We Need More Brand-New Watch Designs

It’s time to stop mining the back catalog, already

August 9, 2023 7:36 am
Black, white, red and blue watch; black and silver watch; silver, blue and cream-colored watch
Here's why we need more brand-new watch designs.

I’m a self-professed vintage nut

Clothes, watches, music, art, cars, movies, whatever. I like old shit, okay? I can’t help it. Part of it is no doubt my parents’ influence — my mom schooled me on the Three B’s — Bruce, Billy Joel, and The Beatles. She showed me Monty Python and the Holy Grail as a child, and by the time I was a pre-teen, real-life English people were telling me I should’ve been born in the UK. My father, meanwhile, a writer and ex-military type who’s still pissed he missed out on the Second World War, brought me up on the likes of A Bridge Too Far, You Only Live Twice, and Dave Brubeck’s Time Out

Much of the time, I feel like Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris, constantly searching for the intellectual detritus of some past era that I’ve convinced myself was artistically and morally superior to our own. Of course, this is all a bunch of hogwash; without spoiling the film too much, Wilson finds that a positively stunning Marion Cotillard is as obsessed with the idea of La Belle Epoque as he himself is with La Generation Purdue. C’est la vie

But we were talking about watches — or, were supposed to be. All this to say: I love vintage watches as much as the next guy. Possibly more? (Definitely more.) I’m willing to spend all sorts of money on them, knowing full well — from experience — that they will inevitably keep shitty time, require expensive service, and not hold up during the more adventurous activities in which I occasionally partake. You might be saying to yourself: “Self, why doesn’t this writer guy just buy one of those vintage-influenced watches he’s always telling us to buy? Those are sort of the best of both worlds, aren’t they?” 

Truthfully? They are. They really are. (Full disclosure — I bought that damn watch.) You get the vintage looks but with modern specs, which often results in a stupidly enjoyable timepiece, and they’re available from $500 to $500,000. The thing is — and it pains me to say this — we’ve reached Maximum Vintage. We need this shit to cool down a bit. What we need are some new watches. 

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It all started, as far as I can remember, with Longines. (I’m summarizing and paraphrasing history here — don’t @ me, okay?) Longines, one of the Swatch Group’s mid-tier brands, has an enormous back catalog of incredible pieces dating back to the 19th century. In 2007, it released a vintage-inspired reissue called the Legend Diver whose design was taken directly from late 1960s-era “Super Compressor”-cased dive watches. This, essentially, kicked off the modern Vintage Reissue Era©, a time during which everyone and their mother has been going into their back catalogs to resurface old watches the way Hollywood surfaces old movie franchises.

Come to think of it…maybe there’s a trend, here? You’re telling me that just five short years after Sam Raimi brought Spider Man into the modern era, we needed a reboot starring a different actor? And then another one in 2017? And then another another one in 2019? WT actual F is going on?! And yeah, yeah, yeah — I get that the original Indiana Jones deal was evidently for five films…but did we really need to make the last two? And does Disney have no other stories to tell — we need to keep reviving and killing and reviving and killing old Star Wars characters? Call me crazy, but it would seem that we’ve collectively decided to subordinate creativity for the sake of a sure thing, a quick buck, an easy win…and the problem is twofold. A) most of these quick bucks make for terrible products — like, utter dogshit — and B) we seem to be losing our societal creative edge. Wouldn’t you say?

Let’s take this back to horology: Look at the post-War era of watchmaking. Recreational SCUBA diving was new; commercial jet aviation was new and accessible; people were buying personal automobiles left and right — especially in America. All these developments brought us new watch categories: dive watches, dual-time watches, chronographs. These designs were wild — utterly captivating, especially in the 1970s as aesthetics turned to the funky and avant garde. Just go peruse Analog:Shift’s inventory for a moment; I’ll wait. You’ll see what I mean. There’s positively gobs of this stuff from 50-60 years ago.

If we were to make an analogy to our current era, one would inevitably conclude that our equivalent developments are happening in the realm of smartwatches. The Apple Watch, after all, is today’s dive watch. It’s today’s GMT-Master. It’s today’s Heuer Carrera…it’s much more. But though it might seem like such an analogy should be the final nail in the coffin of the analog wristwatch, we’ve clearly proven — at least since the establishment of HODINKEE, which has effectively single-handedly revived widespread interest in wristwatches — that this need not be the case. Indeed it would seem that, at least for now, analog wristwatches — obsolete as they may be — are here to stay. Which I think is friggin’ great.

But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be innovating in terms of their design. Even if most of that design is purely aesthetic, why are we limiting ourselves to resuscitated corpses of midcentury watches past? There are wildly talented industrial designers out there. Just look at what Bradley Price does at Autodromo — this guy’s watches are insanely cool, and though they may take inspiration from now-vintage cars, the designs are totally fresh. And what about MB&F? Their stuff is batshit insane, and cool as hell — and it’s new! It all looks fresh! (Go figure.) Same with anOrdain
But man. Scrolling through watch retailers and reviewers, this stuff is hard as hell to find among the sheer glut of vintage-inspired wares. And it’s not easy for me to advocate for the halting of this vintage advance through commercial Ardennes; I happen to love old watches, and I also happen to love a lot of new watches that look like old watches. But we need to pause; we need to take stock. Because if we don’t, we’ll become stuck. We’ll be Owen Wilson in love with a bygone era that is never coming back — romantic as that era may be.

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