The Art of the Watch: Introducing Swatch’s Jean-Michel Basquiat Tribute Collecti
Architecture & Design

The Art of the Watch: Introducing Swatch’s Jean-Michel Basquiat Tribute Collection

Pop culture icon Swatch turns 40 this year, and what better way to celebrate than with a new art-inspired capsule collection (and limited edition box set) featuring a cultural icon of the 1980s?

By Rhonda Riche

The art world of the 1980s was an era of chaos. The downtown Manhattan art scene was turned upside down by post-modernism, post-expressionism, and of-the-moment hip-hop. And for one night this May, Swatch summoned that spirit of disruption with a party on the Lower East Side to preview its Swatch x Basquiat Capsule Collection. The legendary DJ Grandmaster Flash was even on hand, spinning the wheels of steel.

Many of the young artists of the day – such as Jeff Koons, Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, and Richard Prince – are still influential today, but nobody had quite the impact as Jean-Michel Basquiat. He was as prodigious as Picasso, and although he died in 1988 at the young age of 27, his work still resonates in our everyday lives.

Swatch, a pop icon in its own right, is honoring Basquiat’s important legacy with a collection of timepieces that tap into the current cultural mood. But the watch brand has done more than slap some of his work on a watch and called it a collaboration. Instead, these watches feel more like an extension of the artist’s vision than an interpretation. Here’s why.

The SAMO Scene

There’s no argument that Jean-Michel Basquiat is one of the most relevant and influential artists of the contemporary art period. And today, you can find his work emblazoned everything from skateboards at the MoMA Design Store to graphic t-shirts at UNIQLO.

Like Haring and Scharf, the Brooklyn-born Basquiat got his start in hip-hop. The four components of the then-underground movement were DJing, MCing, breakdancing, and graffiti. Basquiat rocked the turntables and tagged buildings on the Lower East Side with school friend Al Diaz under the nom-de-spray-paint SAMO (short for “same old,” it is pronounced “Same-Oh”), becoming a legendary figure at the tender age of 17.

At the same time, he was hanging around with downtown legends such as writer Glenn O’Brien and future Sex and The City costume designer Patricia Field (who carried Basquiat’s clothing designs in her eponymous shop).

Basically, Basquiat stood at the intersection of everything cool just as pop culture began to change at breakneck speeds.

Wearable Art

During the same period (the late-1970s into the 1980s), the Swiss watch industry was in the throes of the Quartz Crisis, with the worst year of the crisis, 1983, still to come. However, 1983 would also see the founding of Swatch in a last-ditch effort to save Swiss manufactures of mechanical watches with analog displays from the less expensive quartz alternatives with digital displays from Japanese brands like Seiko, Casio, and Citizen.

At first, the affordable and trendy plastic timepieces looked like they’d only made the situation worse, sounding the death knell for high horology. But soon, Swatch was shaking up watchmaking and reinvigorating consumer interest in the staid Swiss maisons (there’s a reason that some of your favorite luxury watches fall under the aegis of the Swatch Group).

Then in 1985, Swatch began collaborating with artists, and launched its first art special, the limited edition Swatch Kiki Picasso (a.k.a. KIKI), at an art exhibition in Paris. The brand called these editions the “world’s smallest canvas.” Fun Fact: Once you factor in past auction results and collector demand, the KIKI is currently valued between $22,000 and $23,000, making it the most expensive Swatch model in the world.

As the years have passed, Swatch has unveiled works designed by Basquiat’s friends and contemporaries, like Haring and Scharf, American video artist Nam June Paik, performance artist Yoko Ono, and multi-media artist Damian Hirst, to name just a few.

Meanwhile, the pieces in Swatch’s Art Journey collection also encompass artworks found in the world’s greatest museums, such as the MoMA, Centre Pompidou, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, and the Gallerie Uffizi.

World Famous

Basquiat’s life still resonates on many other levels. During his lifetime he dated Madonna, palled around with Andy Warhol, and when Grand Master Flash didn’t show up to the shoot, he was even hired to appear in Blondie’s video for the song “Rapture.” Moreover, his rags-to-riches to drug-fueled early-death story has been the subject of one biopic, three documentaries, and numerous books and essays.

Then, there is the auction scene, where the popularity of his paintings remains unbeatable. For instance, after the $110 million+ sale of his artwork, “Untitled (Skull)” (1982) at a Sotheby’s auction in 2017, the piece became the first work created after 1980 to make $100 million at auction, while Basquiat became the first African-American artist to have a work sell for over $100 million and surpassed then-record holder for most expensive work by an American artist, Andy Warhol’s “Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) (in 2 Parts),” which sold for $105.4 million in 2013.

The fifth capsule collection of the Swatch Art Journey 2023, the Swatch x Jean-Michel Basquiat Collection features three watches that honors some the artist’s most moving pieces: “Hollywood Africans” from 1983, “Ishtar” also from 1983, and “Untitled (Crown)” from 1982.

Chosen because they convey historical references and comment on issues, such as stereotypes of African American artists in the entertainment industry, Swatch is hoping this collection taps into the intersection of urban sports and contemporary street art sub-culture by connecting Basquiat’s art with skate and BMX culture through Swatch Pro Team athletes, like world champion pro skateboarder Andy Anderson and nine-time BMX world champ Matthias Dandois, who are featured in the advertising campaign.

Finally, for collectors, the trio of watches in the Swatch x Jean-Michel Basquiat collection will also drop as a special box set. consisting of tributes to three of the artist’s most moving works: These pieces were chosen because they convey historical references and comment on issues such as stereotypes of African American artists in the entertainment industry.

Pricing & Availability

Available now, the “Hollywood Africans,” “Ishtar,” and “Untitled” editions can be purchased separately for $105 each. Or, starting on May 18th, you can buy them all together as part of the limited edition Swatch x Jean-Michel Basquiat Collection triptych box set (price for the box set was unavailable at publication; orders will be filled on a first-come, first-served basis).

For more information, please visit Swatch’s website.

(Images © Swatch)

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