See the Most Luxurious Artisanal Watches at Baselworld

Are artisanal pieces the answer to the industry's sales dip?

MB&F, Arachnophobia Gold, 18K Yellow-Gold Plated Brass, Limited Edition.

You might call me the Van Gogh of horology,” said Christophe Claret, manning his eponymous booth at Basel World 2016. Like Van Gogh, the Lyon-born watchmaker is known for the rebellious spirit that shapes his designs, which subvert the traditional purpose of a timepiece—telling time—to the unique fantasies of its maker, and are positioned like editioned works of art to wear on the wrist rather than watches.

Claret is not alone in this impulse, of course, and at this year’s edition of the global horology fair, similarly artisanal brands were to be found in The Palace, a small venue behind the massive halls of Messe Basel. Although they represent a collecting base that is somewhat off the grid, many of these watchmakers started their career very much in the mainstream. Claret is no exception: he started his own line in 1999, after years developing complex watch calibers that were snapped up by the classic ateliers of masters from Ulysse Nardin to Girard-Perregaux and Harry Winston. “I very much like innovation,” he said, mischievously. “I like to do things not done elsewhere.”

Indeed, of his four collections, two are made specifically to shock and surprise. The Extreme Complications collection is dedicated to defying the challenges that face watchmakers, while the Interactive Gaming Complications collection manifests the thrill of Vegas in wearable form, allowing owners to compete in a game of Poker, Blackjack or Baccarat against an algorithmic foe—right on their wrist. The Blackjack watch, for example, has sculptural details hidden within the case, including small windows that house tiny die, and a roulette rotor on the back that actually spins.

Also debuting at the fair this year, the X-TREME 1 accomplishes a feat that has historically seemed near impossible, perversely integrating magnetic fields into its structure. “With this watch, I have tamed the archenemy of the watchmaker—because I love a challenge,” Claret noted, explaining that the two tiny steel spheres held aloft inside sapphire tubes on either side of the dial are driven up and down by magnetic fields, thereby indicating the time. “Claret watches are very exclusive,” he added. “We only create 100 watches a year, and every piece is unique. Just like a work of art.”

Claret, Baccara, from the Interactive Gaming Complications collection

Claret, Baccara, from the Interactive Gaming Complications collection

Across the hall, meanwhile, Geneva-based line MB&F (Maximilian Büsser & Friends) was launching the newest creation in its Performance Art series, which invites a contemporary artist to collaborate on a design every year. Initially inspired by the thrills of his childhood, from Star Wars to Super Cars, Büsser’s watches are marked by a respect for art and science fiction: He cites the Eiffel Tower and Jules Verne as inspirations, and his designs often look more like hovercrafts and robots than timepieces. His MAD Gallery, which now boasts branches in Geneva, Dubai and Taipei, is devoted to showing “Mechanical Art Devices” made by “Kinetic artists” around the world.

“We have a very specialized and specific stable of collectors—you either like these pieces or you don’t, so we have remained quite safe from fluctuations in the market,” said MB&F Trade Market Manager Virginie Meylan. “Our pieces don’t only keep time, because you have time everywhere. We want to present something special that makes people feel emotions, so we create works of art to wear.”

MB&F has already initiated numerous kinetic art collaborations, such as Arachnophobia, which engaged Swiss clock manufacturer L’Epée to produce a spider-shaped desk clock inspired by Louise Bourgeois’ famous Maman sculpture. This year’s chosen collaborator is Canadian designer James Thompson, who often works in photo luminescent composite materials. “I love these materials because it makes light solid, not an afterthought,” he said. “It allows me to carve or forge solid elements out of light.”

Blancpain, The Great Wave. Silver-toned obsidian dial, hand-decorated and hand-engraved gold wave.

Blancpain, The Great Wave. Silver-toned obsidian dial, hand-decorated and hand-engraved gold wave.

Blancpain, exhibiting with other global giants in Hall 1, recently revived its longstanding yet little-known Métiers D’Art line. These limited edition, client-designed watches devote the dial to a work of art much like their artisanal counterparts in The Palace, leaving behind the traditional focus on movements and calibers and promoting instead a more artistic vocabulary.

This year, Blancpain’s Métiers D’Art launch at Baselworld, the Great Wave watch, introduces the ancient Japanese material of Shakudō, an alloy of copper and gold. Inspired by Japanese artist Hokusai’s woodblock print of the same name, it features a white-gold appliqué treated with modulated rokushō salt finish and applied to a base of Mexican obsidian.

There is immense amount of art on the inside of a Blancpain watch,” a rep for the brand said. “With the Métiers D’Art watches, we can show on the outside, on the dial, the art that we have always been creating on the interior of the watch.”

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