In the late 1990s, when Daniel A. Spitz was a student at the Watchmakers of Switzerland Training and Educational Program (better known as WOSTEP) in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, he visited the Audemars Piguet factory in nearby Le Brassus.
“I was trying to explain to them, ‘Do you have any idea how much disposable income and how many watch collectors there are in music?’” Mr. Spitz said on a recent video call from his home in Gun Barrel City, Texas, about an hour’s drive southeast of Dallas. “‘If you collaborated with musicians, how many more people would have an awareness of what a really good timepiece is?’ They just looked at me as if I was nuts.”
Oh, how times (and tunes) have changed!
Over the past few years, many Swiss watchmakers, including Audemars Piguet, have struck partnerships with artists, D.J.s, award shows, music festivals and even recording studios that underscore the fundamental link between music and timekeeping. (Let’s not forget the Italian word “tempo” comes from the Latin “tempus,” meaning time.)
It’s a topic Mr. Spitz is particularly qualified to address. A former lead guitarist for the pioneering thrash metal band Anthrax, he left the group in 1995 to become a watchmaker, a passion he attributes to a childhood spent tinkering with Swiss timepieces at his grandfather’s watch and jewelry store in New York’s Catskills region.
(He did return to Anthrax from 2005 to 2008 for a reunion cycle, then quit music for good. “My carpal tunnel syndrome inhibits me from playing for long periods of time,” he said.)
The carpal tunnel syndrome has not stopped Mr. Spitz from designing and building about three custom wristwatches a year, with prices starting at $128,000, and a waiting list approaching two years. Making one complete watch at a time has allowed him to avoid making repetitive tasks with his hands, he said, but when there was a problem he would just stop and work on something else.
As he riffed on the intrinsic link between music — particularly his brand of heavy metal — and high-end mechanical watchmaking, he emphasized the focus, precision and ambition that both fields require. “When you want to become one of the best guitar players on the planet, you lock yourself up in your room for years and you play and you play and you play — you have to figure it out,” Mr. Spitz said. “It’s the same in watchmaking.”
As for the Swiss, the connections have struck a chord — look to just a few recent sponsorships, themed collections and even product collaborations.
In 2019, Audemars Piguet became a global partner of the Montreux Jazz Festival (a role formerly filled by the Swiss brand Parmigiani Fleurier). That same year, the watchmaker introduced a music program to support rising music artists and to create music experiences for audiences around the world.
Before the festival’s 55th edition concluded on July 17, the brand continued that mission by presenting a live performance by the Montreal-based hip-hop duo the Lyonz, staged in the foothills of the Swiss Alps around Montreux.
The American watchmaker Bulova, owned by Citizen Watch, staked its claim on the mainstream music industry in 2016, when it signed agreements with the Recording Academy and the Latin Recording Academy to create and distribute watch collections featuring the logos of the Grammys and the Latin Grammys.
It even has made special-edition Grammy watches for first-time winners featuring dials made of the same custom alloy used for the ceremony’s gramophone-shaped award, a substance called Grammium.
“It’s not just about selling a watch,” Jeffrey Cohen, Bulova’s chief executive, said. “It’s about selling a vibe or a feeling.”
Even though the pandemic generally made it impossible to enjoy that vibe at live events, plenty of brands created virtual music experiences throughout 2020 and the first half of 2021. Bulova, for one, continued its three-year-old “Tune of Time” video series spotlighting emerging musicians, established in partnership with the Universal Music Group. And Zenith teamed with the electronic music D.J. Carl Cox last fall to organize a private D.J. set on Zoom for about 50 clients in Mexico.
“Clearly, you’re not getting the same outcome when you’re doing it online,” said Julien Tornare, Zenith’s chief executive, on a recent phone call. “You miss the atmosphere, you miss the real sound, you miss the interaction with the artists. But between doing nothing and this, we went with this.”
For the Geneva watchmaker Vacheron Constantin, which in 2018 signed a long-term agreement with Abbey Road Studios, the London recording site made famous by the Beatles, the pandemic was trickier to navigate. “It definitely put a hold on client experiences,” said Laurent Perves, the brand’s international commercial director and chief marketing officer.
Before the pandemic, Vacheron Constantin used the recording complex as an event space (like celebrating the debut of its Fiftysix collection in 2018). More intriguing, however, was what the brand did with its La Musique Du Temps collection of chiming watches introduced in 2019: Vacheron arranged for the sound engineers at Abbey Road to record each timepiece’s unique sonic print, “so if one day clients want to have their watches serviced, we can reproduce the exact sound,” Mr. Perves said.
That kind of project is a more sophisticated endeavor than just a sponsorship to raise a brand’s profile, said Silvia Belleza, the Gantcher associate professor of business at the Columbia Business School in New York, where she studies how consumers indicate status to one another. “If you can show why there’s a connection between the measurement of time and the music or sound,” she said, “it’s not only placing the brand name close to an event or cultural activity, you’re actually creating a story.”
But, do any of these collaborations actually sell watches?
“The objective here is to bring something additional to our clients in terms of experience, content, access and storytelling,” Mr. Perves said. “Spreading the message and educating people on what we do is important to us.”
(The executives may not be saying it, but of course that kind of community building is a pillar of the industry’s modern sales strategy.)
Although if watchmakers wanted to determine the return on their investment, it’s doubtful they could.
“I’m not going to lie — it’s very difficult to quantify,” Ms. Belleza said. “It’s not like you have a shop at the music event and you can count how many watches you are selling. The return is more about awareness, visibility, connection with high-end activities — not the number of watches sold in the short term.”
Instead, watchmakers who create sensory experiences powered by music — even, or especially, when the music doesn’t match the brand’s image (cue Mr. Spitz’s Anthrax hits, like “I’m the Man” from 1987) — may form long-term connections with existing clients and pick up new customers along the way.
Take it from Lee Garfinkel, an advertising creative director who has used music throughout his career, often unexpectedly.
In 1995, he created a television commercial for Mercedes-Benz with Janis Joplin singing “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz” on the soundtrack.
“At first, the dealer group went crazy,” Mr. Garfinkel said on a recent phone call. “‘Why are you using this screeching woman singing about my cars?’ But in my mind, it was a great way to help people wake up and realize there was something new and different happening.”
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