Zenith Collaborates with Artist Felipe Pantone, and a Brief Examination of the “Art Watch”

Something kind of strange happened recently, when Zenith finally unveiled their latest Defy 21 creation, a collaboration with the artist Felipe Pantone, after quite a bit of teasing. Being a bit of a Zenith nut, I quickly shared their post on Instagram, even before I could fully take it in. Then I started to receive messages about the watch: 

“Isn’t it amazing?”

“Are those hands for real?” 

“Oh, that’s fire.” 

“That is amazing!”

“I don’t know how I’m going to get one, but I’m going to get one.” 

What was strange is that these messages came not only from fellow watch lovers, but from, well, my normal friends, who in spite of my regular watch posts that I’m guessing they care very little about, still follow me on Instagram out of some kind of social media loyalty. This was not normal, and something I immediately made a mental note of and have thought about quite a bit since. This watch is what we’d normally think of as “unapproachable.” It has a crazy design that is well outside the norm, uses a somewhat difficult to wrap your head around complication, and it costs nearly $20,000. It’s not exactly what I’d think of as a pop culture crossover watch.


But if you take a step back and consider what this watch actually is, it’s no wonder that it resonated, and seemed to invite commentary. While it’s certainly a very capable mechanical watch, the involvement of Felipe Pantone, an Argentinian-Spanish contemporary artist who got his start in graffiti and now exhibits all over the world, makes this watch a work of art itself in a way that not many watches achieve, or even strive for. And when it comes to art, everyone has an opinion, and a reaction. 

Artist collaborations are not new in the watch world, but they’ve become something of a micro-trend unto themselves, particularly at the high end of the spectrum, which is certainly where this Zenith Defy 21 sits. But there are value oriented art watches as well, and if you come to watches as an art lover first, there’s an awful lot to enjoy and consider. And it’s not a great leap to assume that some artist collaboration watches, even if out of reach for average collectors, have a downstream impact on later designs both inside and out of the brands where they originated. It’s possible that if you love Felipe Pantone’s Defy 21 but can’t rustle up the cash to purchase one right now, the watch (and his work in general) could influence a product that hasn’t even been conceived of yet. 

The new Zenith Defy 21 created by Felipe Pantone seems to me to be made with a level of intent that isn’t common in watch design, and it could be argued that it’s an art piece first, and a watch second. After all, it’s in the artist’s signature style, doesn’t feel limited by the constraints of typical watch design, and is appropriately expensive and limited in nature. It feels like Pantone has truly used the Defy 21 as his canvas, or his blank wall, to create something that is his vision alone. The Defy 21, more than most watches, is a great blank canvas, with so much of the movement exposed, and the general complexity of the thing. There’s a lot for an artist to work with. 

Looking at Pantone’s watch, you immediately recognize the aggressive use of color. It’s not that there’s a lot of color, per se, as most of the open dial is taken up by white and black bands that are one of Pantone’s signature motifs. But where color is used, it’s done so boldly, creating a significant contrast with the black and white elements. The hour markers, hands, and some of the exposed bridge work is essentially Pantone’s take on the ultra trendy “rainbow” watches of the moment. The hands are particularly striking, and have been cut to resemble colorful, distorted lightning bolts.

You’ll notice that the colors shift into and out of one another, and this multicolor gradient effect was the product of considerable trial and error for Pantone and Zenith. A three dimensional PVD process was used, and silicon particles were utilized as a surface treatment on the movement, which is how they’re able to achieve a stable, gradient transition. Flipping the watch over, you can really see this take shape on the larger bridges that are fully exposed on the caseback. It’s absolutely psychedelic, and unlike any PVD finish on a watch that I can recall. Furthermore, because of the nature of the process Zenith is using to apply the color, no two pieces are exactly alike. 

