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Looking back in wonder
New Models

Looking back in wonder

Tuesday, 20 May 2008
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Christophe Roulet
Editor-in-chief, HH Journal

“The desire to learn is the key to understanding.”

“Thirty years in journalism are a powerful stimulant for curiosity”.

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5 min read

Visitors to the IWC stand at the 2008 Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie couldn’t help but fall for the deliciously nostalgic charm of its decor, a quiet reminiscence of the different eras that were marked by the brand’s milestone models, such as the Pilot, Portugaise or Ingenieur watches. Six models in all are honoured in the Vintage collection, launched to commemorate the Schaffhausen Manufacture’s 140th jubilee (see box).

Many brands today make great play of their illustrious ancestry, and while this isn’t the first time a brand has returned to its roots, it proves that the charm of vintage watches is far from fading, particularly when the passing decades have given them iconic status: take the Fifty Fathoms, which Blancpain launched last year with a new movement, or the Polaris which Jaeger-LeCoultre is reissuing this year in two versions, both mirror images of the 1965 and 1968 originals.

While these vintage watches are duty-bound to respect the design codes of years gone by, they have no qualms about adopting the industry’s latest technology. The Le Sentier brand is a case in point: it has fitted its Tribute to Polaris watch with the new Calibre 956 whose alarm mechanism incorporates a hanging gong at the back of the case. The oscillating weight equipped with ceramic ball-bearings requires no lubrication and there is a 45-hour power reserve. The original Polaris had a triple case back: the first was for resonance, the second for water-resistance and the third was drilled with holes so the alarm would not be muffled. For its two “tribute” models, Jaeger-LeCoultre has replaced this with a double case back: a water-resistant inner back that acts as a resonance chamber thanks to the hanging gong, and an outer back with 16 round openings in perfect harmony with the original design. Because respecting the past means paying attention to the smallest detail!

Jules Audemars 30th Anniversary Perpetual Calendar © Audemars Piguet
Jules Audemars 30th Anniversary Perpetual Calendar © Audemars Piguet
A favour from quartz

No doubt this infatuation with vintage watches began when quartz erupted onto the scene in the 1970s. As devilishly accurate as digital watches may be, lovers of mechanical timepieces were disconcerted by their resolutely modern, even avant-garde, forms. Try as they might, they just couldn’t identify with these inexpensive watches and were reluctant to give in to their electronic siren song. Unfortunately, Swiss watchmakers preferred to turn a deaf ear to these customers with their old-fashioned tastes. They were more concerned with beating the Japanese at their own game instead of playing their own trump card. And so the majority of beautiful mechanisms were left to gather dust in workshops, condemning numerous Swiss manufacturers to simply disappear.

In these circumstances, aficionados had little choice than to turn to the so-called “vintage” models, manufactured between 1910 and 1970 before the quartz invasion. And so mechanical watches began to shed their purely functional nature to become more or less rare objects inspiring growing interest among an audience of connoisseurs. This is when the collectors stepped in, with their clear preference for brands that have always leaned heavily towards classic models, such as Patek Philippe, Rolex and Audemars Piguet. Auction rooms and specialist sales became their favourite hunting grounds. Over the past fifteen years, with the sound of gavel on wood ringing in their ears, brands would have had to be deaf not to notice just how much this passion for the mechanical watches of grandpa’s day was gaining ground. Clearly a visit to the archives was in order…

Endless inspiration in the past

Zenith launched its New Vintage 1965 a few years ago, with the promise that “somewhere between yesterday and today, the Vintage 1965 leaps easily over years of history, confirming that beauty is indeed timeless.” This opened the floodgates for the many brands that also bought into this idea. Watchmaking’s recent history is studded with splendid resurrections. The Reverso by Jaeger-LeCoultre, a model developed in the 1930s for polo players, became the cornerstone of the brand’s revival. The Radiomir, imagined for Italian combat divers in the Second World War, did the same for Panerai. Audemars Piguet, meanwhile, didn’t hesitate to name its two vintage collections after its founders, Jules Audemars and Edward Piguet. Not that Tag Heuer has anything to envy them: it has its very own iconic model, the Monaco, the first chronograph with the Chronomatic movement and square case, memorably worn by Steve McQueen in “Le Mans”. Nor should we forget Vintage 1945, an Art Deco-inspired collection launched by Girard-Perregaux in 1995. A new model with off-centre hours and minutes joined the collection this year.

New Vintage 1965 © Zenith
New Vintage 1965 © Zenith

Vintage watches bring with them the heady scent of bygone eras, and aficionados of the genre have responded to their call in droves. And while this may be only an impression, it is sufficiently powerful for brands to continue in this vein. Aren’t we always being told that when it comes to mechanical movements, there’s nothing left to invent? In this case, why not reinvent the forms and frissons of the past? Because mechanical watches are also about living a dream…

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