Are there any watches in alleyways and byways of the Palexpo in Geneva? To find out, I went there and acted like a fan of beautiful cars and of watchmaking, who was discovering – or re-discovering – the long histories connecting designers of prestigious automobiles and the designers or manufacturers of beautiful watches. Breitling and Bentley, Parmigiani Fleurier and Bugatti, Hublot and Ferrari, or even Bovet 1822 with Pininfarina. In passing, the visitor will also have the opportunity to wax ecstatic before the brand new concept car by the Swiss tuner Rinspeed, which features an on-board clock by Carl F. Bucherer, or be wowed by the wild-and-wooly Abarth 595 "Competizione by TAG Heuer." We have to realize that, these days, most automobile designers are in some way associated with watch brands. And that most watch brands have at least one sports watch dedicated to the automobile in their portfolios.
Fans of exceptional cars are often interested in beautiful watches as well. No doubt, watches and automobiles do have the same power of attraction and ferry many values common to both product types. They symbolize dreams, the emotional world and, at times, inaccessible luxury.They allow people to broadcast their successes and societal achievements. They also reflect the personality of their owner, his or her lifestyle or taste for beautiful and classic mechanical objects, or the latest technological innovations.
Whether it be the International Motor Show or the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH), people with such passions are always meeting in the same venues. There, they can seamlessly admire the elegant designs of car bodies or watch cases, the refined finishing of the cabins or the dials, while at the same time scrutinizing the technical spec sheet of the powerful engines or the complicated movements.
Watchmaking and automobiles: joined for over a century
The association between watchmaking and automobiles is old and evolved historically quite naturally. Watchmakers actually accompanied the development of the automobile at the beginning of the 20th century. They were involved in the first car races with their ability to measure speeds and keep track of time. In 1909, already, Omega was offering a dashboard clock with an eight-day caliber, and it became involved in timing various sports events. In 1911, Heuer commercialized the first dashboard chronograph for cars – the Time of Trip– followed, in 1916, it was the Mikrograph, which was accurate to the 1/100th of a second, and then, in 1933, came the Autavia (an abbreviation of AUTomobile et AVIAtion), the first dashboard counter for cars and airplanes. These major advances turned Heuer, which later on became TAG Heuer, into a big name in the timing of high-level sports events, notably Formula One.
During the early craze of the general public for these "madmen at the wheel," some watchmakers had the idea of offering watches inspired by the automobile. In the 1920s, Mido replicated the Bugatti radiator on the dials of its watches. They were soon followed by manufacturers like Patek Phillippe and Cartier. In 1921, the Frenchman L. Leroy furnished chronographs to the French Automobile Club. Rolex was also very involved in motor sports as of 1935 with the English driver, Sir Malcolm Campbell, who achieved the eye-popping speed of 484 km/h with a Rolex Oyster on his wrist.
The links between watches and cars really became strong during the second half of the 20th century with the development of the wristwatch. Four watches, absolute legends, conclusively established this relationship and gave the wristwatch total legitimacy. in 1957, Omega came out with its Speedmaster, a chronograph developed for the automobile and featuring a dial inspired by the dashboards of sports cars. The name itself derives from the tachymeter scale on the bezel, a premiere in watchmaking. The Speedmaster evolved into a world-wide success .... but only after it became the first watch to go to the moon. In 1959, then, Rolex connected with the Daytona race track, which was the locus of the famous 24-hour endurance race. This event provided the inspiration for the Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona in 1963, a tool made for race car drivers and gentleman drivers to compute average speeds. In the same year, Heuer presented the Carrera, a sports chronograph dedicated to automobile racing. The name is derived from the Panamericana Carrera, an extremely dangerous race organized in Mexico in the 1950s. In 1969, the brand launched the Monaco, the first square watch the first automatic chronograph caliber. It became famous as the watch on Steve McQueen's arm in the 1971 film Le Mans.
The watch/automobile partnerships then really got going in the 1980s and 1990s. TAG Heuer with McLaren in 1985, Chopard with the Mille Miglia race in 1988, and Girard-Perregaux with Ferrari in 1994 showed the way.Since the early 21st century, these partnerships have greatly proliferated.And they have been successful, no doubt. Some have even celebrated their tenth anniversary, like Breitling with Bentley, Oris with Williams F1, and Parmigiani Fleurier with Bugatti.
