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1969-2019: fabulous and fifty!

1969-2019: fabulous and fifty!

Saturday, 23 March 2019
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Marie de Pimodan-Bugnon
Freelance journalist

“One must be absolutely modern.”

Arthur Rimbaud

It takes passion, a healthy dose of curiosity and a sense of wonderment to convey the innumerable facets of watchmaking…

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6 min read

1969 was an exceptional vintage for watches; the birth year of revolutionary movements and legendary models. And it was exactly fifty years ago. From the aisles of Baselworld to Biel, clearly life begins at fifty.

For Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, 1969 was an “erotic year”. For Swiss watchmaking, it was a prolific and terrific year. The launch of the first automatic chronographs, the debut of future icons, the birth of an historic brand and Man’s first steps – with a Swiss watch – on the Moon are all events that have left a lasting imprint on the history of time measurement. We take a look at the Big 5-0 and how it’s being celebrated today.

1969, automatic year

It wasn’t all peace and love in 1969. While the rest of the world basked in flower power, watchmakers were locking horns in the competition to make the first automatic chronograph. The battle opposed three rival teams, each working in the utmost secrecy. They were the Zenith/Movado duo, the Chronomatic Group consortium of Hamilton-Buren, Breitling, Heuer-Leonidas and Dubois Dépraz, plus, a few thousand miles away in Japan, Seiko. On January 10th 1969 in Le Locle, the year started with a bang when MZM Holding (Mondia Zenith Movado) broke news of “the world’s first high-frequency automatic chronograph.” The announcement of this El Primero and its 1/10th of a second precision must have hit the Chronomatic camp hard. Or not: “We decided simply to ignore the story because by then we had already received a delivery of one hundred working models of our new Calibre 11 movement,” recalls Jack Heuer, Honorary Chairman of TAG Heuer, in his autobiography, The Times of my Life. And so the Chrono-Matic Calibre 11 was officially presented to the world at press conferences held simultaneously in Geneva and New York on March 3rd 1969. Two months later, Seiko completed the line-up with its first automatic chronograph, Calibre 6139.

Caliber El Primero 3019 (1969) © Zenith
Caliber El Primero 3019 (1969) © Zenith
2019, eulogistic year

Fifty years later, the race is over. Medals have been given, hands shaken, and now it’s time to celebrate. Zenith chronicles the first fifty years of its world-famous calibre with an anniversary boxed set of three El Primero watches, namely a reissue of the 1969 El Primero chronograph, a Chronomaster and a Defy El Primero 21. A fourth spot is left empty, waiting to be filled by a future descendant of the El Primero that will measure 1/1,000th of a second. The project is in the pipeline, though a launch date has yet to be announced.

El Primero Box 50th Anniversary © Zenith
El Primero Box 50th Anniversary © Zenith
1969, aesthetic year

Revolutionary movements might have blazed a trail through 1969, this was also a year for groundbreaking habillages. The Monaco, powered by the all-new Calibre 11, burst onto the scene in March, bringing with it a disruptive design and a high-performance engine which, together, earned it the title of the first square, water-resistant automatic chronograph in watchmaking history. “We wanted to create an outstandingly innovative and eye-catching product, something bordering on the avant-garde,” writes Jack Heuer. “We immediately knew this square case was something special.” Having shot to fame on Steve McQueen‘s wrist in the 1971 film, Le Mans, pulled into the pits at the end of the 1970s then relaunched on the market in 1998, throughout its history the Monaco has been slated and celebrated in equal measure. But you don’t start a revolution without making waves…

Monaco 1969 © TAG Heuer
Monaco 1969 © TAG Heuer

Another highlight of 1969 was the launch of the Gérald Genta brand. Anyone with even a passing interest in watches, even the under-20s, will be familiar with the name. He is the designer who, during the 1960s and 70s, put his signature on the Omega Constellation, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, the Patek Philippe Nautilus, the IWC Ingénieur and the Vacheron Constantin 222, predecessor to the Overseas. Not forgetting the ultra-sophisticated, highly contemporary Bvlgari Octo. A visionary and a genius, he was instrumental in shaping the face of the modern luxury watch.

2019, dithyrambic year

Half a century after the Monaco roared into action, TAG Heuer has scheduled a programme of celebratory events in Europe, the United States and Asia, with a limited-edition Monaco launching each time. Fans can also treat themselves to Paradoxical Superstar, a new book documenting the Monaco’s history. It goes on sale in May, in TAG Heuer stores and on the brand’s website.

Monaco Calibre 11 (2015) © TAG Heuer
Monaco Calibre 11 (2015) © TAG Heuer

For Bvlgari too, 2019 is a time to celebrate. In 2000, the manufacture founded by Gérald Genta in 1969 was integrated into the Italian brand. As Bvlgari readily acknowledges, its “rapid growth in the watch industry cannot be dissociated from the judicious purchase of Genta Manufacture almost two decades ago.” Housed inside an Arena case in platinum, the Gérald Genta 50th Anniversary watch shows jumping hours in an aperture at 12 o’clock and retrograde minutes sweeping an arc that spans the top of the lacquered blue dial with, at the bottom, the original Gérald Genta logo prominently displayed.

1969, selenic year

On July 21st 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the Moon. A small step for a man and a giant leap for Omega which, since 1965, has made the first watch to be qualified by NASA for use on its piloted missions. James Ragan, the NASA engineer who qualified the Speedmaster for space flight, explains: “The watch was a backup. If the astronauts lost the capability of talking to the ground, or the capability of their digital timers on the lunar surface, then the only thing they had to rely on was the Omega watch they had on their wrist. It needed to be there for them if they had a problem.” In November that same year, at the appreciation dinner in Houston, Texas, in honour of Apollo 11’s heroic crew, the astronauts were presented with a yellow gold Speedmaster BA145.022 featuring a burgundy bezel. The inscription engraved on the back of the case read “To mark man’s conquest of space with time, through time, on time.” Just 1,014 of this commemorative edition were produced between 1969 and 1973.

Speedmaster Apollo 11 Limited Edition 50th Anniversary © Omega
Speedmaster Apollo 11 Limited Edition 50th Anniversary © Omega
2019, fantastic year

2019 is, without contest, the year of the Moonwatch at Omega, which is sending the Speedmaster Apollo 11 Limited Edition 50th Anniversary into orbit as a 1,014-piece limited edition. Standout features include an original gold alloy that Omega is calling Moonshine, a new manual-winding Master Chronometer 3861 chronograph calibre and, in a nod to the original watch, a burgundy-coloured ceramic bezel. Not forgetting the “1969-2019” inscription on the case back. Two fabulous years, half a century apart, to remind us that mechanical watchmaking is still very much in its prime.

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