Andrew Grima: The Father of Modern Jewellery is the first significant monograph on Britain’s probably finest jewellery and watch designer.
Andrew Grima, a British designer, created two of the most pioneering and uncommon watch collections of the twentieth century in the early and mid-1970s. The first, for Omega, was designed in 1969 and is possibly the most avant-garde timepiece collection in watch history. The second, designed in 1976 for Pulsar (the LED watch’s designers), has practically “unicorn” reputation among digital watch collectors; most have heard of them but have never seen one in person. Message in Advertising Message At The End Of Advertising
About Time — Omega
Robert Forster, Omega’s Director of Production, outlined a brief to British designer Andrew Grima for a collection of watches that would recreate the same sense of fantasy and flamboyance that had characterised the elaborately crafted decorative timepieces so coveted by the aristocracy during the 17th century and again at the turn of the 19th century during a dinner in Philadelphia in 1969. Grima, who had never manufactured a watch before, insisted on complete creative control over the overall theme, individual designs, component materials, and cost per piece – the sole exception being that each watch would be powered by an Omega movement. He was hired.
Grima made the first of many visits to the Omega factory in Biel/Bienne and Omega’s offices in Lausanne, presenting and planning what would become the About Time series, just two months after the contract was signed. It was the century’s most important and probably one of the most brilliant and unique watch collections. The About Time line, which included 55 watches, featured two unifying themes: The first was the concept of perceiving time through a coloured gemstone, and the second was the decision to keep the dial completely clear save from the hands. This allowed the watch face to fit in with the rest of the design while also separating the wearer from the tyranny of time.
Grima presented the first prototype designs to Omega in Switzerland after sketching his first concepts in just a few weeks. The initial response was subdued: Message in Advertising Message At The End Of Advertising
“When I initially arrived in Switzerland with the initial experimental wooden models, I was met with silence followed by a succession of polite enquiries. The Swiss are not prone to going insane. They immediately began slamming the models against the table to see if they were functional. Then, when they saw the first jewelled pieces, they were overjoyed, and the managing director’s wife actually placed an order for one. They understood that ladies would prefer foreign watches because she was the first lady to see them – and she sees a lot of watches.”
The Omega movement was represented by a brass block, which was handcrafted in the Grima workshop. This prevented it from becoming blocked with dirt and gold filings. When the watch cases were finished, a few goldsmiths from London would travel to Omega headquarters and, with the help of the Swiss watchmakers, fit the movements into the cases. Everything about the process was one-of-a-kind, including the designs, stones, and artisanship. Only the greatest would suffice, as Andrew Grima explained to the press:
“These timepieces could be among the last specimens of this style of craftsmanship. We couldn’t have made such a collection without bringing in craftspeople from all across Europe, including Austria, Holland, Germany, Sweden, Czechoslovakia, and Switzerland, and we couldn’t have done it without them. We had to scour Europe for the proper individuals since there weren’t enough skilled craftsmen in England to handle a million-pound commission.”
The watch glasses were made with rare and semi-precious stones such as rock crystal, moonstone, smokey quartz, rutilated quartz, aquamarine, citrine, peridot, and green and pink tourmaline. Gustav Caesar of Idar-Oberstein provided them, bringing in special cutters to achieve the unique and inventive forms and sizes. The stonecutters had no idea what these bizarre commissions, which apparently devalued the materials being used, were for, and to be fair, they didn’t ask:
“Because the project was top-secret, we didn’t want the cutters to know the stones were for watches, so when we told them it was critical to see through them and that the stones had to be a certain thickness, they just assumed we were a bunch of rich English eccentrics who insisted on these impossible specifications.”
The collection, which was unveiled on May 4, 1970, at Goldsmiths’ Hall in London, created a stir. The three-day public exhibition, which was attended by Princess Anne, was followed by a fortnight in Andrew Grima’s Jermyn Street gallery’s Round Room basement. Both exhibitions drew large crowds and received substantial news coverage. Prices varied from £660 to £7,500, which was a lot of money at the time (£7,000 would have gotten you a tiny Ferrari! ), but more than half of the pieces were sold during the initial London showing, mostly to international purchasers.
Omega decided to take the About Time exhibition to the Swiss Pavilion at Expo ’70 in Osaka shortly after its London debut. The collection was then shown to the trade at the Château de Chillon on Lake Geneva, where Ursula Andress was given a ring watch that Omega had specially commissioned for her. About Time was shown in every major city in the world for the next four years. Only a few of the parts were duplicated, and each continent received only one. Otherwise, as each piece was sold, it was replaced with a new design, maintaining the collection’s individuality.
As this excerpt from Omega’s 1972 sales guide illustrates, the relationship with Grima was essential in the development of the company’s watch lines:
“He gave jewellery watches new dimensions. And these approaches have been shown to great success in the world’s main cities. Grima’s watches are the most daring and highest expression of our jewellery collection; they have pushed us to new heights, and their influence can be seen even in our most “commercial” models.”
Grima’s work with Omega was the most difficult but also the most rewarding period of his career. The resulting About Time collection was the pinnacle of his talent, surpassing everything he had done previously or afterwards. At the time, journalist Anna Motson wrote:
“It was…. a collection that was above the ebb and flow of fashion, a collection that could stand alone as a work of art. The Grima collection, however, has far more value. Grima came up with a simple yet ingenious idea for converting the watch into a jewel: replacing each watch glass with a valuable or semi-precious stone. This groundbreaking concept of perceiving time through stones not only serves as the collection’s uniting theme, but also cements Andrew Grima’s place in watchmaking history.”
Pulsar is an acronym for pulse.
In the mid-1970s, Andrew Grima designed a second watch collection for Hamilton Watch Company’s Pulsar brand, which was the first to introduce the digital electronic watch. Robert Forster, who had left Omega to join the Hamilton Watch Company, was the catalyst this time: he approached Grima with a commission to work on 18k gold versions of a digital LED watch. The first digital electronic watch was created by Hamilton’s Pulsar division in 1972, after John Bergey, the head of Pulsar, was inspired by the digital clock Hamilton created for the 1968 science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The prototype was created in 1970, but the P1 – a limited edition cased in 18k gold that retailed for $2,100 when it was released in 1972 – was the first commercial Pulsar digital watch. Only 400 P1s were produced, and many are believed to have perished during the gold-melting frenzy of 1979–80, when the price of metal soared beyond $800 per ounce. At a time when competitors such as Texas Instruments and Casio were turning out digital timepieces for $20–30 each, the Grima Pulsar series was launched at Goldsmiths’ Hall in 1976 in an attempt to underline the brand’s luxury positioning.
Pulsar stopped making watches in 1977, but the Grima models were a beautiful farewell. The Pulsar series featured 30 or so one-of-a-kind wrist, pendant, and pocket watches for men and women, all of which were handcrafted by Grima artisans. The aesthetic was largely clean and symmetrical, in stark contrast to the Omega collection – a very un-Grima-like trait but suitable given the space-age technologies involved.