Artists Give Luxury Brands a Little Respect

It is not often that the world of haute horlogerie vouchsafes a moment of artistic epiphany. But that is what happened recently at New York's Metropolitan Museum. When I sat down to a dinner hosted by Geneva watchmaker Vacheron Constantin in the majestic Temple of Dendur, all I knew about the sculptures of Africa and Oceania was that they had ethnographic interest. But that was before the sprightly septuagenarian Monique Barbier-Mueller got up and talked about how her father, struck by the 1930s financial crisis and no longer able to afford pieces by Kandinsky, Picasso, and Matisse, moved into collecting African masks and ivories, and funeral canoes from the Solomon Islands. Her story was so compelling that I was forced to reappraise my understanding of the works on loan to the Met from her Geneva museum.

The exhibition culminates a three-year collaboration between Vacheron and the Barbier-Mueller Museum, which has resulted in a series of watches known simply as the Masks. Bold and eerie— not to mention, at $370,000 for a set of four, a serious investment—these watches combine the craftsmanship husbanded by Vacheron with the jewels of a unique art collection.

Similarly, Ikepod is coming out with a watch designed by artist Jeff Koons. Although they differ in style and price (the Koons watch will sell for $15,675 in titanium), these two offerings are symptomatic of a growing interest in "art products." According to Louis Vuitton, the term was coined by the artist Takashi Murakami, whose work has appeared on the luggage maker's monogrammed canvas.

There was a time when artists inhabited an altogether loftier plane than the purveyors of luxury goods. There were occasional crossovers, such as Yves Saint Laurent's Mondrian-inspired dress and Château Mouton Rothschild's artist-designed wine labels. But rarely did the twain meet.

Of course, what art confers is gravitas, and in the 1980s luxury did not have the cultural payload it carries today. That was when Alain Perrin, the CEO of Cartier and an enthusiastic art collector, inaugurated the Fondation Cartier—a prescient move, given luxury's subsequent shift to the intellectual high ground. The Fondation, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, commissions works of contemporary art for display in a dazzling space designed by Jean Nouvel.

Luxury brands have a weakness for bold architecture. Frank Gehry is designing a space for the Fondation Louis Vuitton, which will exhibit contemporary art when it opens in 2011; in 2007 Chanel mounted a globe-trotting exhibition of artworks inspired by Chanel bags housed in a pavilion designed by Zaha Hadid; and Prada's polyhedral Transformer structure by Rem Koolhaas in Seoul is the latest "it" building. Located in one of the brand's emerging markets, it is testament to the ambassadorial effect that art can have on behalf of luxury marques.

One consequence of the increasing desirability of contemporary art is that some artists have amassed fortunes that were unthinkable a decade ago. Beijing art dealer Fabien Fryns has introduced many leading European collectors to Chinese contemporary art. "What has surprised me since I first came in 2004 is that artists who lived simply have now achieved the sort of wealth that makes them like rock stars," he says. "It is far from unknown for an artist to drive a Ferrari, Maserati, or fully loaded Range Rover. One of my closest friends is the artist Zeng Fanzhi. Until 2002 he lived very modestly; now he is fascinated by the great luxury houses of Europe, especially Hermès."

The power of Zeng's work has yet to be officially harnessed by one of the leading luxury-goods houses, but unofficially he has already made his first art product. "Recently my mother visited Beijing," says Fryns, "and she had a plain canvas bag from Fendi that came with a set of crayons. I was rather touched when Zeng Fanzhi spent half an hour drawing on the outside. I hope my mother is using one of her other handbags when she goes out shopping." Given that Zeng's most expensive work sold for $9.7 million, this one-of-a-kind Fendi must surely be one of the most valuable handbags in history.