Over the past year almost all of us have missed the experience of discovering something new, like art in an unfamiliar museum or a visit to different city. But “The Persistence of Memory,” a new digital exhibition that allows users to explore some of the world’s most distinctive handcrafted timepieces, might make up for some of those lost moments.
Introduced in March by the Singapore-based watch retailer the Hour Glass, the survey of artisanal timepieces features 150 watches created by 21 influential watchmakers from 1970 to 2020. The watches are grouped in virtual viewing rooms with titles like “The Grand Master” (Philippe Dufour), “The Unassuming Finn” (Kari Voutilainen) and “The Eighties Hotshot” (Franck Muller).
“Before a brand, there is a person,” Michael Tay, group managing director of the Hour Glass and the exhibition’s curator, said during a video interview. “They’re not just watchmakers, but business owners, entrepreneurs, marketeers, sales directors.”
Each room includes the maker’s biography, a chronology of his work and links to essays from other publications. Some even include videos (a 1970s film on the British master George Daniels is a delight). And there are fun tidbits like memorable quotes and the astrological signs of each artisan. (Aries and Pisces abound.)
It is just like going to a watch museum, complete with a guest book and gift shop, but you can scrutinize every piece from all angles: the high-resolution images can be downloaded and enlarged.
“How many times can people get access to watches like those, to examine the details?” Mr. Tay said. “They want to assess the quality of the finishing, the quality of the engraving on the dials or the chamfering on the bridges of the movement.”
Using the name of the 1931 Salvador Dalí painting as the exhibition’s title is evocative, said Todd Levin, director of the art consultancy Levin Art Group and a connoisseur of horology. “The watches famously morphing from solid to liquid in Dalí’s painting signify the transformative power of dreams,” Mr. Levin wrote in an email. “What greater dream in the world of horology than that of a watch, created from first to last by the vision and hands of one watchmaker?”
The idea of an exhibition on artisanal watchmakers started brewing among the Hour Glass staff members in 2018. Then, “in the early stages of the pandemic, when we started realizing something very serious was going on in the world and was going to affect the way we lived, there was this real sense of concern about how physical engagement with people was going to be challenged,” Mr. Tay said.
“We got this idea of developing this online viewing room and proposing this idea of an artistic, nonutilitarian form of horology.”
The Hour Glass, a specialist watch retailer with 45 boutiques in the Asia-Pacific region, has an in-house information technology team and a longtime relationship with a professional photographer, so it handled the entire project. The business had been involved in exhibitions before, but this was its first digital one — and, Mr. Tay said, the only one of its kind in the watch world.
The staff estimated that the project took 3,000 hours, 500 of which was spent on photography alone as numerous shoots and reshoots were required. And creating the platform involved testing several formats before a final choice could be made.
All 150 watches came to Singapore. “Right at the beginning, we had a policy: We won’t put anything in this viewing room if we can’t photograph it physically in Singapore,” Mr. Tay said. “That’s why some watches were not present, as we could not convince some owners to ship them, and also due to disruptions in transporting during the pandemic. It was a huge endeavor, it took a lot of coordination with the shipping and insurance. But it was important to have a consistency with the images.”
Collectors primarily provided the watches, although a few — like Rexhep Rexhepi’s graduation watch and the very first timepiece that Mr. Voutilainen ever made — came from the watchmakers themselves.
Ten people — including Jiaxian Su, founder of the online site WatchesbySJX — helped to select the watches and wrote most of the essays and photo captions.
“Artisanal watchmaking still is what it always was: technology and craftsmanship intertwined to a degree that is difficult to find elsewhere, while also being exceedingly personal in a physical sense because a watch is something you can wear,” Mr. Su wrote in an email.
Mr. Tay said the pandemic had expanded appreciation of the mechanical wristwatch, just like what happened during the 1970s quartz crisis, when inexpensive quartz-powered watches all but killed the mechanical watch industry, and during the early spread of the smartwatch.
Yet, even as new enthusiasts discovered watches in the past year, Mr. Tay said that he felt they were missing something: an understanding of the watch as a historical and cultural object. “What we tried to do with ‘Persistence’ was to express this arc of history, the ability to examine past masters and past masterpieces and show the evolution over the span of five decades, and how today’s watchmakers were influenced by their predecessors,” he said.
For example, he said, the 19th-century watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet influenced 20th-century artisans like Dr. Daniels, Derek Pratt, Thomas Engel and Richard Daners — all of whom, in turn, have influenced Mr. Rexhepi and Rémy Cools, two millennial watchmakers. “We haven’t explored this idea enough in watchmaking,” Mr. Tay said. “We see it happening in the world of art and design, but not in watchmaking circles.”
As for the chronology, the staff knew where the exhibition would start: with Dr. Daniels (“the phenomenon of independent watchmaking can arguably be traced to him,” according to the site). And where it would end: the present day.
“It was just about filling in the bits in between,” Mr. Tay said.
“Persistence” also was something of a personal record for Mr. Tay. “My first job was working in the factories of Gérald Genta and Daniel Roth,” he said
Nicholas Manousos, the executive director of the Horological Society of New York, a nonprofit organization established in 1866 to advance horology through education, said he believed the exhibition would serve as a reference point for decades to come. “Watchmaking, especially the independent variety, is an intangible cultural heritage for us all,” he wrote in an email.
Its information, however, will not appear in print. Mr. Tay said an exhibition book would not be compatible with the concept of an online repository that will be constantly updated. But, “we endeavor to continue telling the stories,” he said, “stories that are still unfolding.”