The Vintage Watch Trend Explained

Categories Watches

Tudor Heritage Black Bay

Elisabeth King on the vintage trend that flavoured many timepiece releases at this year’s Baselworld.

Vintage watch collecting is still taking baby steps. But the top four global auction houses – Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Phillips and Antiquorum – notched up US$300 million in timepiece sales last year.

A figure that pales in comparison to worldwide pre-owned watch sales of US$4 billion. The passion for ‘retro’ – baldly defined as designs that look as if they hail from the past – has also escalated to fever pitch as the big watch brands continue to hang their hats on new updates of iconic models. So much so that newcomers were thin on the ground at this year’s major international watch fairs.

Even the term “vintage-inspired” has been re-jigged to include the ’90s because the latter part of the decade was more than 20 years ago. Yet the timeframe having a major moment in terms of referencing is the 1970s. It may have been dubbed the decade that style forgot as far as fashion, but it was a golden age for watches. The introduction of LED and LCD displays prompted the quartz tsunami and the Space Race ushered in a futuristic design ethos. We’re talking enduring classics such as the Omega Speedmaster (OK, it was 1969) and Globemaster, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak (the first luxury sports watch in stainless steel to be more expensive than gold) the Tag Heuer Monza and the Patek Philippe Nautilus, to name a few. Piaget’s latest Black Tie Vintage model, a horological favourite of Andy Warhol, pays sleek homage to the stone dials of the era.

Mad Men sparked a lot of revivals from hats to pocket squares to wing tips. A longer-lasting cultural legacy has been a solid return to smaller watches for a new generation who liked the look of the small dial Omegas and Hamiltons worn by Don Draper and his colleagues. Last year’s Baselworld triggered an upsurge in retro watches with cases measuring less than 40mm – from Omega’s new Globemaster to a 39mm Rolex Oyster Perpetual – the ideal size for a watch, claim the purists. The influential Chinese market also contributed to the return of smaller watches as “hockey puck” watch fatigue gained ground in the US, Europe and Australia.

Modern interpretations of vintage look watches again skewered the limelight at Baselworld 2016. The Tudor Heritage Black Bay riffed off the Submariner models of the 1950s. The Alpina Seastrong Diver Heritage replaced the original hesalite crystal with a domed sapphire crystal in a modern take on the brand’s first diver’s watch from 1969. Rolex discontinued the 34mm model of the Oyster Perpetual Air-King in 2014, but launched a 40mm entry-level model with a brighter dial that echoed the brand’s aviation watches of the 1930s. Girard-Perregaux’s Laureato stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the Patek Philippe Nautilus and the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak as one of the benchmark sports watches of the 1970s. For the brand’s 225th anniversary this year, a limited edition of 225 stayed true to the sophisticated yet simple lines that gained it cult status 40 years ago.

Pilot watches are always up, up and away, trendwise, and like their forerunners they have to be big enough for airmen to tell the time in a split-second look. Breitling, Zenith and IWC are just a few of the leading watch brands flying strongly in the wake of retro-inspired aviation watches. Even Patek Philippe caused a real buzz at last year’s Baselworld by chasing the nostalgic mood with the Calatrava Pilot Travel Time, its dark navy dial echoing the body paint of 1930s American fighter planes. If you love a play on words and classic good looks, one of the smartest pilot’s watches of the year is the Longines Avigation with a black matte dial and silvered hands. A top choice if you wear a lot of black.

Longines Avigation

“Icon” has become such an over-used term that it borders on the meaningless. In the luxury watch industry, though, legend status is only guaranteed by a strong heritage and on-going popularity. During World War I, Louis Cartier decided to model a watch design on the square-cut outline of the Renault battle tank. The Cartier Tank was a pioneer of clean watch design, and the first prototype was gifted to General Pershing, commander of the US army, in 1919. Still going strong nearly a century later, the Tank remains emblematic of the luxury jeweller’s watch-making skill and a bestseller.

Sean Connery wore the Rolex Submariner in all of his seven outings as James Bond. Launched in 1953, legendary French diver Jacques Cousteau road-tested the earlier models. Water-resistant to 300 metres, double the depth of the original watches, the Submariner remains the benchmark for dive watches. Panerai dates back to 1860, but the Italian brand remained a naval and military secret until introduced to a wider audience in the 1990s. The brand updates its Radiomir and Luminor models annually and one of the latest to covet is the Radiomir 1940 3 Days Automatic Acciaio – at 42mm one of Panerai’s smaller offerings.

Panerai Radiomir 1940 3 Days Automatic Acciaio

Every watch lover should own a dress watch. Few men spend months on a space station, grapple with the controls of a jet fighter or do a James Cameron and explore the depths of the Mariana Trench. But most fashion-conscious guys own a quality suit that looks a lot better teamed with a classic timepiece that doesn’t attract more attention than they do.

When less is more, stalwarts of the classic watch category include the Vacheron Constantin Traditionnelle, the IWC Portuguieser, the Breguet Classique and the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso.