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Yvan Arpa: ‘Looking back, I think I did too much crazy stuff’

One of the most innovative and eccentric designers in the horological world has secured a last-minute space at this year’s Watches and Wonders exhibition in Geneva, marking his return to the show scene after an absence of 11 years.

Yvan Arpa’s independent avant-garde brand ArtyA is one of eight newcomers to the annual Geneva fair, exhibiting in proximity to watchmakers such as Rolex, Cartier, and Jaeger-LeCoultre, which are all announcing new models this week.

Though relatively unknown outside the business, Arpa made a name for himself by designing unique — and occasionally bizarre — watches such as the Son of a Gun collection, in which pieces of ammunition decorated the dial. A Werewolf version is said to feature a silver bullet “forged on the night of a full moon” before being rubbed with garlic and applied with Arpa’s own blood. Other watches have incorporated non-drying paint, shredded banknotes and bits of scorpion and spider.

“Looking back, I think I did too much crazy stuff,” he says. “It encouraged people to put ArtyA in a box that could have been very restrictive. Now, the brand is all about trying new things to further watchmaking.”

To that end, Arpa has created the Purity collection featuring coloured cases in fully transparent NanoSaphir crystal and with high-end, complicated movements that can push prices to SFr500,000 ($560,000) for a minute repeater model.

Alongside these models, the brand will show watches featuring its own cast iron blasting technique that uses minuscule iron balls, rather than conventional sand, to create a unique matte effect on components.

Arpa has also designed an in-house, three-hands movement for ArtyA which, he says, is increasingly being regarded as a serious brand. “I intend ArtyA to be around for a long time,” he says. “My engineer son, Stanislas, now works alongside me and, although we are still a very small team, we have increased turnover and awareness significantly.”

After exhibiting at other watch fairs in Doha and Dubai, Arpa says he realised that, although he operates a boutique in Geneva, “returning to the main Swiss watch show was important but, when I decided to apply, there was a waiting list of 30 brands”.

An ArtyA Butterfly Delicacy tourbillon

A Purity tourbillon
ArtyA was only offered a space at the last minute after another Geneva-born brand, Charles Zuber, dropped out after deciding to “reorientate its strategy” with a focus on the Middle East.

“At SFr80,000 for a space of around 40 square metres, plus another SFr30,000 for creating and running the stand, it is a big investment for a small brand like ours,” says Arpa, “but I think it’s good to be here.”

Arpa has enjoyed one of the most interesting and diverse careers in watchmaking since deciding not to follow his father into the meat trade as a teenager.

Earnings from the slaughterhouse financed his studies in economics and mathematics before he took a job as a teacher. He held it down for two years, then travelled to Thailand where he made a living as a professional boxer, before embarking on a 650km walk across the island of New Guinea.

“When I returned, after two years away, I thought I should start to make a career in something endemic to Switzerland,” he says. “That meant banking, or making cheese, chocolate or watches — but I wanted to use mathematics and combine it with emotion, so the only choice was to go into watchmaking.”

He cut his teeth by spending five years marketing the No Limits line of Italian watch brand Sector, before moving to Baume & Mercier and, then, in 2002, becoming managing director of Hublot.

There, he played an instrumental role in its revival after watch marketing doyen Jean-Claude Biver was appointed chief executive in 2004 and introduced the game-changing Big Bang model the following year.

Soon afterwards, Arpa was offered a fresh challenge by the Saudi owners of a fledgling dial name called RJ-Romain Jerome that was struggling to make headway with a €30,000 golfer’s watch equipped with a stroke counter.

His solution to the brand’s lack of success was to scrap the golfer’s model and introduce watches containing material from significant moments in history, such as moon dust and bits of the Apollo 11 space rocket. Another model contained lava rock and ash from the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010, which grounded northern European air traffic for days.

The “Death is Calling” Minute Repeater Tourbillon features Titanium hand engraved with 24 Cts gold inlays

An ArtyA watch featuring a dial made of real tobacco leaf
I intend ArtyA to be around for a long time . . . returning to the main Swiss watch show was important

Yvan Arpa
But Arpa had fallen out with Romain Jerome’s shareholders the previous year, leading to an extended period of litigation that threatened to leave him broke.

“After leaving Romain Jerome on bad terms, I designed and created independently for more than 10 brands in order to make some money,” says Arpa. “Only two of them have ever allowed me to talk about [them] — Samsung, for which I worked on the [Galaxy] S3 smartphone, and watchmaker Jacob & Co.”

Around the same time, Arpa had the idea of producing a line of affordable watches for sale exclusively to martial arts practitioners who had reached the black belt standard. “There are 17mn of them in the world, so I thought it had potential — and I needed money to finance having to contest 32 lawsuits with Romain Jerome, which meant attending court in Geneva as often as three times a week for several years,” he explains. Arpa won the legal challenge in 2012 and Romain Jerome declared bankruptcy in 2020.

Danny Shahid, owner of second-hand watch shop Diamond Watches London, believes Arpa’s designs can build a strong following despite the current trend for smaller, less ostentatious models. “It’s all about the market you’re aiming them at,” says Shahid. “In Dubai, Hong Kong and other parts of Asia, ArtyA could really fly. Anyone who appreciates unusual, well-made pieces will consider models such as the Purity tourbillons with coloured sapphire cases to be really cool.”

However, Shahid concludes that, as with any emerging brand, Arpa will need to work hard not just to gain brand awareness and popularity “but also to sustain the fire”.

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