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Fine Watches and Luxury Car Collaborations: What Drives Them?

Feature: Long Read
Words by ROBIN SWITHINBANK

In watch criticism, there’s a pointy view that some fine watch brands amount to little more than vehicles for high-spending marketing departments. In other words, that far more is invested in showing off than in making watches. While that’s not always entirely wrong, it’s surely no more right than the contrary view that if a brand grows off the back of aggressive marketing, it’s because it’s giving us something we already want. If you want to test the theory, remember that pure marketing brands, those selling snake oil, don’t last – then try and think of one.


Why bring this up? Because it’s this very criticism that is often levelled at watch brands that ally their products to the motoring world, the subject of this piece about watches and cars. Or should that be cars and watches? You don’t need a subscription to Autocar or to follow the F1 circuit to recognise there’s a link. Most watch companies with any brand cachet have at some point joined forces with a car manufacturer or F1 team, or – as is the case with TAG Heuer and the endless emotional value in the relationship between its square-cased Monaco and Steve McQueen – leveraged a petrol-fuelled pairing to advance their cause.

ROBIN SWITHINBANK, CONTRIBUTING WATCHES EDITOR

"Most watch companies with any brand cachet have at some point joined forces with a car manufacturer or F1 team"

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Check out the F1 paddock when the season starts in Bahrain at the end of this month [February 2024] and you’ll spot more than one watch name amid the coverage – from TAG Heuer on the overalls of triple world champion Max Verstappen to the likes of IWC Schaffhausen, Girard-Perregaux and Bremont woven into the liveries of the Mercedes (see Lewis Hamilton, pictured), Aston Martin and Williams Racing cars respectively. Only earlier this month [1st February 2024], the high-end independent H. Moser & Cie announced it had collaborated with Alpine Motorsports, covering every area of the marque’s activities, including its F1 team.

In each case, it could be argued that the symbiosis of the two – watches and cars, cars and watches – is purely marketing. And it would be hard to argue that it isn’t. But then, to return to the theory, it also means they’re giving us more of what we already want and making good use of a platform that lets us know they’ve got it. It also doesn’t mean they aren’t also exceptional watchmakers. As is the case with symbiosis in nature, these alliances only persist because they work. The only difference here is that there’s an added dynamic, namely the effect it has on us: the bystanding watch buyers. Many of us can’t help but get a kick out of seeing fine watches and cars come together in a marriage of design and engineering. And so we can expect it to continue. Indefinitely.

ROBIN SWITHINBANK, CONTRIBUTING WATCHES EDITOR


"As is the case with symbiosis in nature, these alliances only persist because they work. The only difference here is that there’s an added dynamic, namely the effect it has on us: the bystanding watch buyers"

When did it start? That’s hard to say. You could certainly pick as a frontrunner TAG Heuer, which began making dashboard instruments over a century ago, or even Vacheron Constantin whose Historiques American 1921 recalls a watch from the 1920s with a dial cocked at a gentle diagonal so it could be read more easily by someone gripping a steering wheel.

TAG Heuer was also the first Swiss watch company to enter F1 when it partnered with Ferrari in the early 1970s, and today its aforementioned Monaco shares the burden of telling the story of a brand built on sports timekeeping with the eternally handsome Carrera.

In the 1980s, Chopard hitched its wagon to the historic Mille Miglia road race and has released watches every year since revving up the oily-faced romance of a gruelling competition that over time has been contested by the likes of Jay Leno, Jodie Kidd, David Gandy and AC/DC frontman Brian Johnson, as well as some of history’s greatest racing drivers.

More recently, Roger Dubuis has honed ties to Lamborghini and Pirelli with its collection of high-octane Excalibur designs; IWC Schaffhausen has made a sequence of pieces to boost its collaboration with the Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 team; and Bremont’s Williams Racing collection includes a piece sold with an original wheel nut from a historic Williams race car.

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Alexander Albon wears Bremont x Williams Racing

"Many of us can’t help but get a kick out of seeing watches and cars come together in a marriage of design and engineering"

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At the same time, perhaps recognising not all are so easily won over by the colour and shout of high-level motorsport, Cartier and A. Lange & Söhne are to be found at some of the world’s finest concours – those parades of pristine classic cars that punctuate the summer social season. Indeed, the winner of the Concours of Elegance at Hampton Court drives off with one of the latter’s delicious 1815 chronographs. No doubt that’s a large part of the incentive to exhibit.

Because people who like cars tend to like watches. Just as people who like watches tend to like cars. And some substance has the watch company inclined to seize on that.

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