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Why Everyone Is So Obsessed With Mid-Century Watches

Perennially stylish and perfectly functional, the oldies are hard to beat.

Rolex Daytona Ref. 6239 Justin Morton

I want to love modern watches. I really do. I promise I’m not one of those middle-aged grumblers who think that anything created after about 1968 is automatically garbage. I like my art, architecture and car design so modern it makes me uncomfortable at first, but I don’t want anything so edgy on my wrist. The watches I covet are all vintage, and the new releases I’d consider buying are mostly retro reissues. Given how classic-watch values have risen and watch brands are pillaging their back catalogs for inspiration, it seems I’m not alone.

I feel sorry for modern watch designers. For me, watch design peaked in 1957, with the launch of the Omega Speedmaster. I’m thinking of heartland-guy wristwear here: the classic, functional “tool” watches that many men favor as their daily go-to. I acknowledge that Gérald Genta was the most influential individual watch designer of his generation, but his Royal Oak and Nautilus are luxury sports watches and sit apart from working pilot or dive watches in a category he created. And at the very far end of the price and rarity spectrum, I love the horological fever dreams of avant-garde watchmakers such as Urwerk and MB&F, but I can barely tell the time on them.

The standards set in the ’50s and ’60s for the classic men’s watch types have rarely been improved on. Omega pretty much defined the chronograph with the Speedmaster, and Breitling did the same for the pilot watch with its Navitimer of 1952. Rolex nailed both the dive watch and the travel watch with the Submariner in 1953 and the GMT-Master in 1955. Each evolved and, in some cases, reached its peak in the 1960s. Of their contemporaries in those two decades, you’ll find a bunch of watches good enough to have either stayed in production or been endlessly referenced and reissued by their makers: the Rolex Daytona, the Zenith El Primero and the Heuer Carrera and its various chronograph offspring, among others.

OMEGA Speedmaster 321 Stainless Steel

One of Omega’s sleek Speedmasters.  Courtesy of OMEGA

But why did functional watch design peak back then? Restrained, thoughtful midcentury design seems to suit the constrained real estate of a watch dial and the need to be legible. In the 1950s, pilots’ and divers’ watches were actually used by pilots and divers: They had to work well as instruments, and good form generally follows good function. And having been given Platonic form in the ’50s and ’60s, many of these benchmark watches have stayed in production almost unaltered, forcing later designs to be more complex or polarizing just to be different.

That process had started by the early 1970s. Thinking that the standard Speedmaster would soon need to be replaced, Omega launched the successively more extreme Mark II and Mark III. I have a Mark III in my collection, its extraordinary 17-mm-deep conical case sitting high on my wrist like a stainless-steel volcano. It looked incredibly cool at the time but was quickly dropped from the range, becoming deeply unfashionable for years before acquiring retro appeal again. Meanwhile, the standard Speedmaster Moonwatch just trucked on essentially unchanged.

I see a little of the Mark III in much of the big brands’ modern output: trying too hard to be different, not doing the job quite as well as a result and not producing something that’s likely to look good in 50 (or even 10) years’ time. That’s a problem: A premium watch at a serious price should last a lifetime.

TAG Heuer 160th anniversary Carrera Sport

A special-edition Carrera from TAG Heuer.  Courtesy of TAG Heuer

The industry seems to recognize the value in its collective past by its willingness to reprise its greatest hits. Witness Tudor’s hugely successful Black Bay retro diver of 2012, which has grown into a line of watches, or Heuer’s reissue of its rare Carrera Montreal or Breitling’s recent homage to its bold ’60s Top Time. The more elite brands are just as enthusiastic. Blancpain’s Fifty Fathoms dive watch is a reissue of the 1953 original and is as pretty as a contemporary Submariner is functional. Even the descendants of Abraham-Louis Breguet have blown the dust from their lengthy archive with a series of modern watches that re-create their Type XX designs for French naval aviators of the 1950s.

The examples are endless, but you have to admire the rigor with which some of them are reproduced. Zenith’s reintroduction of its seminal El Primero of 1969 is basically identical to the 1969 original, inside and out, and Omega has put the revered 321-caliber movement of the early Speedmasters back into low-volume production after digitally scanning the one that powered the watch Gene Cernan wore on the Moon.

This fastidious Swiss attention to detail is impressive but costly. The reissues that have excited me lately have been more offbeat, with pricing that might persuade you to buy one to wear alongside your vintage GMT. Recently resurrected brand Alsta reissued the watch that Richard Dreyfus’s character, Hooper, wore in Jaws. The original was made a little late for my tastes, in 1970, but it has me rejoicing in maybe the most gloriously retro name of any watch: the Nautoscaph Superautomatic. I liked it so much that I’m gonna need a bigger watch box. Staying on a film tip, I loved Seiko’s reissue of the classic 1960s diver that Martin Sheen wore as Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now. And Hamilton’s Pilot Pioneer Mechanical is a handsome re-creation of the watch it made in the early ’70s for the British Royal Air Force, admirable for maintaining the original’s diminutive case size.

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak 18k white gold

Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak.  Courtesy of Audemars Piguet

But here’s the thing: If the watch being homaged is so great, wouldn’t you rather have the original? A good example of a 321-caliber Speedmaster from the late ’60s will set you back less than a new one, and the increasing recognition of watches from this era—and not just the Rolexes—as near-perfect pieces of industrial design means they might not be bad investments, either. I bought a particularly interesting and rare Speedmaster 321 in Hong Kong 10 years ago and thought I’d done well to sell it to a friend a few years later for twice what I’d spent. I met up with him recently, and he arrived in a perfectly restored baby-blue, soft-top vintage Land Rover, itself a fast-appreciating asset. I nearly cried when he told me that much of it had been paid for with the profit he’d made from selling my watch. I still covet a vintage Speedmaster. I just wish you all didn’t feel the same way, because I can’t afford to buy mine back.

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