the watch. Having said that, if I was told the watch didn’t work, I wouldn’t buy it… I do love football and hockey jerseys – I do have a little collection of some game-used memorabilia from my sports idols. Looking at these jerseys does awake some emotions in me, but I would never consider them art …

That's my 2 cents

As others have touched on...
02/11/2008 - 19:37

I do not see watches as works of art, as, among other reasons, they can be exactly replicated. That's not to say that certain watch designers and watchmakers do not have fine artistic abilities – they certainly do. But watches are tiny, precision machines, which would not exist if it were not for their simple, basic function of time telling. So, much like a superb, mid-century modern table might be considered an outstanding example of design and craftmanship, neither it, nor a watch, will ever be considered high art.

Clearly, though, watches can evoke emotional responses, and perhaps part of my preference for vintage has to do with the fact that a beautiful example of an old watch feels somehow closer to true art because of its relative rarity.


Tony C.

Actually, the question as asked cannot really be answered:
02/11/2008 - 20:19

artists in the "decorative art" section are called craftsmen. So I will call everybody a craftsman. I will try to answer as to who is an artist first and as to what makes a piece of art afterwards:

 - I do not consider everything that brings an emotion to be called art: Art brings emotions, but things that bring emotions are not necessarily art.

 - The primary purpose of decorative arts is not to bring an emotion, but to make something appealing within the current context of what is appealing (is finding something beautiful an emotion? I don't know). A beautiful chair, a beautiful basket ... ("Fine arts" is more intended to produce an emotion.).

Like I said, I will call everybody a craftsman.

"Watchmakers" do different things: people who make useful objects, however finelly finished, are not artists (eg: FP Journe, Breguet, ...). These people make the necessary objects to make the watch work. Without them the watch would not be functional.

The people who make objects look more beautiful are artists: engravers, enamelers, etc... The primary purpose of what they do is to make something look beautiful. Are these people really "watchmakers"?

It is not impossible for some watchmakers to do everything: make a watch, engrave it, enamel it, etc... However, you would be very hard pressed to find one of these people.

So my answer to this conundrum is to define two types of people:

 - the craftsman-watchmaker actually makes a watch. He is not an artist.

 - the craftsman-artist who makes the watch look beautiful is an artist, he is not a watchmaker.

As to the final object, it is much more difficult to answer that: the fine line comes from "when is an object beautiful, and when does it become a piece of art?". hmmm...

I have seen art that is worse that what goes down the toilet, yet is called art. Anyway.

When does the talent of the artist(s) make an object more a piece of art than a functional object? (example: when is a watch "a watch with some engravings/paintings/sculpture" and when is it "an engraving/painting/sculpture with a watch attached to it"?).

Some small table clocks are clearly a piece of art with a watch attached to it. Some jewelry peices are also in this category of an exquisite piece of jewelry with a watch attached to it.

What was the primary intended purpose of the object: to be a showcase for the artists' talents or to be a time-giving device.

In the example of "Les Masques" and others, definitely more of a showcase of talents.

Urwerk? hmmm, not in my opinion. Just watches with very cool designs.

Great analysis. (nt)
02/11/2008 - 21:42


Sometimes artists and mostly craftsmen,
02/11/2008 - 22:25

would be my answer, on this impossible question

This I think is art :

VC lady's pocket watch from 1910. Probably unique.

VC pocket watch 1931, platinum, made on request. Definitely unique.

This is a borderline case.

Made in 2003 in 375 pieces, 125 WG and 250 RG. Special movement, made to GP by Journe,

nmonopusher, not used in any other of GP's watches.

But art ?

No I don't think so.

Limited edition, OK, but not art.

VC DTR 2005, good craftmanship.

Limited watches put together today,from basic parts,

that already exists in the brand's production,

I don't think are example of art.

Of course some, but not all of the AHCI masters, must be regarded as artists



I agree with you Sir.
02/12/2008 - 12:02

Excellent examples...

Nice scans, Doc...
02/12/2008 - 13:49

I really love your pictures! Especially your Malte DTR RG that you show off so eagerly... I am a proud owner of Malte DTR WG and cherish the thought we have so much in common...

I absolutely agree with your opinion, sometimes art mostly craftsmanship...

Rei and Radek,
02/12/2008 - 16:17

I wasn't at all surprised that you would share my opinion,

as noted now and before, there are similarities in our taste

Thanks for nice words about the pics !


I do not accept the validity of the distinction.
02/11/2008 - 23:13

As far as I'm concerned, it's all craft: the use of skills and talent to make objects that are useful and aesthetically pleasing. Do you think Michelangelo and Rembrandt thought of themselves as artists? As far as I can tell, they didn't: they were businessmen, taking orders and trying to produce the best quality output they could in order to please their clients. They worked in guilds with apprenticeship systems, just like composers, violin makers, silversmiths, shoemakers and weavers.

