Vintage watches have become extremely popular among watch enthusiasts. Why is this? Why are antique watches not just antiques but sought after pieces? We explore the history of the Swiss watch industry that created “vintage” as well as why they are so popular now.My first experience with a vintage watch was when my grandfather passed away. None of us knew he was a watch collector, yet in his drawer, we found two Jaeger LeCoultre Memovox watches and a 10K gold Longines watch, as well as a variety of other quartz watches from the 1970’s. As a watch collector myself, this was a huge find. I didn’t quite know what to do with them as they had been sitting there unused for years. I took them down to a local watch shop and the master watchmaker took a look at them for me and did a full “check-up”. All three mechanical watches still worked beautifully after 50 years. He gave them a little “house cleaning”, some new watch bands, and all three were ready for wear. I had never owned any vintage watches before so I was inspired to find out what the vintage watch craze was all about. Over the following 2 years I made a point to ask every vintage watch owner I saw what their inspirations are and this pondering is a compilation of their stories, motivations, and love of vintage watches.
The first thing to understand is the brief history surrounding Swiss watches that created so many classic models that are now popular vintage pieces. Swiss wristwatches entered prominence in the 1930’s following a conversion from pocket watches to wristwatches during and after WWI. However, watches didn’t really become a staple that the middle class had access to until the late 1950’s, but more so into the 1960’s with the growth of wealth in the US while Europe still recovered from the ravages of WWII. The spread of Swiss watches had a lot to do with the increasing ease of travel that also occurred during this era with the introduction of fast, mass travel across the oceans. This made it possible for many travelers to purchase watches and bring them back across the world. Another factor was the increased focus on globalization in the 1960’s and beyond that boosted international trade, making it possible to find luxury Swiss brands not only in Switzerland but across the world. Then in the 1970’s, the so-called Quartz crisis hit. This occurred with the invention of the Quartz watch in Japan (made by Seiko). It seemed everyone wanted the latest in finest timekeeping: the more accurate but less elegant Quartz watch. This was very much a result of the 1970’s and 1980’s where “function over form” was the driving force (today it is more “form over function” – though we demand both today). This spurned an era of pretty ugly but very functional and accurate watches. Many of the Swiss companies that we know today either closed up shop, switched to making primarily Quartz watches, or wandered aimlessly through this era attempting to find consistent customer bases. There were a few exceptions such as Rolex, but for the most part, people thought the Swiss watch industry was dead.
What emerged from the ashes has been attributed to a few Titans of industry, but the one I prefer to view as the real Phoenix is Blancpain. The company was non-existent by this point, but had a heritage that went back to 1735. Jean Claude Biver (who went on to revive Omega, bring Hublot to prominence, and is currently the CEO of Tag Heuer – click to read more on Mr. Biver and his role in the industry) purchased the rights to the company with a vision to start reproducing the mechanical Swiss watch. Mr. Biver had a vision that no one else had and started making bespoke ultra-luxury pieces that turned into a stunning success (I had a chance to hear Mr. Biver speak and it is obvious why he was the right guy to execute a vision and bring it to reality for the whole industry). He brought in many of the previously unemployed master watchmakers and the industry started its slow rebirth. Many of the classic watch models made by the major companies gained a rebirth as the companies reformed or in some cases, reopened. Many of the companies began to consolidate under the major conglomerates of Swatch and Richemont. The industry was in full rebirth by the mid-1990’s.
As a result of this turbulent history, many classic models had either drastically changed with the shifting styles, or had stopped being produced altogether. What were once iconic designs of the 1960’s were no longer considered in-style with the shift in preferences from yellow gold to white gold or stainless steel, and the consumer’s desire for larger watches. What used to be considered the optimal men’s watch size was now a trending size for women. With the passage of time, the vintage watches of the pre-Quartz era were no longer mirrors of the modern Swiss watch.
The factor I primarily attribute to the rise of the vintage watch market is the refocus of society (in general) on the quality craftsmanship of the past and the desire for a classic look that was at one time considered outdated in the 1990’s (dubbed “retromania”by Simon Reynolds). What was once considered old and outdated was now desirable. This was true for cars, leather goods, home decor, jewelry, and more. People wanted to have something that looked so pleasing, had survived the test of time, and had a look that you couldn’t replicate in a modern factory. Vintage anything became a conversation piece, a sign of passionate interest, and a source of fashion. Vintage items help craft an image that many of us desire when we the select the watches we wear (see my previous post on your watch helping create an identity).