The white and black bands that take up a significant amount of real estate on the dial were created with a Zenith developed laser engraving and lacquering technique. According to Zenith, the implementation is so precise that the finished product creates an optical illusion of movement when observing the contrasting stripes. Of course, it’s impossible to capture this in photos, and I have yet to see this watch in person, so we’ll have to take Zenith at their word, but it’s certainly easy to imagine an almost lenticular effect when viewing these elements from an angle. 

The artist’s signature is present in the case itself, which feels like a bold statement of purpose for both Pantone and Zenith. The letters “FP#1” are engraved into the corners of the case, which begs the question of whether or not we’ll see more Pantone designed watches in the future. The case, which is made of black ceramic, also has a grid pattern lasered into the bezel. 

Blake went hands on with another iteration of the Defy 21 a few months back, and discussed some of the finer technical aspects of this watch’s impressive movement in his review. There’s no need to get too deep into the weeds here, but as a refresher, the Defy 21 takes the basic architecture of Zenith’s El Primero and tweaks it to another gear entirely, giving it the ability to time events to the 1/100th of a second. The chronograph works get their own mainspring to handle the loads of power necessary to accomplish such a feat, and the power reserve indicator you see near the top of the dial references the juice left in the chronograph, specifically. The Land Rover branded version of the watch that Blake wrote up is perhaps the Defy 21’s most sober variant, and provides an interesting counterpoint to the Felipe Pantone version, which to date is clearly the most outlandish. You could probably tell a lot about a person, or at least make some bold assumptions, about which version of the Defy 21 they’d choose for their own collection.

Watches have mixed with the art world in various ways for years, and I’ve always had the sense that artist collaborations aren’t particularly well thought of in hardcore enthusiast circles. They would certainly seem to appeal to a very narrow customer base, and my own guess would be that the people who ultimately buy these watches consider themselves art collectors before they’d categorize themselves as watch fans. But there’s undoubtedly overlap between serious watch aficionados and those with a deep appreciation for art, and I imagine this is a key reason that these watches keep getting made. They also serve to bolster the reputations of the brands themselves, particularly if they’re able to collaborate with an artist on the rise. I think it would be fair to say that this could have played a role in Zenith’s decision to collaborate with Pantone – it says something about the brand that they wanted to make this watch at all, and Zenith clearly likes the impression it leaves. 

It’s likely not possible to run through every notable artist collaboration in a single article, but some notable watches come to mind that serve to contextualize the new Defy 21. To start, we don’t need to look back more than a month, to Swatch’s latest partnership with the Museum of Modern Art. These watches are part of a tradition for Swatch, which has developed a reputation for being extremely artist friendly. In addition to the MoMA partnership, they’ve also collaborated with artists like Damien Hirst, Keith Haring, David LaChapelle, and many more, and their art watches continue to be popular year after year as more and more are introduced. While these watches tend to be extremely collectible and fetch eye watering sums on the secondary market, when they’re born, they’re as affordable as any Swatch, and if you’re quick enough they offer an egalitarian opportunity to purchase a product attached to great modern artists with some real authenticity. 

The recent Swatch x MoMA collection
Swatch x Damien Hirst
Swatch x David LaChapelle

Swatch has carved out a niche highlighting the work of modern artists in an approachable context, and Zenith’s Defy 21 offers an aesthetic and thematic connection to the work of Felipe Pantone, but it’s certainly true that we’ve seen collaboration in years past that simply don’t make as much sense, and leave us scratching our heads. TAG Heuer’s relationship with Alec Monopoly comes to mind immediately. Monopoly is a New York City street artist who rose to fame using the iconic Parker Brothers “Mr Monopoly” character in his work. The TAG collaborations feature this character prominently on the dials of quartz Formula 1 watches, which just seems like a strange choice. Not because of the entry level nature of these watches in TAG’s catalog (the Swatch watches are quartz, after all) but because TAG Heuer, as a brand, doesn’t have an obvious connection to the art world in any meaningful way. Racing? Yes. Cutting edge modern horology? In more recent times, in certain watches, sure. But a play to art enthusiasts feels like a miss from this brand. That said, the sold out Alec Monopoly Formula 1 watches do trade above their retail price (although they have yet to hit the stratosphere, they are still relatively affordable in the grand scheme of things), so perhaps they are resonating with fans of Monopoly’s work. 