Over time, primarily in the 19th century, the visual artists came up with a good marketing trick to distinguish themselves from the "trades:" they created a distinction between products whose primary function was aesthethic and those that also had practical uses.  (This distinction may have been based on the proposition that not performing a practical function was "aristocratic.") This afforded them considerable advantages in lifestyle, work requirements and marketing. For example, a lot of 19th-century art is badly-enough crafted that it's a real challenge for the restorers to keep it from disintegrating. This would never have been tolerated in the days of "craft," but as "art" it's just another charming eccentricity. The composers got on the bandwagon at least in part; the other crafts fell behind.

Recently, however, the marketing people have gotten into the act again: now violins, watches, and even shoes are sold as "art." It's a sensible tactic, as art (a) is automatically treated as a high-priced item and (b) once an item has been identified as art, it is to some degree excused from the expectation that it be functional. It is now entirely possible to walk into a violin shop, play an instrument that sounds terrible, and have the dealer explain to you that it is nevertheless highly desirable because of its "artistic" merits. (I speak from experience.) That is much more profitable than admitting that it's a bad instrument and reducing its price. Similarly, a certain class of shoe is no longer expected to be comfortable.

The watch companies are not run by fools; they know that they can get high prices with reduced expectations of performance if they can get their products labelled as "art," and that's good business. They are proceeding to try to do so, with quite a bit of success as far as I can tell. Keeps poor time? Unreliable? Hard to service? Fragile? Uncomfortable to wear? Illegible? No problem: it's art!

As I said, I don't buy the distinction.

No : watche is not art, and...
02/11/2008 - 23:49

emotion has noting to do with art. It is more an instinct, a thought, a moment. It is broader. It is human.

There are many different forms of art, some are purely for emotion.
02/12/2008 - 00:39

From decorative arts to fine arts (broadly speaking), art takes on many forms: from carpet weaving to painting, from engraving on gold to sculpting on wood, from poetry to the most abstract constructions ever devised...

I would kind of disagree with your statement that "emotion has nothing to do with art":

If my memory serves me right, some of the roots of modern art are in the 'simple' evocation of emotions. When many arts were thought of as 'too intellectual' for the common person, some people started to create movements which brought art to its 'simplest' (non cognitive) forms: emotion. Even lay people could 'understand' the art as the only message it was trying to convey was an emotion; no need to think about meanings, hidden concepts, quality of the technique of execution, etc...

Re: Are watches art? Are watchmakers artists or craftsmen?
02/12/2008 - 00:13

When I built things for a living:

We called the best craftsmen "artists".

Food for thought. Best, Miki

IMHO a watch can be a work of art.
02/12/2008 - 12:08

The Greek word "tehni" means both art and craftsmanship. After all, artists were considered to be craftsmen, until the 18th century.

A generally accepted definition about what is art doesn't exist.

Conventionalist definitions account well for modern art, but have difficulty accounting for art's universality – especially the fact that there can be art disconnected from “our” (Western) institutions and traditions, and, conceivably, our species. Aesthetic definitions do better accounting for art's traditional, universal features, but less well, according to their critics, with revolutionary modern art; their further defense requires an account of the aesthetic which can be extended in a principled way to conceptual and other radical art. An aesthetic definition and a conventionalist one could simply be conjoined. But that would merely raise, without answering, the difficult question of the unity or disunity of the class of artworks.

Walton, a prominent aesthetician wrote earlier: “It is not at all clear that these words – ‘What is art?’ – express anything like a single question, to which competing answers are given, or whether philosophers proposing answers are even engaged in the same debate…. The sheer variety of proposed definitions should give us pause. One cannot help wondering whether there is any sense in which they are attempts to … clarify the same cultural practices, or address the same issue.” (Walton, 1977, 2007)

However architecture is generally accepted as an estabished art form. Sagrada Família of Antoni Gaudí is a good exampe.

"Originally designed by Antoni Gaudí (1852 – 1926), who worked on the project for over 40 years, devoting the last 15 years of his life entirely to the endeavor, the project is scheduled to be completed in 2026. On the subject of the extremely long construction period, Gaudí is said to have remarked, "My client is not in a hurry." After Gaudí's death in 1926, work continued under the direction of Domènech Sugranyes until interrupted by the Spanish Civil War in 1936.  The design, as now being constructed, is based both on reconstructed versions of the lost plans and on modern adaptations. Since 1940 the architects Francesc Quintana, Isidre Puig Boada, Lluís Bonet i Gari and Francesc Cardoner have carried on the work. The current director and son of Lluís Bonet, Jordi Bonet i Armengol, has been introducing computers into the design and construction process since the 1980s. Mark Burry of New Zealand serves as Executive Architect and Researcher. Sculptures by J. Busquets, Etsuro Sotoo and the controversial Josep Subirachs decorate the fantastical façades."(From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

Of course most of the people involved in the building of Sagrada Família are not artists. Computers have been used for the design and construction. Engineering work plays a huge role at the implementation of such a project.  The end result has a functional use. Do all  these deminish the artistic value of Sagrada Família? I don't think so.