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Dispatches

Art-world rebel Damien Hirst, by the numbers; cultivating a taste for greatness in Ethiopian coffee; on the road with the spirit of Mark Twain; a Swiss watchmaker whose time has come; woking and talking with Katie Leclerc

VÉSENAZ, SWITZERLAND

REACTION TIME
A rebel challenges a traditionally shock-resistant watch industry

 

In an industrial building next door to some horse stables, Yvan Arpa, founder and CEO of renegade watch company Artya, tugs on a pair of rubber boots and dons a heavy apron. A Tesla coil whirs to life a few feet away, and the 47-year-old watch designer approaches it. Like something out of an old sci-fi flick, a million volts of electricity jump from the coil to a watch case that he’s holding out in front of him. After a couple of seconds, when the metal has been scarred to Arpa’s satisfaction, the machine is powered down.

Although the scene contrasts dramatically with the image of watchmaker as quiet craftsman hunched over a workbench, this particular timepiece is actually one of the less extreme things this former math professor has loosed upon the watch world. He’s made watches out of moon dust, shredded euros and even guitar picks used by the band Kiss. At last year’s BaselWorld — the annual convention that draws more than 1,800 jewelers and watchmakers to Switzerland to display their wares — Arpa brought one watch made of fossilized dinosaur dung and another featuring rusted metal from the Titanic. (For this year’s show, which runs March 8-15, he says he’s bringing something “for the kids” but declines, somewhat ominously, to elaborate.)

Why go to such extremes? “Nobody really needs a watch to tell time anymore,” Arpa explains. “We wear watches as trophies, to show the world our values. And to me, art is one of the most important values.” It’s an ethos he lives by — along with, apparently, hypercreativity. “My assistant tells me that every sentence I say starts with ‘I have an idea,’” he says, laughing. “But she also knows me well enough to serve herbal tea and decaf coffee, so she can have a safe day at the office.” — SAM POLCER

 

CULTURAL VOCABULARY
A guide to curious words and gestures from around the globe

 

Egypt
With your palm up, hold your fingers together and move your hand up and down to tell someone “wait,” “calm down” or “relax.”
Taarradhin: This Arabic word describes a solution in which everyone wins or saves face.

Argentina
In Italy, sweeping the back of your fingers forward under your chin is especially rude, but in Argentina this gesture means simply “I don’t know.”
Autobombo: The Spanish word for “self-praise” is like “blow your own trumpet,” but with a bass drum (“bombo”).

Australia
Place your empty glass upside down on the bar and you may end up with a black eye — it signals you’re ready to rumble.
Barney: Try the maneuver described above, and you’ll probably find yourself in the middle of this (a fight).

Thailand
When combined with a bow, pressing your palms together in front of you is an all-purpose gesture of greeting, farewell and respect known as the wai.
Mao: Too many Singhas and you’ll end up this way (drunk).

One Response to “Dispatches”

  1. James Hayes-Bohanan Says:
    March 13th, 2012 at 3:25 pm

    Thank you for including this report — far too few people recognize the human stories behind coffee and the many other consumables that the world economy brings to us from around the world.

    It is appropriate that you use the phrase “strike gold.” It brings to mind the 2006 film Black Gold, also about the high stakes involved in finding premium markets for Ethiopian coffee.

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