The cultural track – a discussion with Franco Cologni on the relationship between art and watchmaking

December 2012

“Guru of Haute Horlogerie”, “Cardinal of the Richemont Group”—the description of the role(s) played by Franco Cologni in the vast reorganisation of Swiss watchmaking are indicative of his very special place in the galaxy of personalities—or characters—that make up the watchmaking landscape. Contrary to many others, Franco Cologni does not come from the world of finance, trade or engineering, the breeding grounds for watch company managers. He hails from the theatre and the university, Milan University to be precise, where, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he taught “The history of theatre and the performing arts”, covering everything from Greek tragedies to Broadway. At the same time, he was a journalist for a major daily newspaper, writing reviews for films and the theatre. At that time, there was nothing to indicate that Cologni would become the éminence grise of the world’s second largest luxury group, which he largely helped to build. As a student of the theatre, however, he learned, in his own words, that “there is no show without an audience. And, that even if the audience is responsible for a show’s success, it can only be achieved with a team effort. And, theatre is a team effort. This is exactly what we find in the métiers d’art [artistic craft professions], which together contribute to make an exceptional object.”
We asked Franco Cologni if he believes watchmaking to be the twelfth art, as people are saying. His response was quite direct: “Watchmaking is not an art per se, but rather art that is applied to watchmaking. That is the difference. The ‘artist’ enjoys creative freedom, while the ‘designer’ works in a sort of controlled freedom, forced to respect the rules—rules of the product and rules of the brand. His ‘art’ is closely tied to the predetermined function of the product. He may stray from this function, but he cannot forget it. Also, a designer does not ‘sign’ his work like an artist does. A designer’s work is collective and does not belong to him. If watchmaking is an art, you could say that it is a minor art.”

The cultural track – a discussion with Franco Cologni on the relationship between art and watchmaking

Three lives
Franco Cologni has several lives, which retrospectively shed light on his words from other perspectives. After the theatre and the university, in a booming Italian economy, he became an entrepreneur without, however, deviating from his aesthetic preoccupations. He began transforming “beautiful quality objects into luxury goods: watches, pens, leather goods, and cigarette lighters”. Thus, Cologni created John Sterling, the flattest lighter in the world on a “base”, as we would say of a movement in watchmaking, of a Dupont, Dunhill or Cartier.
“Cartier!” He succeeded in making Italy the world’s second largest market for Cartier lighters, an endeavour that did not go unnoticed by Robert Hocq and Alain-Dominique Perrin, who had just launched the famous collection of Les Must de Cartier. In 1973, Franco Cologni was invited to come aboard. We all know the rest… or do we really?
“What did I bring to the table?” he muses. Before answering, while collecting his thoughts, he says, “I brought together luxury and culture,” then continues more specifically, “a luxury product is, by the nature of things, a cultural object. It has a tangible value and an intangible value because it is the fruit of a culture, of a particular sensibility, that has developed over time, taking on one face here, another there. It is a product constructed of cultural layers. This is its intangible value. What can best express this value if not know-how, if not the artisans who work on it, with a deep knowledge passed down over generations.”

The cultural track
When Cartier and Alain-Dominique Perrin passed into the fold of Richemont, Franco Cologni was asked to work with the brands and their respective cultural concepts. “Only with the CEOs who accepted this cultural track,” he explains quickly looking you straight in the eye with his blue “serial-killer” (as he sometimes likes to call himself) gaze and a cat’s grin. “Often the problem is not so much the brand but the person who manages it. His or her intimate understanding of the brand’s essence is central because a brand is a cultural entity, an enduring entity…”
With the brands that listen to him—or sometimes are forced to listen to him, for their own good—Franco Cologni reveals his “system”. It basically consists of two words: long term. “If I am a ‘guru’ of anything, it is only of the long term. This allowed me to propose to the brands long-term strategies based on luxury, and adaptable to the precise codes of each brand”. His work with Vacheron Constantin, for example, represents “the ideal case—a magnificent history, preserved knowledge, and particular affinities with the cultural world”.
In the framework of this cultural strategy, Cologni returned to his first loves—writing and publishing beautiful books featuring the historic heritage of the brands. And, very importantly, he started the SIHH and founded what would become the current Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie. At the same time and what is lesser known, he also started the Creative Academy in Milan, which belongs to Richemont, and launched the “Fondazione Cologni dei Mestieri d’Arte” [Cologni Foundation for Artistic Craft Professions].

