How many people do you know who would be willing to shell out over $30,000 for an “old” Rolex Explorer II ref. 1655 – manufactured between 1971 and 1985 and going by the name Freccione, short for “orange arrow” in Italian, in reference to the orange, arrow-shaped, 24-hour hand? Probably none. Yet there are thousands such individuals, one of whom happily paid out that amount for the Freccione of his dreams at auction in Hong Kong last November. Possibly the Rolex Submariner is more your thing, ideally the post-1966 ref. 1680, but only the ones made for the North American market with the Submariner name painted in red on the dial. In which case you’ll find plenty of likeminded souls online. Outside of the big-name sales by the major auction houses, frequented by a small circle of wealthy collectors, the online community of pre-owned vintage watch geeks is growing by the day, and beginning to make its weight felt.
When the founder of fratellowatches.com, read by tens of thousands of fans of the legendary Speedmaster, asked the powers-that-be at Omega if they would be interested in producing a watch to commemorate the five-year anniversary of the site’s SpeedyTuesday hashtag, the answer was yes straight away. The resulting 2,012 Omega Speedy Tuesday watches, inspired by the Speedmaster Alaska Project III from 1978, didn’t hang around for long. Only available online, a first for Omega, they sold out in just over four hours: that’s a Speedy every seven seconds. Unsurprisingly, the idea that old watches can be taught new tricks is catching on.
There are several reasons for this. When the global economy hits a bump, buyers naturally turn to tried-and-trusted values, which in this case means iconic watches with a credible story to tell… an advantage above the promotional noise that would have us believe it is the pulse of Abraham-Louis Breguet himself ticking inside every watch. As for the manufacturers, which after a twenty-month slide in sales have reined in their ambitions, the appeal of their post-war designs is a way to limit risks and strengthen footing in the entry-level segment, a focus of attention in these troubled times. Emblematic watches are rarely replete with complications, and can therefore be offered at affordable prices when cloaked in steel. Adding to this is the underlying trend to see vintage as the height of good taste. Nothing can take away from a vintage watch’s old-school charm and it is this, alongside a sometimes epic past, that has made them so essential to brands in search of new growth opportunities.
Always a winner
Neo-retro is all the rage and the least anniversary, provided it can be counted in decades, has become an excellent pretext to retrain the spotlight on watchmaking’s hall of fame. Knowing that a vintage watch owes much to its recognisable aesthetic, brands must tread the fine line between old and new, yesterday’s designs and today’s technology. A few subtle tweaks to the dial or a couple of extra millimetres to bring the case in line with modern standards is the most they will allow themselves. When it comes to the “engine”, however, it’s time to put the old industrial ways behind us and remind buyers that digital and CNC machining centres produce far more reliable and efficient calibres. Then it’s simply a question of letting the watch work its magic, which it invariably does. Think back to last year’s Autaviamania, when TAG Heuer invited web users to choose which version of the legendary 1962 chrono they wanted to see reissued this year. Voting over, this icon returns as the Rindt Autavia, named after the Austrian Formula 1 driver. Unveiled at Baselworld, it is driven by the brand’s new-generation Heuer 02 calibre.
Of course, TAG Heuer isn’t alone. Similar tactics were in evidence at Basel with the Omega Speedmaster and the Breitling Superocean, both of which turn sixty this year, the fifty-year old Rolex Sea-Dweller, even the Aquanaut from Patek Philippe, which at twenty is still in the first flush of youth. All were treated to some well-hyped launches, giving a new lease on life to styles that are very much part of watchmaking’s wider legacy and which have lost none of their appeal. And on the subject of legacy, we’re also witnessing the return of watches that dropped out of the retail circuit years ago but still represent milestones in the history of time measurement. The hour-angle watch that Tissot devised in partnership with Charles Lindbergh is one. The most senior of this year’s “historic” watches, it returns as the Lindberg Hour Angle Watch 90th Anniversary to celebrate the nine decades since Lindbergh made the first non-stop, solo transatlantic flight, timed by the Swiss watchmaker.
Even brands that don’t have a jubilee to celebrate are joining the party and giving certain of their models a retro twist. Zenith is one with its Pilot range. Chopard is another, with this year’s Mille Miglia Classic Chronograph. Blancpain perpetuates tradition with its Tribute to Fifty Fathoms MIL-SPEC, as does Tudor and its Heritage Black Bay range. Each of these watches has a story to tell. Each takes us back to an era, an odyssey, and what has become a crusade for brands which are continuing their march through conquered land.