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Still in love with the past
Trend Forecaster

Still in love with the past

Friday, 15 May 2020
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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

Salmon or champagne-coloured dials, box crystals, two-tone cases… neo-vintage is as popular as ever, with a strong input from mid-twentieth-century styles.

They may look as though they came straight out of a secret compartment in grandpa’s dresser or from grandma’s jewellery box; in reality these watches are fresh off the workbench. If it’s true that fashion is an eternal renewal, the same could be said of watchmaking. Nostalgia for the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s – when a watch made its home discreetly under the cuff, occasionally revealing its slim case, box crystal and salmon or champagne-coloured dial – continues to inspire a succession of vintage-inflected designs. Critics of this neo-retro trend accuse brands of resting on their creative laurels. Not so, retort makers for whom these trips to the archives are a means of telling a story and anchoring current creations in a consistent narrative – all with the aim of sparking our imagination and arousing the curiosity of collectors.

Not just a watch, a lifestyle

“The Capsule Collections enable us to tell some of the brand’s most inspirational stories and produce some remarkable watches that are available for a limited time,” says Breitling CEO Georges Kern of the Superocean Heritage ’57 Capsule Collection. Inspired by the original SuperOcean from 1957, one of the standout features of the new line is the bidirectional concave rotating bezel in stainless steel with a scratch-resistant ceramic bezel ring. “We’ve focused on the laidback, fun-in-the-sun culture of Southern California that defined an era for an entire generation,” continues Kern. “The 50s and 60s surf culture is at the heart of the storytelling, but there’s so much more to these decades. There’s the great music, the amazing cars and an almost spiritual connection to the freedom of endless sandy beaches or in the search for the perfect wave.” Not just a collection then, but a lifestyle with its very own soundtrack – Breitling suggests Wipe Out, the classic surfing song, alongside The Beach Boys, The Ventures, or Jan and Dean.

Collection Capsule Superocean Heritage 57 © Breitling
Collection Capsule Superocean Heritage 57 © Breitling

The latest women’s watches from Piaget, distinguished by their asymmetric curved form, hark back to the 1960s celebrity jet-setters who became known as Piaget Society. As Quentin Hébert, Head of Watch Marketing, reminds us, Yves Piaget had many famous friends who loved nothing more than to gather in tropical paradises. Liza Minnelli, Elizabeth Taylor, Andy Warhol, Salvador Dalí and Cary Grant all wore Piaget watches whose flamboyant style is fabulously illustrated by the use of ornamental stones for dials. It’s a spirit captured by the 21st Century Collection which the brand introduced in 1969, and still prominent in today’s creations. These include the new Limelight Gala Precious Sapphire Gradient which shows off Piaget’s remarkable talent for working with gold. Typical of the Swinging Sixties, the rippling Palace Decor comes into its own on the supple gold bracelet, but also on the dial which is covered with translucent blue Grand Feu enamel.

For the cognoscenti

By delving into their archives for historic designs to bring bang up to date, brands clearly have collectors in their sights. The 50th anniversary of the El Primero automatic chrono movement was Zenith’s cue to reverse engineer the 1969 original and launch the A384 Revival. Each component of the A384 from 1969 was digitised then exactly reproduced. There are a couple of updates nonetheless, as the new version swaps acrylic glass for sapphire crystal, while the movement is the latest El Primero 400 chronograph calibre. The cherry on the cake: the 37mm case comes mounted on an open design “ladder” bracelet in steel; the very one supplied by Gay Frères for the original watch.

El Primero A384 Revival © Zenith
El Primero A384 Revival © Zenith

A new release from Audemars Piguet this year is also a nod to its past. Michael Friedman, who is Head of Complications for the brand, describes the [Re]master01 as transposing the strength and elegance of a 1943 chronograph to a watch for the 2020s. This isn’t, he insists, a historic reissue but a contemporary remastering of a past creation. Knowing that between 1939 and 1959 Audemars Piguet made just 307 chronograph wristwatches, this limited edition of 500 pieces will have huge appeal for collectors wanting a vintage-inspired design that’s also aligned with today’s tastes. Indeed, rather than create an exact replica of the 1943 model, Audemars Piguet has refreshed the design to meet current demand. The two-tone case in steel and pink gold is enlarged to 40mm, the subdial layout has been modified to improve readability, and the movement is the new-generation 4409. The dial retains the features and Art-Deco inspired numerals of the original. As CEO François-Henry Bennahmias notes, recreating the original champagne colour gave the Le Brassus brand’s watchmakers several sleepless nights: “We went through quite a few very complicated stages, equivalent to six to nine months’ work, just for the dial colour, but we succeeded in achieving that perfect balance whereby a watch with all the attributes of today gives the impression it was found at the back of grandpa’s drawer.”

Show off a style

While some brands, such as Audemars Piguet and Breitling, choose to bring the past to life in limited editions or capsule collections, others have made vintage a fixture. Montblanc is one; its Heritage line shines a light on mid-twentieth-century design through interpretations of classic Minerva wristwatches from the 1940s and 50s. The different models introduced this year, in yellow gold, pink gold or steel, 40mm or 42mm, inject vintage colours onto dials in salmon, racing green or tobacco brown. The same “old school” shade can be found on the Fiftysix by Vacheron Constantin which, for the first time, matches a brown calfskin strap to its sepia-toned dial. Inspired by the very first water-resistant automatic watch from the brand, Reference 6073 from 1956 (hence the name), the two newest executions are a three-hands with date and a complete calendar that are a perfect mix of old and new. Why choose between the hallmarks of the past and modern demands when, to borrow Vacheron’s aptly coined phrase, “retro-contemporary” is so very now!

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