As the 1960s moved over into the 1970s, one of the greatest jewelry designers of all time was secured by Omega to design 55 of the most extraordinary timepieces ever created. The result was the unsurpassed and much-coveted About Time series.
In 1969, Omega commissioned London-based artist jeweler Andrew Grima to design a collection of watches, About Time, that even today remain unsurpassed for their ingenuity, audacity and powerful, sculptural design. Though Mr Grima was already acknowledged as a maverick of modern jewelry design, and was arguably the most innovative designer of his generation with a wildly fashionable shop at No. 80 Jermyn Street and a Royal Warrant, he had never previously designed a watch. As the jeweler to The Queen, Princess Margaret and Jackie O said: “If you need to know the time, you ask your chauffeur.”
However, Omega’s Director of Production Robert Forster had the foresight to see that Andrew Grima’s “wearable works of art” aesthetic could revolutionize watch design. Grima’s passion was for mammoth semi-precious stones, often rough and included, set in textured yellow gold with accents of white diamonds. Some of his most successful pieces were yellow gold casts of the simplest forms such as pencil shavings, leaves or molten lava. He was the Pablo Picasso of jewelry design in the 1960s and 1970s when the great jewel houses such as Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels and Boucheron were still setting exquisite Old Masters.
“The way Andrew worked was to incessantly sketch an endless flow of ideas on the back of envelopes, scraps of paper, hotel stationery or bar mats,” says Jojo Grima as she opens folders from her late husband’s archive showing the great man’s rough sketches for About Time.
Jojo also owns all of the beautifully described illustrations of the collection of 55 watches and 31 pieces of jewelry, as well as some of the wooden models Grima took to Omega in 1969. As he told journalist Shirley Conran in 1970: “The first time I went to Switzerland with the experimental wooden models, I was greeted with dead silence, then a series of polite questions. The Swiss are not inclined to go mad.
“They instantly started banging the models against the table to check practicality. Then, when they saw the first jeweled pieces, they were delighted and the wife of the Managing Director actually ordered one. As she was the first woman to see them – and she sees quite a few watches – they realized that women might actually like exotic watches.”
The uniting factor in each of the unique watch designs was the concept of seeing time through gemstones. Each stone dictated the design of the watch and, as Anna Motson wrote in her essay ‘Watches as Jewels’ that appeared in The Saturday Book in 1971, “The stone cutters were called on to cut precious and semi-precious stones in shapes and sizes that had never before been attempted, and the whole project faced Grima’s own craftsmen with the highest test of their skill ever encountered.”
“My father was adamant that the Omega logo did not appear on his watch faces and he also refused to entertain numerals,” says Andrew and Jojo Grima’s daughter Francesca, who today designs under her own marque as well as with her mother on contemporary Grima pieces. Grima allowed his imagination to run wild designing watches as rings, pendants, pocket watches and clips. Even the pieces worn conventionally as a bracelet were anything but. Tornado sets a rutilated quartz almond-shaped glass in a “springy bangle” of polished yellow-gold wire spattered with diamond strips. Carré is pure Grima: an aquamarine crystal face set on a bracelet of square, textured gold and diamond set platinum blocks not dissimilar to crazy paving.
The Alpine pocket watch, held in the Grima archive collection, is a smoky quartz crystal face surrounded by an engraved yellow-gold case and suspended from a hand-made chain. At the other end of the chain is a matching engraved yellow-gold torch that seems to be inspired by the 1966 surreal spy movie Modesty Blaise starring Monica Vitti, Terence Stamp and Dirk Bogarde. A personal favorite from the collection is Cerini: a vast citrine crystal face encased in a substantial bracelet crafted from a nest of yellow-gold matchsticks embedded with baguette-cut diamonds.
It is a tribute to Grima’s creativity that About Time watches rarely come up on the secondary market. Of the original collection, Jojo and Francesca have Teak, Pyramid and Clover as part of their selling collection.
The average price of an About Time timepiece in 1970 was £4,000. Today, an About Time original would be north of £20,000. It is curious that, though Andrew Grima’s designs were so of their time, his masterpieces remain timeless and speak to influential contemporary collectors such as Miuccia Prada and Marc Jacobs. But it seems churlish to put a price tag on About Time: the most perfect realization of watchmaking and jewelry design in unison.