Whether or not you believe fine watchmaking belongs to the world of contemporary art, you might agree that both pursuits present potential customers with the same kinds of barriers.
“Too expensive, elitist, snobby,” Simon Castets, executive chair of the Swiss Institute, a nonprofit art institution headquartered in New York City’s East Village, said on a recent video call.
Lately, however, Mr. Castets and his colleague, Mojdeh Cutter, the institute’s head of partnerships and events, have reconsidered the art world’s relationship to the watch industry as they prepare TimeForArt, a benefit auction of bespoke and limited-edition watches, many developed to match the event’s theme of “Artists for Artists.”
The live sale, to support the institute’s free public exhibitions, programs and educational workshops, is scheduled on Dec. 10 and 11 at Phillips’s Park Avenue gallery and is being organized in association with Bacs & Russo.
The auction’s 17 lots include a piece by the independent Swiss watchmaker Romain Gauthier featuring a dial hand-painted by the celebrated enamel artist Anita Porchet, an Arnold & Son watch designed by the contemporary artist Matt Copson and a collaboration between the avant-garde watchmaker Urwerk and the contemporary artist Cooper Jacoby.
Mr. Castets and Ms. Cutter, who also serves as TimeForArt’s managing director, said the idea was born of pandemic-induced necessity after the institute’s 2020 gala was canceled. “With travel and large gatherings suspended, it looked like a very large part of our fund-raising would be suspended as well,” Mr. Castets said. “It was a terribly gloomy outlook.”
When they realized that, despite the pandemic, the luxury watch business was continuing to soar thanks to a combination of social media-fueled demand, smaller supplies and the flow of stimulus cash and crypto wealth, they decided the time was right to explore ways of merging the two worlds.
“Watchmaking is obviously deeply intertwined with art making,” Mr. Castets said. “However, it’s very rarely explored in a meaningful way.”
In early 2021, he and Ms. Cutter reached out to Phillips and, at the same time, began assembling an advisory committee filled with watch world insiders including Ben Clymer, founder of the online watch platform Hodinkee; Suzanne Wong, editor in chief of the watch site WorldTempus; and the actor and watchmaker Aldis Hodge.
Mr. Castets described the process as “a crash course in watchmaking.”
“When it really clicked for me was when I met with Anita Porchet,” he said, referring to a 2021 visit to the enamel specialist’s workshop in the Swiss countryside, about an hour north of Lausanne. “I was really blown away and moved by the way she was working.
“In her studio there were a few white dials that were next to her tools and she used them like a painter’s palette,” he added. “It reminded me of chromatic experiments in abstract art. She’s like a painter, just working with a different medium, different dimensions and a different context.”
Ms. Cutter, on the same video call, noted that the auction reflected the changes happening in fine art and high-end watchmaking. “If this was an idea we had 10 years ago, I’m not sure any of these brands would have been nearly as receptive,” she said. “Now, some brands are catching up to the fact that their audience is mostly going to be Gen Z and millennials and we need to engage them in a more creative way.”