Watchmakers get by with a little help from their friends. From ancient Egyptian water clocks to 18th century marine chronometers, collaboration has always been a driving force in horological innovation. Watches are incredibly complex objects; they pose infinite possibilities in both mechanics and aesthetics. I’ll save mechanical collaborations for a future article – there’s a lot to unpack there. When it comes to design partnerships, a few come to mind as particularly innovative, interesting, or otherwise notable. Without further adieu, let’s take a look at five iconic collaborations in the world of (contemporary) watchmaking.
TAG Heuer x Bamford (Monaco Ref. CAW2190.FC6437)
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We can’t talk about watch customization and/or collaboration without mentioning George Bamford. His studio, Bamford Watch Department, began with DLC-coated Rolexes and bespoke dial customization. Today, Bamford collaborates with brands such as TAG Heuer, Frank Muller, and Zenith, releasing limited editions of their most iconic silhouettes. If you’re familiar with George, you’re familiar with his love for TAG Heuer. It’s only appropriate that I include the Bamford TAG Heuer Monaco on this list. This carbon-cased Monaco features a black dial with Bamford’s signature “aquablue” accents. It was released one year after BWD’s modular “make-your-own-Monaco” interface: something that I was surprised to learn is still up. You can go on Bamford’s website and completely customize a brand new TAG Heuer Monaco. There are 14,913,800,000,000,000 possible configurations; I just did the math. We never see this level of customization in the luxury watch world, and for it to be an official partnership with TAG-Heuer is frankly remarkable.
Gérald Gente x Mickey Mouse (Ref. G3632)
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Best known for his designs of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and Patek Philippe Nautilus, Gérald Gente is one of the most influential names in watchmaking. Beyond his design efforts with other brands, Gente launched his own self-titled watch company in 1973 that lives on today.
In the 1980s and ‘90s, Gente shook up the industry with his officially-licensed Disney watches, specifically the Mickey Mouse variants. These jump-hour retrograde timepieces were an elevated take on the commonly-inexpensive character watch. For nearly a century, Mickey Mouse has appeared on watch dials from the likes of Ingersoll and Lorus – this was nothing new. However, the beloved mouse had never been printed on mother-of-pearl, with just one arm moving to indicate a retrograde complication. This watch entered Mickey into a whole new horological conversation. Gente’s ties to Disney live on to this day, as his brand’s submission to this year’s Only Watch charity auction was a one-of-one Mickey Mouse minute repeater (say that 5 times fast).
Swatch x Keith Haring (Ref. GZ10X)
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Around the time that Gente released his first Mickey Mouse watch (1984), Swatch was reclaiming Swiss watchmaking with colorful, stylish, inexpensive quartz offerings adored by everyone and their mother. At that same time, New York artist Keith Haring was exploding in popularity, known for his similarly playful and colorful art style. It was a perfect fit for Swatch. Naturally, they teamed up in 1986, creating four Swatches: the Modele Avec Personnages (ref. GZ100), Serpent (ref. GZ102), Milles Pattes (ref. GZ103), and Blanc sur Noir (ref. GZ104). Today, these watches go for just north of $1,000 apiece on eBay. I had to physically restrain myself from buying one while researching this article. Who said quartz watches couldn’t be cool?
Rolex x James Cameron (Sea-Dweller Deepsea D-Blue Ref. 116660b)
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The Rolex Sea-Dweller Deepsea D-Blue isn’t a “collaboration” by the same definition as the rest of the watches on this list. This watch is a tribute to James Cameron’s 36,000 foot journey to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. The actual watch that accompanied him – a prototype Deepsea Challenge rated to 15,000 meters of water resistance – was never commercially produced. The Deepsea D-Blue is a far more wearable watch (18mm thick as opposed to 35mm) sporting a blue-to-black gradient dial and green “DEEPSEA” text. This vibrant green hue matches the paint on Cameron’s submersible. Last year, Rolex released a titanium Deepsea Challenge (back to a chunkier thickness of 23mm), but it’s nowhere near as exciting to me as the Deepsea D-Blue. The neon green text appears directly at the point where blue turns to black: an eye-catching homage to Cameron’s descent.
Audemars Piguet x Marvel (Black Panther Royal Oak Concept)
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In 2021, Audemars Piguet released a Black Panther-themed Royal Oak Concept limited to just 250 pieces. The flying tourbillon watch features a hand-engraved, hand-painted sculpture of the superhero surrounded by a stunning purple rehaut. The watch’s satin-brushed titanium case is stunning and provides great contrast with its purple rubber strap (which of course matches the rehaut). This Marvel collaboration was met with a great deal of pushback from the “enthusiasts”. People claimed that the watch presented as a toy, didn’t belong under the Audemars Piguet name, or was otherwise unremarkable, weird, and/or gimmicky. I think those people need to take a deep breath and focus on watches they do like. If it’s not your cup of tea, that’s fine. I certainly wouldn’t wear it every day – but I definitely love it. All that said, the incredibly similar Spiderman-themed Royal Oak Concept (released this year) fell flat for me. Regardless, AP’s Marvel collaborations – while very fresh in our memories – will go down as hugely important partnerships in watchmaking.