Marc Newson: Chronometer and sculpture, all in one hourglass

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In the hushed and modernist elegance of the Marcus watch shop on London’s Bond Street, one is surrounded by rare and complicated time-tracking creations; prime examples from an industry that prides itself in ever more complicated contraptions.

Marc Newson, co-owner with Adam Lindemann and Alexandre David of Ikepod, the watch company, looks like he has just wandered in from an exotic holiday wearing a loose fitting lumberjack shirt, trainers, baggy trousers and a relaxed shaggy hairstyle to match.

He is sitting behind his latest horological creation, which is neither a watch nor a clock but a simple and elegantly oversized hourglass.

Is this a joke? “It’s a bit of joke,” admits Mr Newson, “but not at the expense of the industry. I was interested in having fun with time. This hourglass is all about time, but in a more esoteric and fundamental way.

“The watch industry is saturated with complexity, so I thought that it would be amusing to try to redress that and create something fun. It’s fun to step back every now and then and consider the concept of time.”

Mr Newson, who studied at the Sydney College of Art, is nothing short of a superstar who is used to commanding high prices for his work that fuses the rigours of industrial design with the collectable appeal of contemporary art.

Since their launch in January, 50 hourglasses have been sold.

There is a wait for them, as Ikepod can only produce between four and eight a month.

In 2006, Mr Newson set the record price paid in history for furniture by a living designer with his Lockheed Lounge that sold for $968,000 at Christies in New York.

It was a record repeatedly and most recently broken last month, when a “Lockheed” prototype sold for more than $2m at Philips DePury in New York.

Mr Newson has worked for Nike, created a concept car for Ford, co-operated with Qantas, Dom Perignon and designed clocks for Jaeger-LeCoultre.

Given his design star status, would Mr Newson be offended if asked how he can justify £12,700 ($18,500) for a glass figure of eight full of little balls? Not at all.

He sits up and is happy to expand on the subject of pricing, as it leads straight to talk of the production process. “The price was not plucked out of a hat,” he says.

“It is absolutely linked to the cost of production and as no one specialises in making hour glasses, the simplicity of this piece belies its complexity.”

“Everything was pretty much stacked against us when it came to making the hourglass and we don’t have a huge amount of room to manoeuvre on how the piece is produced, so that affects its cost.”

The hourglass is made of one single piece of 3mm blown glass and is filled with 2.1m hollowed out 0.2mm low carbon nickel-plated nano balls normally used in aeronautical precision engineering.

These high-tech little balls were chosen over sand, with its random grain shapes, for greater accuracy of the hourglass, which is accurate to two minutes.

The piece weighs a hefty 6.7 kilograms.

“We spent a long time finding balls that fitted the bill and, once we found a manufacturer in Switzerland, we had to specify particular tolerances,” says Mr Newson.

“At first I didn’t dare tell them what we were going to use their balls for, as they would have run a mile. Now we must be one of their best customers,” he says.

“The glass is blown in a single piece and to our knowledge no one before has made an hour glass blown in one piece. Believe me, we approach dozens of manufacturers and only one could do it.

“The most important part of the process was to guarantee the diameter of the aperture that governs the flow of the balls and at the same time dictates accuracy,” says Mr Newson.

“The issue is not making the aperture 1mm or 2mm wide but to make it the same in every one.

“So we had to create a small tool that fitted in there that is retracted before the piece is finished and blown around that piece.

“It’s a tricky thing and combination of engineering and glass blowing ingenuity.

“We don’t want to make a lot of these hourglasses and we certainly don’t want to go to Asia so things cost what they cost. And things in Switzerland cost a lot.”

And what do the design experts make of this?

Alexander Payne, worldwide director of design at auction house Phillips de Pury, says: “What stands out is the designer pushing the limits of materials and processes. The quality and the exceptional way in which this piece is made immediately give the work its value.

“Newson will produce the most poetic and visually striking design but also be exacting in the details of the piece and specific materials he is using. It is for a very good reason that Newson is outstanding and commands exceptional levels of demand. I am sure we will see some of these hourglasses at auction in the future.”

As for its original conception, Mr Lindemann, co-owner of Ikepod remarks: “I gave Marc Newson the brief. At Ikepod, we needed something that would make it clear that we are not just watchmakers but designers.

“The greatest way to do this was to make an object that comes out of the roots of watchmaking and the hourglass was the perfect object. It is the original chronometer and a sculpture all in one.”

So is Newson having a laugh?

“It’s 50 per cent philosophical, 25 per cent fun and 25 per cent sculptural beauty,” is how Mr Newson settles the matter.

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