TAG Heuer x Alec Monopoly

Art watches can also provide a way for brands to pay tribute to artists of the past whose styles might influence either the aesthetic or spirit of their contemporary creations. Back in 2012, Girard-Perregaux paid tribute to architect and designer Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier, with a series of three watches (all based on the square cased Vintage 1945 platform) released as a tribute trilogy. Each watch was tied to a particular city that was critical in Le Corbusier’s development, and made in a style that references his work. One referenced his early work as a sculptor and engraver with a meticulously finished mother-of-pearl dial. Another, with a hand engraved metal dial of Le Corbusier’s “Modulor” system of human proportion, references his furniture designs. The third, and a personal favorite of mine for years, has a unique, hand finished concrete dial, and is a tribute to La Cité Radieuse, his iconic residential housing complex design located in Marseille. All of the watches in this series feel at home with Girard-Perregaux, a brand that historically has placed a great deal of importance on hand finishing in their watches, and shares a birthplace with Le Corbusier in La Chaux-de-Fonds.

Girard-Perregaux’s Le Corbusier trilogy

While traditional fine art is referenced in watchmaking surprisingly frequently (Jaeger LeCoultre’s Reversos with immaculately reproduced miniature renditions of Ferdinand Hodler paintings offer a recent example that highlights the brand’s attention to old world style hand craft techniques) there’s no doubt that collaborations between contemporary artists and watch brands is where most of the action is in this niche watchmaking sub-genre. It makes sense: the Alec Monopolys and Felipe Pantones of the world are available to work on these watches – Hodler has been dead for 100 years. And there’s a similar frenzy and buzz around contemporary art that isn’t too far removed from the absolute peak of avant garde independent watchmaking. It led artists like Takashi Murakami to Hublot, for instance, who recently created a version of that brand’s Classic Fusion with his trademark smiling flower design (made with a total of 563 black diamonds). 

In the current modern art landscape, however, there’s likely no name that looms larger than Jeff Koons. His balloon-like sculptures representing everyday objects and animals have set records in recent years for sale prices for a work of art by a living artist (his Rabbit sculpture, created in 1986, sold at auction for $91 million in 2019). Unsurprisingly, Koons has himself contributed to the art watch trend, collaborating with Marc Newson’s Ikepod brand in 2009. The “Cannonball” watches featured an image of Koons’ sculpture of the same name on the dial, a colorful pyramid of cannonballs that Koons crafted from polychromed aluminum. The green, purple and black balls are meant to recall the classic comic book representation of the Incredible Hulk, and the watches, appropriately, were made in both platinum and titanium limited editions. Like anything associated with Jeff Koons, both now trade for well over their original asking price.

Ikepod x Jeff Koons

Ultimately, watches in this category have a very limited appeal, but I think that’s what makes them fascinating. The same watch can appear too on-the-nose or heavy handed to an observer that doesn’t have a taste for the art or artist involved, and as a perfect meeting of two passions for someone drawn to the art in question. For me personally, the Defy 21 designed by Felipe Pantone hits all the right notes. It’s a watch and a brand that I have built in fondness for, and the execution of the design in Pantone’s style elevates the Defy 21 in a way that makes a lot of sense, given the watch’s already contemporary and adventurous aesthetic. More than anything though, it does something that all good art should do, and that’s provoke a reaction, and you don’t even have to be a watch lover to have one. Zenith

Images from this post:
Related Posts
Zach is a native of New Hampshire, and he has been interested in watches since the age of 13, when he walked into Macy’s and bought a gaudy, quartz, two-tone Citizen chronograph with his hard earned Bar Mitzvah money. It was lost in a move years ago, but he continues to hunt for a similar piece on eBay. Zach loves a wide variety of watches, but leans toward classic designs and proportions that have stood the test of time. He is currently obsessed with Grand Seiko.