The dictionary tells us that ethnography is “the field of social science that examines the culture and way of life of particular peoples or societies”. The representation of national or regional traditions and customs is not something that is immediately associated with watchmaking. And yet, recently, the most English of the Swiss watch brands, Graham, unveiled an astonishing watch illustrating one of the Swiss traditions best known to the inhabitants of this country, representing a folk art that all tourists associate with Switzerland.
Everyone is familiar with these paintings, drawings, cut-outs or sculptures, simple and naive, showing herds of cows climbing to the mountain pastures for the summer, equipped with bells and decorated with bouquets of flowers between the horns, and armaillis (traditional Swiss cowherds and dairy farmers) in historic costumes. Called poya, this pictorial art of transhumance, originating from the canton of Fribourg, was originally a way of taking account of the livestock, men and equipment brought to the mountain pastures each year, and the paintings or engravings made were affixed to door lintels and barns. Since the second half of the 20th century, many artists have taken up the theme of the poya.
Chronofighter Grand Vintage Swiss Edition © Graham
To replicate such a typically Swiss folk illustration on a watch is not as straightforward as it sounds — the concept is rife with the possibility of inadvertent pastiche and parody. Imagine, a watch with a cowhide strap, a dial of cow horn adorned with a plethora of motifs that could so easily look like an inventory list of souvenir shop trinkets. Thankfully, skillful execution carries this watch to safety: a composition of cows, ibexes and deer, a young girl in costume playing the alphorn and her companion throwing the Swiss flag, a quintessentially Swiss chalet in the centre, the unmistakable Matterhorn accompanied by soaring eagles at 12 o’clock and, all around the dial, a flowery frieze of rare and much sought-after edelweiss blossoms. The whole, treated symmetrically, in two parts facing each other, and in black and white, echoing the Swiss folk art of papercutting. Graham’s Chronofighter Grand Vintage Swiss Edition pays homage to Switzerland in the most original and surprising way, and it does so successfully.
This is not the first watch that has bravely attempted to illustrate a national cultural heritage. Here is a small anthology of precedents.
Since 2017, Bulgari has drawn on the Greco-Roman heritage of its origins to integrate antique coins into their Monete secret watches. In 2019, two new Octo Roma Monete watches, one in pink gold, the other in platinum, with an ultra-flat skeleton movement, included in their lid a silver Roman coin from the 4th century AD, bearing the effigy of Emperor Constantine I and an inscription in Latin.
Octo Roma Monete © Bulgari
The American coins used in Corum’s Coin watches, a collection launched in 1964, are more recent. In 2017, Corum unveiled three Coin watches — the first with a silver dollar on the dial, the second with an 18k Double Eagle coin, and for the third, a 1973 coin struck on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
Coin watches © Corum
What is the strongest symbol of Cuban culture? The cigar! So emblematic is the Cuban cigar that even the anniversaries of the most prestigious “models” are commemorated. Zenith has released several watches dedicated to the house of Habanos, and last year produced a trilogy of Pilot Type 20 Chronograph watches, dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the Trinidad cigar, with dials decorated with tobacco leaves.
Pilot Type 20 Chronograph Trinidad © Zenith
Mexico and its Day of the Dead inspired Chopard, whose unique L.U.C Perpetual T Spirit of “La Santa Muerte” is decorated with motifs typical of the Día de los Muertos, and Hublot, whose eccentric and colourful Big Bang One Click Calavera Catrina thumbs its nose at death. For their unique piece “Only Mexico”, Louis Moinet went back to the roots of Mexican culture. The centre of the dial represents the Great Sun Stone, a giant sculpture created during the reign of the Aztec Emperor Axayacatl.
Chopard L.U.C Perpetual T Spirit of ‘La Santa Muerte’, Hublot Big Bang One Click Calavera Catrina, Louis Moinet Only Mexico © Chopard / Hublot / Louis Moinet
Among the many watches illustrating the United States — including Patek Philippe’s Calatrava Grand Canyon Marquetry or World Time Minute Repeater New York — is the limited series by Kerbedanz dedicated to Texas. These timepieces showcase popular symbols of the Lone Star State, such as cowboys, rodeo bulls, the iconic six-shooter, longhorn cattle and ranch horses. Collectors can order a unique piece featuring the symbols of their choice.
Tribute to Texas © Kerbedanz
Much more discreetly, Seiko honours Japan’s artisanal heritage through models with dials in Arita porcelain or Urushi lacquer, a technique that Chopard has also used, notably for its L.U.C. XP pieces featuring dials decorated with the animals of the Chinese zodiac.
Presage automatic Arita © Seiko