For many watch collectors, vintage is a harkening back to an era of classic design that symbolizes the ultimate piece of luxury. While many watches are affordable today to the masses, fine Swiss watches in the pre-Quartz era still had a strong element of exclusivity. Additionally, their level of craftsmanship was second to none. Even many of the hand made Swiss pieces of today are “hand made” in the sense that they are hand assembled to varying degrees (although many of the ultra-luxury brands are still fully hand assembled). Check out some of the pictures of the modern factories and they look more like a scene from a biotech laboratory than fulfill our visions of watchmakers in the Swiss alps hand-crafting each individual movement. The vintage era is different, or at least in our mind, we have a vision of “vintage watches” being the apex of handcrafted watches.
Every collector has their favorite vintage watches, but for me, some of my favorites are the most iconic: the Rolex Submariner (click for history by Fratello Watches) and the Omega Speedmaster (click for history by timeandwatches.com). The Sub gained prominence in culture when Sean Connery wore one as James Bond and it became the Bond watch (yes, Omega only recently became the watch of Bond after Omega paid to have it this way. In fact, Bond even wore a Quartz watch during the Quartz crisis). The Sub tends to be an icon in vintage watches because the design is about the same today as it was 60 years ago. However, subtle changes to it allow a collector to distinguish the era of production without actually losing the character of the most iconic watch on the market. As such, buying an antique Submariner won’t save a buyer much money over a new Sub. My second favorite, the Speedmaster, gained prominence as being “the first and only watch worn on the moon.” I can’t tell you how well known this was in the 1960’s, but today, it is definitely a well-marketed fact which has led to the Speedmaster being a watch that has not changed much over time. Even more so than a Submariner, a Speedmaster from the 1960’s looks very much the same as a modern Speedmaster. This is owed much to marketing, as Omega seems to strive to maintain a spitting image in the Speedmaster so you know the modern watch you are purchasing is identical to the moon watch. Omega has also produced many special edition or unique Speedmasters through the years which has led to some of the vintage models being extremely rare and much sought-after.
All these reasons I have stated for “vintage love” are primarily idealistic reasons to love vintage watches, but I don’t think they are actually the main reasons. At the end of the day, collectors are rational consumers and buy vintage for some less particular reasons. The first is the rise of vintage watches among women. As I mentioned previously, many vintage watches are smaller (34-36mm) which are much more common sizes for women’s watches in the modern era. Vintage watches allow women to have great classic pieces in a perfect size. Additionally, many vintage pieces are in yellow gold which is much more popular among women than men.
The second main (rational) reason I attribute to the rise of the vintage watch goes hand in hand with our societal obsession with conspicuous consumption. Ever since the dawn of time, people have used jewelry as a way to signal status. However, buying a luxury Swiss piece can be expensive and not accessible to everyone who desires to signal their love of watches or those who would wear them as a symbol of status. This is where the vintage watch becomes an ideal alternative solution. I’d argue the definitions of vintage goes in two different directions. On one hand there is the vintage Patek Philippe that is a classic that costs well over $10,000. This watch is still only in the affordability sphere for the serious collector. On the other hand, there are watches that are older, but not from the pre-Quartz era, and are just less expensive than their modern counterparts. The most common example of this I see is the Rolex Datejust. A collector can purchase a Datejust from the 1980’s for around $2,000-3,000, which is much more affordable than a new Datejust II that costs over $9,000. This allows someone seeking a watch either as a watch lover or one simply seeking a Rolex, to buy one at a much more affordable price.
Vintage watches incur their own hassles. They are not a simple replacement for the modern watch. It wasn’t until the late 1980’s that watches started featuring Quartz crystal that is virtually unscratchable. Prior to this, most watches had acrylic crystal (aka plastic) and will scratch with the slightest accidental brush against a piece of furniture (I have a Jaeger LeCoultre tribute to the vintage Deep Sea watch and it has an old style acrylic crystal that reminds me of this frequently). Vintage watch fans say the advantage of acrylic is it is virtually impossible to shatter and some will say it has less glare. I personally do not like acrylic as I am too clumsy to maintain it in good condition and I am too OCD to tolerate scratches (on a maintenance note, acrylic is easy to polish with either a little toothpaste or by making a baking soda/water paste. Use either of these to gently rub the crystal with your finger and it will polish the acrylic almost back to new).
Overall, vintage watches capture an era of classic design and fine craftsmanship that many collectors long for. The affordability of many vintage models make them an appealing alternative to their modern siblings.
For further reading: