It began as a way out. A way out of a throwaway society. It grew into a fashion for more meaningful everyday objects. It’s now a trend rooted in an age of greater freedom and individuality – remember: it’s exactly 50 years since a vast wave of civil unrest hit France. Watchmaking is very much a part of this vintage trend starting with its products, many of which came about in the busy post-war years. It’s also rooted in tradition, the implication being that an old-fashioned timepiece is a friend for life, if not longer. Watch brands and fans of vintage were made to get along, and the initial dalliance quickly became a full-blown love affair that has swept away everything in its path – Baselworld included.
It’s not the first time vintage has put in an appearance at the fair. What is new is to see it splashed across the entire spectrum. Storied brands that can legitimately play up their expertise are now shoulder to shoulder with the horological hoi polloi, all too happy to show that nostalgia is a concept to be bent into shape. Anonimo is one example. The Italian brand has staged its comeback around a time-worn military aesthetic, and made gently patinated bronze cases its calling card, although its Epurato line, unveiled in Basel, gives off a more casual, 1950s dolce vita vibe. Oris plays a similar game, this time emphasising the fathers of modern flight and the very first pilot’s watches. None of these were in bronze, an alloy more likely encountered in a diving helmet, but what’s a little poetic licence between friends! Thus Oris has cased its Big Crown Pointer Date in warm bronze. Hamilton, meanwhile, can claim historical accuracy for its celebration of “100 years of timing the skies” with the release of the Khaki Pilot DD 42mm. Joining it is the Field Mechanical 38mm, which is very much inspired by the military watches Hamilton was producing around the 1940s.
Vintage, the philosopher's stone
Hamilton wasn’t the only watch on the battlefield, as Omega is quick to point out. Between 1940 and 1945, it supplied over 110,000 watches to the British Ministry of Defence, which issued them to the Royal Air Force and other armed services. After the Second World War, in 1948, Omega released a Seamaster for civilian use – one that was just as robust but with even greater water-resistance than its military counterpart. The collection turns 70 this year, an anniversary marked by two limited editions that are very similar to the original watches in style. Omega has a long history, and can pull vintage models out of its back catalogue like rabbits from a hat. Not all brands can say the same. For those that can, these sepia-toned models are given an increasingly important role in the product mix. The alchemist has the philosopher’s stone; the watchmaker has vintage. Zenith is a case in point. After searching right and left for a replacement for the legendary El Primero that could drive its growth, the brand suddenly remembered it had crossed the English Channel with Louis Blériot and it had trademarked the word “Pilot” for watches early last century. Enter the Pilot Type 20, a collection that has proved immensely popular, including the version in… bronze. In a similar vein, this year the brand is reviving its Cronometro Tipo CP-2, better-known to many as the “Cairelli”. During the 1960s, Zenith made some 2,500 for the Italian air force.
The headlining act at Tudor is now the mid-century-inspired Heritage Black Bay. Breitling, meanwhile, shows no lack of imagination when it comes to reissues of its Navitimer from 1952. Blancpain has rolled out numerous interpretations of its Fifty Fathoms and Bathyscaphe, two dive watches also from the 1950s, while TAG Heuer is launching a new version of its 1969 Monaco Gulf; Gulf Oil sponsored Steve McQueen for certain of his races, and this isn’t the first time the Monaco has sported its livery. The Sixties are still in full swing over at Glashütte Original too, and at Longines which puts a fresh spin on a 1960s dive watch. Last but not least, Tissot’s Heritage range epitomises the view that the ideal watch is a watch with a story to tell. The buying public clearly agrees.