Design, on the dot

Watches made from sunken ships and moon dust. 

WORDS Brian M. Afuang


Purists, look away.

Or, look closer. Because what may, at a cursory glance, appear to be overwrought lumps of wrist candy are actually earnest examples of haute horlogerie. These are timepieces that pack serious complications and innovations, not to mention seriously cool materials. Think flying tourbillons and retrogrades, and bits of the Titanic and Apollo 11 assembled into hyper-styled watches.

Such dichotomy—that of combining high complications with decidedly un-classical aesthetics — defines some of the creations of RJ (as Romain Jerome prefers to be known). RJ was founded in Geneva, Switzerland, in 2004—practically Tuesday last week, in the context of the watchmaking industry—and it cannot crow of any distinguished heritage or provenance in the same way that, say, Breguet can claim to have adorned the pockets of a French emperor, or Rolex mentioning its inextricable association with American presidents.

But there is an upside to this. Over the years the company has seen a couple of CEOs in Yvan Arpa and Manuel Emch, the present chief. Quite tellingly, both are relatively young hardcore design guys who hail from the watchmaking regions of Switzerland. Both have served key stints with high-end manufacturers and both are considered to be among the most audacious watch designers in the horological universe today.

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DNA OF LEGENDS

RJ, distributed in the Philippines by the Its ‘Bout Time group, incorporates into its products the “DNA of legends.” To separate itself from its competitors, RJ has chosen to associates itself with non-living legends such as the Statue of Liberty and the moon. Just how much each of the sources’ bits have made their way into the watches is undisclosed, but RJ says the substances are the “poetic driving forces” behind its watches.

The brand’s collections—namely, Air, Earth, Sea, and Collaborations—are composed of designs that range from fiddly to grandiloquent (even if some are time-only affairs). Lavishly detailed pieces with multifaceted bezels, contrasting dial and case textures, and mixed degrees of handcrafted finishing are as diverse in case shapes and forms as the manner by which timekeeping is presented. Philosophy-wise, RJ has as much in common with the Bauhaus school as Ferraris have with a paper clip. Simply: restraint and regimented tidiness are not among RJ’s traits.

COLLECTIONS
Comprising the Air collection are the relatively sedate Moon Invader pieces; the 1969 (an obvious reference to the moon landing of the year); the skeletonized Skylab with skull-adorned “dials”; and the high-complication Moon Orbiter, whose flying tourbillon features spacecraft-like decor and whose dial is pockmarked, evoking heavenly bodies. Bits of the Apollo 11 have also found their way in this RJ.

Also infused with Apollo 11 parts are the Moon Dust Auto, Chrono, and Tourbillon models. But, as their nomenclature declares, the watches top their Air brethren by also getting a sprinkling of moon dust. Alongside these stellar touches are dials that are virtual moonscapes too, replete with craters and references to Roswell.

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The Earth collection is made up of the three Eyjafjallajökull models, which receive an element of a more earthly nature—volcanic ash. Named after the Icelandic volcano that erupted in 2010 and brought European air travel to a standstill, these watches have dials and bezels with coatings of ash, which are stabilized by hand-painted enamel to appear like lava. Bright red paint showing through “fissures” complete the molten-surface illusion.

Several interesting models fall under the Sea collection, most striking of which is the Steampunk series. Heaped with heavily textured bezels and case surfaces, as well as intricately detailed movements and dials, the pieces stay true to their Steampunk tag through the addition of moving parts that have no real purpose in timekeeping.

The approach draws flak from the form-follows-function set, but what really courts controversy is the use of metal derived from the Titanic’s wreck. Viewed by some quarters as a blatant exploitation of a tragedy, but defended by others as a proper homage piece, what is not up for argument is that the Steampunk and Titanic watches’ weathered “rusted-out” bezels have evolved into an aesthetic signature of the RJ brand. That both model lines boast of complications like a tourbillon and a chronograph (even a tourbillon/chrono) only add to their appeal.

Not as contentious, but no less definitive of RJ, are the numerous pieces belonging to Collaborations. In this collection are RJ’s most playful, if not outright juvenile, take on high-end watch-making: the Super Mario Brothers, Tetris, and a series of Pacman and Space Invaders models are quite illustrative, as are the recent releases of Batman watches. The Tattoo series, marked by “inked” straps or skulls on the dials, come across as slightly more mature. But just so.

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A subset of the collection is branded Historical Icons, and included here are RJ’s tributes to various milestones. The dials of the Dia De Los Muertos watches honor the Mexican festival for the dead; Berlin models mark the fall of Germany’s famous wall through a bas relief of a street map, on which outlined is the monument’s route; while Liberty celebrates the 125th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty by using fragments of the structure on its dial.

Watch brands’ flirtation with pop culture (or with other events) is hardly new, of course—Ingersoll made an icon out of its Mickey Mouse watches when the company introduced these in 1933, for example. But RJ raises unabashed pop culture references to designer/high horology levels, complete with the attendant stratospheric price tags (of the Collaborations models available locally, the cheapest goes for PHP750,000, with pieces from the other collections fetching prices well north of the million-peso mark). Which raises the question: Are these Warhol’s soup cans for the wrist?

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