It’s quite possibly one of the coldest weeks New York has experienced in years, with temperatures plunging to well below freezing, but the mood at The Grill, one of the city’s most high-powered steakhouses, is warm, hearty and positively jubilant. Located within the towering Seagram Building designed by architect Mies van der Rohe, with its awe-inspiring and recently restored 1959 Philip Johnson interiors, the Park Avenue skyscraper seemed the perfect place — tony enough and crammed with A-listers — to celebrate iconic artist Takashi Murakami’s birthday on Feb 1.
The party is hosted by Ricardo Guadalupe, the affable CEO of Hublot and the instantly-recognisable Murakami arrived in a clearly celebratory mood, dressed in a plaid coat accessorised with two bejewelled chains bearing his signature smiling flowers. But free-flow champagne, an exquisite American meal and towering birthday cake aside, what really brought the contemporary art superstar and luxury watchmaking maison together was the fourth phase of their ongoing artistic collaboration — this time, the announcement of a new collection of 13 NFTs and unique timepieces, one of which would be shown to an eagerly-awaiting world the day after.
The crypto conundrum
By all accounts, 2022 wasn’t a great year for anything crypto-related, a statement best exemplified by Sam Bankman-Fried’s sorry story. At the beginning of last year, his crypto exchange company FTX was valued at US$32 billion. By year-end, it was bust and Bankman-Fried was charged with criminal fraud. Bitcoin took a beating as well, with its value halved, then quartered. But for Hublot, it was a year to remember.
Taking its first plunge into the NFT sphere at last year’s Watches & Wonders tradeshow by launching two NFT digital works inspired by the two watches from its artistic collaboration with Murakami in 2021 — the Hublot Classic Fusion Takashi Murakami All Black and the Classic Fusion Takashi Murakami Sapphire Rainbow limited to 200 and 100 pieces respectively, and which sold out in just a few days — Hublot’s exciting start to 2023 offered a slightly different continuation of the project. To give context and to paraphrase a popular tagline, loyalty does have its privileges.
Art + heart
Chapter four of the Hublot-Murakami partnership was, fittingly, unveiled at the Glasshouse Chelsea in Manhattan’s artsy West 25th Street. Glasshouse real estate developer Jack Guttman was the original visionary behind the Chelsea Arts Tower which launched over 12 years ago while the venue’s immediate neighbour is none other than the celebrated Pace Gallery, whose new Bonetti/Kozerski-designed mega headquarters, spanning a whopping 75,000 sq ft, is aptly nicknamed Super Pace.
The Glasshouse’s requisite floor-to-ceiling glass windows and outdoor terrace (unpopular that evening due to an incoming polar vortex) offered breathtaking views of the city and the nearby Hudson River but few guests bothered to look out that night, preferring instead to look in — especially once the evening’s highlight was unveiled. The 13th and most coveted of all the timepieces turned out to be a jaw-dropping Classic Fusion Takashi Murakami Black Ceramic Rainbow, a unique creation whose colourful dial was boldly adorned with the artist’s emblematic pop art flower made using a perfect gradient of rubies, sapphires, amethysts, tsavorites and topaz. Spread out across 12 petals using 384 gemstones, the petals create a dazzling kaleidoscope when spun on an axis, developed by Hublot’s engineers, with each movement. Housed within a 45mm black ceramic case, the watch’s heart is powered by the in-house self-winding Unico Calibre, which offers 72 hours of power reserve.
The remaining 12 references of these new and unique timepieces will be unveiled shortly at Watches & Wonders 2023 but, to give an added twist to an already hyper-exclusive offering, they will be sold exclusively on hublot.com, which can only be accessed by owners of at least one of the previous 324 NFTs issued last April as part of the third and previous collaboration between the Swiss maison and the Japanese artist. The NFTs were originally offered to the owners of the Classic Fusion Takashi Murakami All Black and Classic Fusion Takashi Murakami Sapphire Rainbow before they were allowed to be exchanged on the decentralised NFT trading platform, OpenSea.
So, to get their hands on the new Classic Fusion Takashi Murakami Black Ceramic Rainbow, collectors have a fair bit of wheeling, dealing and lobbying to do. First, only the NFT holders may vie to purchase the pieces online, after which there is a one-year window in which the 12 NFTs may be traded on OpenSea. By April 2024, only the lucky (and deep-pocketed) collector who has successfully amassed all 12 of the new unique NFTs is eligible to purchase the masterpiece that is the Classic Fusion Takashi Murakami Black Ceramic Rainbow. In the event no one emerges successful in collecting the full dozen NFTs, the watch would be auctioned off to benefit a charity of Hublot’s choice.
“Our partnership with Takashi Murakami is allowing us to construct a history that interlinks all the works we have released with him — both digital pieces and the watches themselves,” Guadalupe says. “Our collaboration has led us to digital art, a field of expression in which Hublot has become a pioneer on the watchmaking planet. NFTs have become an integral part of our ‘Hublot Loves Art’ artistic world. Faithful to our history, Hublot is once again first, unique and different in how it rewards its collectors, providing them with privileged access to both ownership of and trade in unique artistic pieces.”
