A quick look at my iPhone told me that it was indeed March 2017 – however, at times, looking at the watches on display at Baselworld, this year I felt I was instead attending the fair sometime during the 1950s or early 1960s: vintage, heritage and tribute models abounded. Anniversaries were being celebrated everywhere one looked – Breitling’s SuperOcean Héritage II (£3,990) and the Longines Flagship Heritage (£1,100) honoured just two of the 60th birthdays being marked.
For watch brands, the past is not, as LP Hartley had it, a foreign country where things are done differently; it is a source of inspiration. Correctly handled, the use of past glories to illuminate current production can be hugely successful. The revival of Jaeger-LeCoultre owes much to the reissue of the Reverso, which until the late 1980s was just an interesting curiosity from the deco era. And the story of Panerai shows how a global brand can be built from scratch using designs from the second world war. But seldom has the pull of the past been as strong as it is today.
As the mania for bloated mega-complications recedes and tastes veer towards more restrained designs in smaller case sizes, nostalgic design is everywhere. Archives are being ransacked for heritage models to reissue. Such is the power of period design that even a recently founded brand, Bell & Ross, barely 25 years old, offers an entire range called “Vintage”.
But there is nothing like having a great back catalogue of classics. And at this year’s Baselworld, three modern vintage launches from three legendary brands were especially memorable: Tag Heuer’s Autavia (£3,900), Patek Philippe’s 5320 Perpetual Calendar (£60,090) and Omega’s Railmaster (£5,040), Seamaster 300 (£5,200) and Speedmaster (£5,360).
If this is the first you have heard of the 60th anniversary of the Omega Speedmaster, then I congratulate you on awakening from a long coma. It seems that everywhere I go in the world, the benign features of George Clooney are beaming at me from an advertisement, reminding me that the Omega Speedmaster was worn by the astronauts who went to the moon. As such it overshadows the other Omega launches of 1957: the Railmaster, a watch for those who work within strong magnetic fields; and the Seamaster diving watch.
Six decades later and Omega has gone to considerable lengths to ensure that the anniversary models of these watches look pretty much indistinguishable from their 1950s selves: tropical (aged look) dials and the famous broad-arrow hour hand are just two of the most obvious period quotations. The watches have slightly different case sizes (38mm, 38.6mm and 39mm) to reflect the original diameters, and even the packaging is retro, right down to the beige corduroy lining of the boxes. “It was all about creating the same emotion, the same size and all the other details – we even produced special bracelets,” explains CEO Raynald Aeschlimann. Everything is almost exactly as it was, “except the technology – I wanted [the Railmaster and Seamaster] to be Master Chronometer-certified, but even this does not appear on the dial.”
While the watches are available individually, the brand created a limited run of 557 boxed sets of all three that had sold out by the end of the fair. “The day we made the announcement there were three down payments made by collectors, before we had released details of prices,” says Aeschlimann, who believes, paradoxically, that modern technology accounts for the current vintage boom. “A new generation is looking for real stories and the internet enables them to get to the roots of these stories – ‘vintage’ is a way of showing individuality and being passionate about watches.”
It was the passion of vintage collectors, as well as the opportunities of the digital world, that Jean-Claude Biver, CEO of Tag Heuer, tapped into when he decided to relaunch the Autavia, one of the so-called “big three” of 1960s Heuers. Biver chose 16 key vintage examples, then set up a knockout competition, inviting collectors and enthusiasts to vote, using Facebook and Instagram, to select a model on which the relaunch would be based.
When it comes to the philatelic level of detail in the world of vintage watches (the use of a pointed or flat-bottomed letter U when spelling the word “Heuer” on the dial is a matter of vital importance), the collectors sometimes know more than the brands. “The Heuer community acts as both an ambassador and adviser,” explains Biver, describing it as a “community that is deeply passionate and highly influential”. And some of those same influential and passionate collectors were quite upset on seeing the finished watch.
“Some collectors complained that our re-edition had a date while the original didn’t,” says Biver, who also added a sapphire crystal back not found on the original. “I replied that this was done on purpose because if the re-edition were too close a replica, it would look like a fake, while a copy would take away the exclusivity of the original. You think you have bought something special at Phillips or Christie’s and then you see it worn by your friends. Once I explained this the collectors congratulated me.”
