Yvan Arpa is a breath of fresh air in the watch industry. Having worked his way up to managerial level within established Swiss brands, he decided a few years ago to throw that all away, and do something really daring as artistic director for a new brand, Romaine Jerome.
A series of new models followed, each more daring and controversial than the last. Watches with pieces of metal from the wreck of the Titanic; double-tourbillon watches with no hands, which told the time to within an accuracy of 12 hours; a watch made from a case material so reactive, it had to be sealed inside a glass bubble from which the air had been evacuated. It was as if Arpa was thumbing his nose, not just at the industry, but even at the collectors who avidly flocked to snap up these preposterous creations.
Romaine Jerome was catapulted instantly from a no-name start-up to one of the most discussed and sought-after brands on the scene. Their tiny booth at Baselworld 2009 was packed with customers for the entire fair. But it was all to end badly - Arpa left suddenly under a cloud, legal action was initiated, and the resulting court battle with its attendant negative publicity, combined with the sudden absence of Arpa's creative drive, drove the brand into bankruptcy.
Arpa is not a man to stand still. Almost immediately he launched his own brand - Artya. It's a clever name which derives from his own surname but also states his value proposition: each Artya watch is a unique piece of horological, visual and tactile art. They are also exercises in playfulness, rule-breaking, and pushing at the creative boundaries of what we think a watch can or should be. Oh, and they're affordable too.
Artya is a highly streamlined operation. Most of the work is outsourced; however, assembly, testing and final adjustments are done by a small team of in-house watchmakers. Arpa took space in a big, unglamorous warehouse in a run-down and unfashionable corner of Geneva, and immediately set about installing the one critical piece of equipment which every watch manufacture needs: a massive Tesla coil.
Er, critical if you're Yvan Arpa, that is. You see, if your first range of watches features cases whose exterior finishes are fashioned from lightning bolts, then a room-sized Tesla coil is definitely going to be high on your equipment shopping list. It's certainly a safer bet than standing on your roof in a storm holding a watch case in the air.
Most, but not all, of the Artya watches have cases like this. However, the dials are where things get even more interesting. Arpa uses such unusual materials as bullets (real ones which have been fired from a gun); butterfly wings; dinosaur faeces; paint which doesn't dry; part of the blade from an Indonesian kris; a plectrum and guitar string used by Paul Stanley in a KISS concert; bits of electrical circuitry; and so on. He's ably assisted in these wacky dial-making adventures by his wife Dominique, who creates many of the dials herself using 17 different artistic techniques.
Even the straps are bizarre on Artya watches. The most common material is cane toad skin. Yes, you read right, cane toad. Funnily enough, these straps are breathtaking in the flesh - thick, crusty, and highly textural, they perfectly match the rugged case designs and colourful dials of the Artya timepieces.
Arpa is currently sourcing his cane toads from Indonesia but is in the process of applying for a licence to import them from Australia, where the toads are of course considered a major pest.
I met first with Arpa's incredibly energetic and enthusiastic assistant and general "girl Friday", Wendy Witte, in the lounge of the Kempinski Hotel, with its sweeping views across Lake Geneva. After an hour or so of photographing, we were joined by Arpa himself. I spent the next couple of hours with this highly entertaining gentleman discussing the industry, his new brand, his multiple lawsuits (the guy seems to specialise in offending and pissing off prominent and powerful players in the industry, just for the fun of it), and anything else that popped into his hyperactive mind.
The watches themselves start at under 4,000 euros for a simple ladies' watch with quartz movement, to six figures for the most complicated tourbillon pieces. Pricing is generally pretty low considering what you are getting: every single piece is unique, and they are mostly quite breathtaking. These watches are talking points for your wrist - you need a big personality to carry them off. Which, appropriately, reflects perfectly their creator.
First up, the "Son of a Gun" watch, new for this year.
The rotor is also made from bullets - in this case, suitable for a 357 Magnum: fit to blow your head right off.
Even without the crazy innards, the cases themselves are works of art -
Here's a Son of a Gun watch featuring a "Struck by Lightning" case. The voltage of the Tesla coil can be varied. Mostly the cases are struck by a bolt arcing across between 200,000 and 500,000 volts -
"Liquid Dial" watch with PVD case. The paint is sandwiched between two clear plates, preventing it from drying. The resultant pattern shifts constantly as the paint flows around. It's also luminous - a perfect nightclub watch, maybe?
This next watch has a fascinating rotor which unfortunately I did not get to photograph. It incorporates round and square gears in a design which was invented by a Swiss watchmaker and "gifted" to the industry. Some other company immediately grabbed the idea and patented it. Arpa's response is to use the idea in his watch and dare that company to sue him. They probably will.
Skeletonised Jaquet movement inside what could be described as a "Fred Flintstone" case -
This watch has a dial made from "sacred Aboriginal sand". Sounds suspiciously like Secret Wimmin's Business to me.
One of several watches featuring a dial made from a butterfly's wing. Check out the toadskin strap too:
This tourbillon watch features a movement created by Valérien Jaquet to Arpa's brief. The layout is a homage to the Tesla coil used to create many of his cases -
Dial made from a fragment of an Indonesian kris knife -
This really is a breathtaking watch.
More butterflies -
Butterflies and toads! I love it -
Interesting enough from the front -
The back reveals four rotors!
An affordable ladies' piece. Arpa engraved the bezel and lugs himself -
OK, everyone has to have at least a couple of diamond-set watches in their range -
New for 2012, this is Arpa's comment on the current Euro crisis: the dial is made from a cut-up 50-Euro banknote...or is it 100? I forget. Either way, he's courting trouble again -
The Paul Stanley watch. Apparently Stanley liked this design so much, he invited Arpa to a KISS concert and after-party. I believe all four band members will get their own Artya watches -
Perpetual calendar with Mayan-inspired bezel -
The hieroglyphs on the movement bridge spell out Vita Brevis, Ars Longa - "Life is Short, Art is Eternal".
Have some of the diamonds fallen out of this bezel? Nope - Arpa just wanted it to seem that way.
Hope you enjoyed the show. Incredibly enough, Artya is now available at a boutique in Double Bay, on the ground floor of the old Ritz Carlton in Cross Street. I really should have suggested a "Michael Hutchence Memorial Watch" to Arpa - I wonder what that dial would look like...