Hublot also scored a coup of sorts by working with Murakami. As visible and influential today as Andy Warhol was in his heyday, the Japanese artist’s forte lies in bridging worlds, juxtaposing fine art and art for the masses; nihonga (the classic and traditional Japanese style of painting) and anime-manga; and polarising price tags in general. His 1998 My Lonesome Cowboy sculpture and arguably most famous work, for example, sold for more than US$15 million at Sotheby’s in 2008. But any man in the street can enjoy a touch of Murakami’s art in his daily life by picking up, say, a Murakami Flowers T-shirt at the Gagosian shop for US$120 (RM516).
Although no one would dare question Murakami’s talent or bankability, it must be underscored how he remains one of the rare few who have successfully bridged the world of fine art with watchmaking as well as the NFT sphere. It was a chance visit to the Hublot manufacture in Switzerland just before Covid-19 upended the world that moved him to marvel at the intricate know-how, precision, futuristic technology and craftsmanship that are all part of a watch’s creative process.
“So bringing my art into the creativity of these watchmakers represents a unique adventure for me. When my collaboration with Hublot was announced, we made it known that we would be adopting these new forms [of artistic expression]. After creating all the timepieces together, as well as the digital works of art, we are now imagining new ways of accessing contemporary art,” he enthuses.
Murakami, who just turned 61, was already a pioneer, dabbling in uncharted crypto territory two years ago after seeing a Mike Winkelmann alias Beeple NFT set a US$69 million record in crypto under Christie’s hammer — reportedly the third-highest work sold by any living artist, after Jeff Koons and David Hockney. And although his NFT foray has not been without the occasional hiccup, his smiling flower reminds all of us that one just needs to keep calm and carry on.
The maison's choice
Despite Hublot and Murakami both being giants in their respective fields, many might not realise that it was Singaporean Michael Tay, group managing director of luxury watch retailer The Hour Glass group, who first brought them together.
“It was indeed Michael who suggested going to Saitama, a 45-minute drive from Tokyo and where Murakami’s studio in Japan is,” says Guadalupe. “Michael was instrumental. Takashi-san had said no to offers of collaborations several times. When we visited him, we were certain it would be another ‘No’. So we were surprised when he told us this time he would consider working together — but only if he could make the watch from scratch.”
“I am very interested in understanding the watch complications,” Murakami concurs. “Hublot was very kind to me and that was a very good memory … but I never wanted an ordinary collaboration. I refused maybe three or four times [to collaborate before]. But Michael Tay — he is a big, big collector of my pieces — challenged me: ‘Please Takashi-san, just one short meeting with Hublot.’”
After the artist personally paid a visit to the Hublot manufacture in Nyon, Switzerland, it was all-systems go. “We were so lucky Takashi-san decided to come visit us in January 2020, right before Covid-19 … if not, this collaboration would never have happened,” laughs Guadalupe, looking visibly chuffed when recalling the story.
What followed, as all horological enthusiasts know, was the creation of the first Classic Fusion Takashi Murakami All Black timepiece in January 2021, followed by the release of additional pieces that year-end and then, in April 2022, the two Murakami NFTs before the present collaboration.
“You know, the partnership Hublot has with Murakami has been quite unbelievable for us,” adds Guadalupe. “Takashi-san is himself very innovative and very creative by going headfirst into NFTs. And I think he is one of the few who really understands how NFTs and fine art are interlinked. What makes this collaboration different, though, is that, instead of giving the NFT to the watch owner, the NFT gives the collector access to the watch.”
What lies ahead
Despite the palpable excitement in New York that night, Guadalupe does acknowledge no one can quite foresee the road ahead.
“You know, we’re also still learning ourselves,” he says. “We are all evolving. So now, the idea is, again and always, to tell a story … to give emotion through our world of watches and the world of NFTs; and to try to touch a whole new community as well. Not all watch lovers necessarily enjoy art or collecting art and vice versa. So, yes, partnerships like this are always good, opening up new worlds for each other.”
Murakami, on the other hand, adopts a more fatalistic point of view. “I am getting old. Yesterday [Feb 1] was my birthday. I am 61. I have no time,” he says matter-of-factly. “So one of the goals for this collaboration with Hublot is to do everything completely new … all new stuff. Since the pandemic began, the worlds of art and watches — the markets — suddenly expanded. We are in the process [of change] right now. A watch is not something to just measure time anymore but more a conceptual art form that presents the idea of time. Maybe many watch collectors still don’t understand yet how to collect NFTs, but we need to open our eyes, to see what is next. Continuing my artistic collaboration with Hublot, by using new forms of artistic expression such as NFTs, seems to be the natural way to develop our relationship. I look forward.”
It is a sentiment the world would probably agree with. In more ways than one.
This article first appeared on Feb 13, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.