Respectful reinterpretation was also in evidence when Patek Philippe launched its 5320 Perpetual Calendar this year. Patek has come up with a term to describe the aesthetic phenomenon, calling it “retro-modernistic”. The design of the 5320 is all new, and yet Patek aficionados will find it very familiar. Patek Philippe made the world’s first perpetual calendar wristwatch in 1925, and the 5320 sensitively revisits the history of what, for Patek, is a landmark complication: it uses the dial layout of the 1526 and 3448 (watches from the 1940s and 1960s respectively), with the day and month apertures at 12 o’clock, and moonphase and date dial at six o’clock. The 3450, which succeeded the 3448, is recalled with the leap year indicator, which appears between four and five o’clock, while the stepped lugs are influenced by the 2405, a 60-year‑old watch in the Patek museum. A further retro – sorry, retro‑modernistic – feel is imparted by the syringe hands of the sort often found on midcentury watches.
Given that this is Patek Philippe, these design cues are subtle, requiring familiarity with the marque to be appreciated. This same approach of taking period details from across the history of a brand to create a new watch works at a more popular level too, as Tudor has shown.
Once known largely as the second brand of Rolex, Tudor has now stepped out of the shadow of its more famous sibling, thanks in great part to a retro-modernistic diving watch: the Heritage Black Bay (£2,860). Although inspired by the Tudor 7922 of 1954, its design quotes freely from other periods. In effect, the Black Bay is a compressed history of Tudor diving watches in one timepiece. Launched in 2012, it was warmly received and has since been issued in a variety of iterations, colours and sizes.
Davide Cerrato, who worked on the Black Bay project, is now to be found at Montblanc, where he is applying the lessons he learnt at Tudor. “It was there that I developed my approach to neo-retro design. First, I aim to capture the original true spirit and purpose of the watch. Then, having identified the fundamental elements, I blend them with contemporary elements that make the design of the watch relevant to today – changing the size or an outdated colour; giving it the same functionality but with new technology. That way you keep the iconic power of the original and make a new icon out of a historic one.”
Montblanc is a relative newcomer to watchmaking, having launched its first collection of watches just 20 years ago. However, in 2006 Montblanc took control of historic chronograph maker Minerva. For just under a decade Montblanc used the Minerva workshops to make a small number of elaborate complications, but over the past couple of years the focus has shifted to making watches such as the 1858 Chronograph Tachymeter (price on request).
“That watch looks back to the military pieces of the 1930s and ’40s,” says Cerrato. “We took a Minerva 47mm pilot’s watch from 1931 – a manual-wind monopusher chronograph with a movement called 1729, made of maillechort and gold plate. But even if this sort of watch is considered cool these days, we had to update it. It is 44mm and not 46mm, and the best way to express the rugged military spirit was by using bronze for the case. Similarly, the calibre is both contemporary and classic.” Called 1629, like its predecessor it is made of maillechort and plated with gold, but now there is a crystal caseback to view this tribute to the 86-year-old original.
Over at Vacheron Constantin, a very different hand-wound chronograph, the Historiques Cornes de Vache 1955 (£64,800), also makes a point of the lineage of the movement. The most readily identifiable feature of this historic watch is the curvaceous design of the lugs: as the name suggests, they look like miniature cow horns. “The Cornes de Vache is quite faithful to the original,” says Vacheron’s artistic director Christian Selmoni, but he is at pains to point out that its diameter is a little bigger than the 35mm original. “We wanted a piece with strong vintage content, but did not want a replica of the watch from 1955,” he says, adding that by choosing a Lemania CH27 movement Vacheron Constantin went beyond today’s strong vintage trend, while paying meaningful tribute to the company’s heritage.
This sort of watch provides an opportunity for a brand to reconnect with and reactivate the power of its past. For example, Cyrille Vigneron, who took over as CEO of Cartier last year, has signalled that the Parisian jeweller will return to making the sort of watches on which it built its reputation. “I would say that over the past 10 years there has been a trend for Cartier to try to make new watches, new shapes, new movements and bigger sizes. We can now see a trend for going backwards to something that is a reference to older designs with classic shapes and smaller sizes.”
To celebrate the centenary of the Tank, it is issuing a special series of the Tank Américaine (£4,600). The way Vigneron sees it, this approach is not only about nostalgia, but a way of celebrating an enduring piece of design. “It passes the test of time and you see it with new eyes. It doesn’t look old, it looks modern and contemporary.” Or, as William Faulkner put it, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”