Football legend Eric Cantona is helping bespoke watchmaker Hautlence to score big in the design of unique timepieces.

Eric Cantona was a paragon of class and artistry on the football pitch during his days with Manchester United (MU). He thrilled the Old Trafford crowd with panache and helped the world-famous club to its first league title after 26 years in 1993, when he was at the height of his prowess. Another three league titles followed, as well as two FA Cup victories, before he shocked the footballing world with his retirement in 1997 at 30.

Today, Cantona continues to parlay his inimitable style into success in different areas. After retirement, the irrepres sible Frenchman indulged his creative instincts as a filmmaker, actor and model, and in the visual arts. One of his more notable movie roles was in the 1998 hit, Elizabeth I, but most of his thespian work is in French films and documentaries.

What is less known and appreciated about Cantona is his flair for art. He loves to draw and paint, to relax and express himself. Public displays of his artistic bent have largely been restricted to his collaboration with Swiss watchmaker Hautlence, with whom he has worked on two watch designs, the Invictus Morphos Limited Edition and the Vortex Primary, also available in limited edition.

Cantona was in Singapore late September with Hautlence co-founder and CEO Sandro Reginelli, to launch the Vortex Primary for the Asian market. At 50, he continues to cut an imposing, albeit heavier, figure compared with his footballing days. If there was any jetlag from several days of travelling, from Switzerland to Kuala Lumpur, then here, it did not show. But his enthusiasm for working with the bespoke watchmaker was clearly evident.

When asked about his rationale for going into watch design, Cantona referred to a chance encounter three decades ago as his key inspiration. “When I was 20, I met a French sculptor, César Baldaccini, and he had a watch with a kind of cage [structure] on top, which I thought was very creative. I tried to understand the meaning of the cage and my interpretation was that we are all prisoners of time.”

That sense of being prisoners of time plays out strikingly in the Vortex Primary. What catches the eye immediately is a large casing comprising multiple windows of primary-colour crystals, with red, blue and yellow distinctly evident. The genesis of the design is the beautiful stained-glass windows in Europe’s many magnificent cathedrals.

Play on light and colours
And like those cathedral windows, the shifting light throughout the day subtly changes the appearance of the watch. Its crystals evolve from lighter to darker as ambient light fades, and vice versa. In short, the watch undergoes a metamorphosis in keeping with the passing hours of the day.

Cantona embraces the theme of changing colours and metamorphosis, saying: “To survive, you have to adapt. To exceed the limits imposed on us by society or ourselves, we need to know how to surpass ourselves, to push further, to think and be different… to metamorphose.” Those words could be an apt description of the man himself, who pushed the limits of imagination in football, and continues to do so today in different spheres of expression.

He credits Baldaccini and Dutch painter Piet Mondrian as his inspirations in watch design. The geometrically shaped windows of the Vortex Primary casing are clearly inspired by Mondrian’s concept of abstract art, known as Neo-Plasticism. That school of art preaches the use of primary colours painted within a grid of black vertical and horizontal lines, against a white background.

“Mondrian worked a lot with primary colours and black and white,” says Cantona. “Why use primary colours? Because with them, we can make many other colours. For me, the watch’s casing is like a cage [within which] we imagine anything we want, even as we are surrounded by millions of colours that bring us peace and freedom.”

CEO Reginelli says the mechanical movement of the Vortex Primary is another feature that sets it apart from other watches. “We wanted to push the boundaries of watch-making by creating something out of the box, something that tells time in a totally different way. What we went for was a signature movement of an hour indication based on a jumping hour plus a retrograde indication of the minutes. Since the beginning of our design concept, this has been a key signature of the watch’s movement,” he adds.

The movement described by Reginelli is the famed HL2.0 calibre, first introduced in 2011 by a specialist component maker that Hautlence works in close partnership with. “What they have made is a movement that is completely different from what the market proposes today. It carries a strong signature of how we perceive watch-making in a very contemporary way,” he says, adding that the key structures of most watch movements have not changed radically in the four centuries since Swiss watch-makers began to assemble mechanical timepieces.

Limited-edition collectors’ piece
The Vortex Primary is thus a collector’s delight of unique casing and movement, a combination that Hautlence has made available in a limited edition of only 18 pieces. The small number and rarity of having Cantona’s name inscribed on the front of the watch gives it added cachet. Its listed price is CHF190,000 in its home market; in Singapore, its retail price is estimated to be well over $250,000, after accounting for currency conversion and other factors.

To celebrate the launch of the timepiece in Asia, Cantona was invited to indulge his artistic flair with a reinterpretation of the casing design in the form of a vertical sculpture made of Plexiglas panels in primary colours. Three versions of the artwork — each unique in its own right — were exhibited in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta, and presented to the first owners of a Vortex Primary in each city.

With promotional activities out of the way, Cantona was able to lean back later and entertain questions about his illustrious football career and the club he is forever associated with. Despite his often busy schedule, he makes it a point to attend MU’s matches whenever he can. His last visit back to Old Trafford was in May this year, to watch the club play out a 1-1 draw with Leicester City in the Premier League.

What does he think of MU’s prospects under new manager Jose Mourinho, following its well-documented struggles in recent years? “They can win the (league) title,” he insists. “It’s still a great club that can buy the best players and bring on many good young ones. But the Premier League is very competitive. There are a lot of clubs with great managers and great players, so it is may be the hardest [competition] to win.”

And what does he think of MU’s close-season signing of one of the world’s top footballers, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, as the putative successor to his hallowed position at the top of the players’ tree. “Well, my time was my time and today is today. Everything is different. Of course, Zlatan is a great player and I still watch United, so I hope he will help them win.”

This article appeared in the Options of Issue 756 (Nov 28) of The Edge Singapore.