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Why bubbles are inspiring watch designers?

Laura McCreddie-Doak
July 4, 2024
2 min

If you are a West Ham fan you will have an acute knowledge of the symbolism of bubbles. As the supporters’ adopted anthem “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” explains they are symbols of hopes that “nearly reach the sky, but then like my dreams, they fade and die.” It probably wasn’t that particular message of melancholy that Rolex was wanting to communicate when, in 2023, at Watches and Wonders, it unveiled the most un-Rolex Rolex ever – the Oyster Perpetual Celebration with its dial full of brightly coloured bubbles against a blue sky.

Rolex hasn’t been the only one to bubble up. Chopard has been doing it for years, with its Happy Sport and its signature dancing diamonds that skitter joyfully around the dial. Hublot has also succumbed to spheres. It’s latest collaboration with artist Daniel Arsham is a three-in-one droplet-shaped full sapphire crystal pocket watch that can also be used as a table clock and a pendant; the curved end of the watch filled with circles of varying sizes.

Hublot's collaboration with artist Daniel Arsham – the limited edition Arsham Droplet

We have been fascinated with bubbles since the time of Pompeii, where frescoes showing them were found both there and in Herculaneum – a town also buried under volcanic ash and pumice when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79AD. By the first century BCE, bubbles has already become proverbial, with Roman polymath and author Marcus Terentius Varro writing in the first line of the first book of De Re Rustica “for if, as they say, man is a bubble (homo bulla), all the more so is an old man”. This idea of “homo bulla” – that human life is a thin iridescent soap bubble that shimmers like a rainbow for the briefest of moments, only to pop at the slightest puff of wind – became very popular in the Baroque era.

During this period, bubbles became associated with the idea of vanitas vantiatum or the fragile transience and meaninglessness of human life. As Sarah Tindal Kareem, associate professor in the Department of English at UCLA, explains bubbles have a “liminal status, materially between water and air, spatially between ground and sky, temporally between inflation and bursting”; we cannot define them therefore we project our feelings upon them.

Louis Vuitton used augmented reality to virtually decorate six landmarks with Yayoi Kusama’s famous dots. Photos © Snap Inc

While Dutch painters of the 16th century adhered to the “homo bulla” symbolism, by the 17th century, bubbles were symbols of joy, fleeting but still joyful. In Crime and Punishment Foydor Dostoevsky uses them as an emblem of wonder, while poet Richard Crashaw wrote a hallucinatory ode to a bubble in his poem Bulla. By the 1920s, when Van Cleef & Arpels first started introducing sphere into its collections, and which served as the inspiration for 2022’s Perlée Toi et Moi secret watch, the bubble was associated with lightness and pleasure – a gateway to a world without worries and a utopian ideal that started to be reflected in architecture. It is that lightness underpinned with something darker that shines through in some forms of modern art, while others see nothing but happiness. Damien Hirst's spot paintings, for example, play with the tension between joy and melancholy that has existed in dichotomy of what the bubble represents throughout history, while Yayoi Kusama's use of coloured circles in her collaboration with Louis Vuitton is an expression of pure joy.

Van Cleef & Arpels' Perlée Toi et Moi watch

The Eden Project is a figurative quest for Paradise rendered in steel and thermoplastic. There is also the globular form of the Hutong Bubble in Beijing. Created by MAD Architects, it is a network of metallic bubbles cultivated in Beijing’s historic neighbourhoods to attract new people to these aging neglected communities – the bubble once again a symbol of hope.

Whether this was going through the mind of the designers when they created this latest crop of watches is anyone’s guess. However, these creations do prove that the bubble continues to fascinate us, even if it is just for a moment.