Certain watchmaking brands nevertheless chose another tack, offering watches that are inspired directly from the automobile.These sporty timekeepers take up many of the stylistic elements known from the automobile (B.R.M.), or make use of high-tech materials like carbon, aluminum, Makrolon (Richard Mille RM011 Felipe Massa, Chanel J12 Superleggera, F. P. Journe Centigraphe Sport), or pieces that are drawn from legendary cars (Christopher Ward).
The diversity of automobile partnerships
These partnerships between the watch and the automobile, be it the association of a watch manufactory with a designer or an car race, always result in the creation of sport-themed watches.But they do not all take the same shape, hence the wide variety of products.Some manufacturers engage in long-term partnerships, with the creation of exclusive collections, for example Breitling with Bentley, Hublot with Ferrari, or even Richard Mille with the Le Mans Classic.On the other hand, there are the manufacturers who choose occasional, but striking relationships to celebrate a particular event, as was the case with Hublot and Morgan, TAG Heuer and Nissan, Cvstos and Pagani, Ralf Tech and Alpine.
The point is, that the watch brands aim to be present at the major mediagenic meetings, like the Formula One championships or the legendary 24 Heures du Mans.So they begin to affiliate with a stable or a pilot, whose sheer derring-do or victories will lend their image dynamism and a positive feel.Today, all major Formula One and endurance stables have a prestigious official timekeeper.Recently, Bell & Ross announced an agreement with the Renault Sport F1 team, which is making a major comeback to world championship racing as a stable.Other manufacturers invest in the great historic races or the elegance pageants that have been finding ever greater favor amongst all the enthusiasts of classic cars. Chopard was the precursor, with the Mille Miglia rally and the Grand Prix de Monaco Historique.Today, Zenith is the official partner of the Tour Auto and the WinterRaid. Eberhard & Co. is the official timekeeper of the RAID Switzerland-Paris rally, and Richard Mille has been instrumental in creating the Chantilly Arts & Elegance Richard Mille beauty pageant in France.
To design the watches that will represent the partnerships, some watchmaking brands lean on one of their emblematic models, a gauge of success, like Bulgari for Maserati with the Octo Chronograph, IWC for the Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team with the Ingenieur, Hublot for Ferrari with the Big Bang, or even the B.R.M for most of its partnerships (Gulf, Corvette Racing, etc.) with the V12-44. Other manufacturers develop exclusive or innovative timepieces, like the Breitling for Bentley, Jaeger-LeCoultre for Aston Martin or TAG Heuer for the McLaren-Mecedes SLR supercar.
Watchmaking and automobiles: a permanent source of technical innovations
The watch/automobile partnerships are, at times, geared towards sharing know-how. Some came about when a car designer asked a watch brand to conceive a dashboard clock or the instruments for the next car in the series or for a concept car. This was the case for Breitling and Bentley, to mention one case. In 2003 came the prestigious coupé Continental GT; in 2004, Spyker with Chronoswiss for its C8; and in 2006, Peugeot with Bell & Ross for its concept car, the 908 RC.
Jaeger-LeCoultre went even further with the idea of integration. It came up with the AMVOX2 Transponder for Aston Martin, a mechanical watch featuring a transponder that allows the owner to lock and unlock the English brand's exceptional coupés or sedans by applying pressure to the sapphire crystal.As we can see, the cozy relationship between watchmaking and car makers can be a real source of technical innovations for the watch companies.It has brought about the birth of revolutionary watches that have marked the history of watchmaking, like the Parmigiani Fleurier Bugatti Type 370 in 2004, whose transversally designed movement was inspired from the supercar, the Veyron, or the Hublot MP-05 LaFerrari from 2013, which boasts a power reserve of fifty days.The Jaeger-LeCoultre AMVOX2 also deserves mentioning again for its crownless case. The chronograph is activated by pressure on the sapphire crystal thanks to a unique mechanism that allows the case to be tipped.
Let us bet that the 2016 crop, with the International Motor Show in Geneva as a backdrop, will certainly be able to surprise us with some new and exceptional timekeepers.Among those we will most probably encounter, to discover or even re-discover, there will be some with wonderful shapes, like the Parmigiani Fleurier Bugatti Super Sport Saphir, Hublot MP-05 LaFerrari sapphire and the Bovet Pininfarina OttantaSei 10-Day Tourbillon.
Pictures credits: Bentley, Breitling, Chanel, Chopard, Ferrari, Hublot, IWC, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Parmigiani Fleurier, Rinspeed, Rolex, TAG Heuer, Zenith