The cultural track – a discussion with Franco Cologni on the relationship between art and watchmaking

Towards a new Renaissance
Born in 1995, the Foundation is a “non profit” organisation, and Cologni is the president. His goal is to encourage a “new Renaissance” in the métiers d’art, which he refers to as “the intelligence of the hand”. Even if it is all about passing on and perpetuating know-how, this foundation is not at all a conservatory. Its scope is wide. To the traditional skills that we know in watchmaking, jewellery and haute couture, Cologni adds the chef, photographer, vintner, editor, typographer and the designer, among others. “The intelligence of the hand” is in perpetual evolution. It may be nourished by past practices, but it is also open to new ways, seeking to preserve its vitality while maintaining the sense of its history and the depth of its roots. The programmes are many, and include teaching, training, research, demonstrations, conferences, exhibitions and publications, as well as a beautiful series of basic works on these various professions (see www.fondazionecologni.it).
“Everyone is coming over to the artisanal,” he observes, happy to have been the first to realise this. He sees a turning point in society offering new economic opportunities. “The notion of artisanal, of the métiers d’art, fine workmanship and the quality of the product are returning to front and centre. In the vast game of redistribution that is globalisation, Italy—although aging and crisis ridden—has an enormous role to play in this domain where it has deep and ancient cultural roots. Against the flow of the run-of-the-mill, we must create beautiful objects, justified by their great quality. When the painters of the 18th century came to make their ‘grand tour’ in Italy, it was as much to see the beauty of the light as it was to return with small artistic treasures in their trunks. Passing on this historic intelligence of the hand is also an economic responsibility for the future of young generations, for their employment, and for the future prosperity of a nation. In 2013, the Foundation is thus launching a major project: ‘100 apprentices for 100 master artisans’. We want to bring generations back into contact.”

Slow Food
It is not surprising then that the Cologni Foundation for Artistic Craft Professions collaborates with the Italian movement called Slow Food. Far from restricting itself to be a simple reaction to Fast Food, the Slow Food movement advocates a change in civilisation, which could very well start with the stomach and with the art of eating together. “Take the chef,” explains Cologni. “This is an artful profession that, like all the others, is a collective endeavour. Eating bread starts with the farmer, followed by the miller, then the baker and finishes with the person who puts it on the table. The same is true for wine. Food is energy for life. So, eating good, simple, local food, that is to say made with selected ingredients that come from the area, involves a chain of artistic craft professions. It is the opposite of fusion. I hate that,” he adds with a smile. “We need to have the authentic, the well-made and the real. It was Pope Paul VI who used to say that ‘beauty is the splendour of truth.’”
Still discussing our definition of what is and what is not art, we ask Cologni if the idea of aesthetics necessarily encompasses that of ethics. Isn’t the latter term included in the first? “Yes, since being truthful is being ethical. Being real is being correct. The problem is that, today, there are no ethics because there is no truth. The truth is dissolved in a multitude of subjectivities. All the aesthetics are mixed up because all the ethics are mixed up. We need to look for the splendour in the real.”

The cultural track – a discussion with Franco Cologni on the relationship between art and watchmaking

The Salière by Cellini
As its symbolic emblem of promoting the “real” values of artisans in all domains, of giving rise to new vocations, of encouraging the passing on of knowledge, and the entrance of young people into the artistic professions, the Foundation chose a work of art that is at the crossroads of art and the artisanal, the Salière by Benvenuto Cellini. A magnificent and precious object, this salt holder was created between 1540 and 1543 by the famous sculptor and goldsmith, Benvenuto Cellini. Two symbolic figures are placed on either side of the salt and the pepper. Pepper represents the food of creativity, the piquant that stimulates the body and the mind. Salt is a useful foodstuff that flatters the aesthetic, serving as a preservative for food while also giving it taste.
“The Salière by Cellini sums up our objective,” continues Cologni. “Cellini himself was both a great artist and a ‘designer’, a goldsmith. Not only that, but he also had a boutique and sold his pieces directly to his clients. Cellini was the beginning of what eventually became the luxury industry. Today, this industry must travel the road in the opposite direction; it must rediscover its own roots. Doesn’t this salt holder, evoking art and the artisanal, answer your question?”
Art or artisanal? Isn’t the question a little hollow, after all? As Franco Cologni reminds us, “I said at the beginning that the artist was free. This statement is not really as true as that. The freedom of an artist is also limited—in olden days, by his patrons, whether the prince or the church, today by the gallery owner and the piece’s market value. For an artisan, the limitations will be the brand for which he works and the use of his ‘work’. But in both cases, the value of an object, whether art or artisanal, will be the result of a relationship between the creator and the customer. It is the desire of the latter to obtain the piece that will determine the price. It is the client that determines the value in the marketplace. So, from this point of view, there is no difference between art and artisanal.” QED, as we say when, after the conclusion of a demonstration, it returns to its starting point.

Source: Europa Star December - January 2012-13 Magazine Issue

The Arts & Watches section comprises the following articles: