Our Fave Watch Collabs And Why They're Great
Successful creative collaborations aren't just the result of watch brands working with talented individuals, it’s also about meeting creative partners halfway, to create truly memorable watches
Forget about integrated steel sports watches, or vintage reissues. The real trend in watchmaking right now is collaboration. Brands teaming up with other brands, designers, ambassadors etc., has gone from a niche exercise to core business for major brands. For proof of this concept, you don't have to look any further than the Blancpain x Swatch Bioceramic Scuba Fifty Fathoms, the follow-up to the massively successful Moonswatch.
Years ago, I was on my way to interview a designer who had recently teamed up with a watch brand for a collab. If I were completely honest, I hadn't done too much research and didn't really know where to start. Luckily, I was with a colleague who gave me some advice that conveniently sums up the entire discussion about collaborative watch designers. She said, "just ask if he's actually involved in designing the watch, or if he's just a stylist." Not only is this an inflammatory question guaranteed to fire up anyone with an ounce of creative integrity, but it cuts to the heart of the role of the collaborative partner.
It's relatively easy for a watch brand to present a few design options, get them approved and hit go on production. Real collaboration, though, involves meaningful input from both parties. So, when evaluating the partnership, you need to examine whether or not they are just putting another name on the dial to sell a few more watches, or if the creative partner is adding something to the conversation and working in a genuine partnership with the watchmaker to create something genuinely novel. So, without any further ado, here's a series of watch collabs where everyone brings something to the table.
Starting off strong is Audemars Piguet's partnership with jeweler Carolina Bucci. Bucci comes from a long line of Florentine jewelers, and the talented artisan has a particular interest in creating novel and varied textures from the OG precious metal, gold. Case in point, is her interest in the 'Florentine Finish', a specialist engraving technique that Audemars Piguet fans might know by another name; 'Frosted Gold'. When Carolina Bucci and Audemars Piguet first teamed up in 2016, it was on a series of frosted gold watches. Bucci's take on the technique sees a diamond-tipped tool rapidly create tiny indentations into the soft metal, giving it a glittering, frosted appearance. These watches were an instant hit, thanks to the novel treatment of one of watchmaking's most ubiquitous metals. In 2018, the partnership ramped up with another frosted case, but this time a pure, mirrored dial that contrasts beautifully with the heavily textured case. The most recent result of this fruitful partnership is a ceramic limited edition that offers a contemporary take on the tapisserie pattern, one that looks something like an iridescent disco.
What makes the partnership between Bucci and Audemars Piguet so good is that it plays to both parties' strengths. The Royal Oak is such a strong, well-defined icon, and Bucci's interventions with it subvert expectations in intriguing ways.
Another collaborator who frequently pushes the envelope of watch design is George Bamford, of Bamford Watch Department. The story of Bamford and watches is also an interesting example of the shifting seas of collaboration and customization. Back when Bamford started out in 2009, blacking out Rolex's and the like, he was very much an outsider in the watch establishment. Fast-forward to 2023, and you can 'officially' customize a watch from a range of brands, including Zenith, TAG Heuer, Bulgari and more. On top of that, he's used his networks to make limited editions with artists like Wes Lang, Daniel Arsham, and brands like RUF and even TikTok. Bamford's collaborations are prolific and varied - with black and light blue being a recurring motif. Even if you don't like every watch he makes, you can't deny that George Bamford has played a significant role in making collaborations cool.
While strong collaborations can be found everywhere, it seems that some watches lend themselves particularly well to new interpretations. Bulgari's Octo Finissimo (much like the Royal Oak) is a watch of strong lines with a declarative silhouette. Perhaps this clear identity is part of the reason why the series of Tadao Ando-designed watches have been so successful. Ando is a Japanese architect and Pritzker Architecture prize winner with a proclivity for concrete, clean lines and minimalism. Already, you can see the synergies between the two. Ando's 2019 design, which saw the dial of the Octo Finissimo covered in a zen-like pattern of concentric circles centers on the pinion of the seconds hand, really captured the spirit of the watch. He followed it up in 2021 with a lunar take on the same theme. Of course, the Octo Finissimo case is also ripe for experimentation, as the highly mirrored case made in partnership with architect Kazuyo Sejima demonstrates.
Finally, let's look a partnership that really epitomizes what good collaboration looks like; Hublot and Sang Bleu. Hublot is no stranger to collabs and limited editions, but some of their partnerships go further than most, the long-running relationship with Maxime Büchi of tattoo/design studio Sang Bleu is one example. The first venture of this pair came out in 2016, and already you could see that Sang Bleu was stretching the capabilities of the Big Bang, eschewing hands for complex (and heavy) geometric discs, as well as bringing their trademark geometry onto the case. In 2020, we got the second edition, which saw the case shape pushing into the strap end pieces and adding more heavy geometric shapes as chonograph hands. Earlier this year Sang Bleu gave the tonneau-shaped Spirit of Big Bang their trademark makeover. Put these three pieces next to each other, and you immediately notice two things. This trilogy of watches is remarkably consistent and quite dramatically different from Hublot's core collection in look and feel. It could easily be a completely separate brand. While Büchi's vision is impressive, what's even more remarkable is Hublot's willingness to go with it. It takes a great deal of security and trust in the process to walk such a demanding collaborative road. Of course, the fact that this particular series is commercially very successful probably goes a long way.
What we can take from all these examples is that successful creative collaborations aren't just the result of watch brands working with talented individuals with a clear vision (though that helps). It's also vital that watch brands are willing and able to meet their creative partners halfway. When this happens, the result is some truly memorable watches.