If you are the head of a luxury brand and have a burning desire to work with Japanese contemporary artist Takashi Murakami, consider taking him to your factory. At a press conference held at Raffles Hotel — organised in conjunction with the launch of the Hublot MB-15 Takashi Murakami Tourbillon Sapphire — the 61-year-old responded with a smile when asked what it was that convinced him to work with Hublot.
“Miwa-san approached me again, again, and again,” says Murakami, referring to Miwa Sakai, the president of Hublot Asia-Pacific. He had initially turned down her offer: Apparently, having previously worked closely with respected independent watchmaker Hajime Asaoka on a tourbillon timepiece in 2013, he feared that this new collaboration might not go beyond slapping his signature smiling flowers on an Hublot dial.
However, he gradually warmed up to the idea of a partnership after Sakai’s reassurances that he would be able to create truly original timepieces with the brand. What really sealed the deal, however, was visiting the brand’s factory in Nyon, Switzerland, in 2020.
There, he was taken by the brand’s cutting-edge manufacturing capabilities, such as its ability to mill and sculpt sapphire crystal, which is otherwise mostly used only as watch glass in fine watchmaking. He recalls, “It was impressive, and I could see the quality and the potential (of what we could do together). And that’s when I told Ricardo (Guadalupe, CEO of Hublot) and Miwa-san, ‘Let’s collaborate.’”
Creative, complex, and cute
It is unsurprising that the way in which products are made is important to Murakami. During the press conference, the word “quality” comes up frequently when he talks about the MP-15, the latest in a series of collaborative timepieces he has created with Hublot since the beginning of their partnership in 2021. The timepiece, which Murakami describes as “a creative dream come true”, is a unique creation whose cuteness belies its complexity.
The first series-produced central flying tourbillon timepiece by Hublot, the MP-15 is the most complicated watch to emerge from the Hublot-Murakami alliance yet. Fully crafted from sapphire crystal, the case takes the form of a 12-petalled flower with smooth, generous curves. It is challenging to work sapphire crystal, which is hard yet brittle, in such complex ways. Says Guadalupe, “(The design of the MP-15) magnifies the sapphire, a material only the Hublot manufacture is able to work at this level, both in terms of complexity and geometry.”
Technical solutions were also required to integrate its hour and minute hands, which are positioned peripherally rather than centrally, to make way for the large, centrally placed tourbillon. Despite its unique aesthetic and design, the watch remains user-friendly with its modest 42mm size and generous store of energy: Powered by the manual-winding HUB9015, it has an impressive 150 hours of power reserve. (An accompanying special stylus, which is rechargeable, winds the crown through 100 revolutions when placed on it.)
A logical alliance
Officially launched in January 2021, the partnership between Hublot and Murakami is only three years old, but it has already resulted in a number of interesting timepieces and projects. These creations are also highly reflective of Murakami’s creative approach. There is, for one, his well-documented commercial canniness. His first watch for Hublot, which features a central smiling flower that spins around with the wrist movements of its wearer, was not colourful, as one might expect, but fully black. It showed a smart understanding of the brand’s DNA, whose all-black timepieces have long been a fan favourite.
His knack for knowing what sells has led to a plethora of partnerships with brands spanning high-end labels (Louis Vuitton, Comme des Garcons) and mainstream names (Uniqlo, Perrier), as well as musicians like Pharrell Williams and Billie Eilish. It also explains why Murakami’s company, Kaikai Kiki, creates products ranging from keychains to wall-spanning, 25m-long paintings. In a recent interview with Vogue, he noted, “I have people coming up to me who are now buying my work, saying that it started with a T-shirt or the merchandise.”
Comprising 13 unique Hublot watches linked to NFTs, another joint collection unveiled last February demonstrated Murakami’s forward-looking mindset. Even though the fervour for NFTs seems to be over at the moment, he remains optimistic about their promise, especially with younger generations that are growing up immersed in digitally-centred realities.
He says, “A year and a half ago, NFTs were very popular, and the metaverse was the talk of the town. I truly believe in the metaverse, and part of that is because I saw how my son, who was 10 years old then, communicated with all his friends online or through video games.”
The art of fusion
To borrow an Hublot tagline, practising the art of fusion is exactly what has enabled Murakami, who is formally trained in traditional Japanese painting, to become one of the world’s most commercially successful artists. For instance, his colourful smiling flower motifs were partly inspired by the central role that flowers play in traditional Japanese art.
In 2001, he coined the postmodern art movement Superflat, having observed the parallels between the two-dimensional artistic style of traditional Japanese art and that of manga and anime.
Today, Murakami sees the new possibilities enabled by technologies like blockchain and artificial intelligence as the key to how artists can stay relevant. He muses, “Artists sometimes tend to stick to a core value; they are very uncompromising. But I think you should always be ready for change and to adapt. For me, fusion is combining the style I have established with something that is happening now.”