If we are determined to think the worst, then it could be designers hitting a brick wall in their heads, or shareholders holding watch CEOs at gun point, that vintage watch designs are being raided from company archives and given new life in contemporary collections that look… little different. This is, however, not an isolated phenomenon unique to the watch trade. Beyond that received wisdom that the world’s largest luxury market that is China prefers conservatively styled, three-hand dress watches with silvered dials (PVD, be gone!), there is also this hipsterism thing going on that’s blowing in from the West, on the wings of Instagram, java, and jive. Typewriter showrooms are morphing into coffee shops, with junkyard garages following suit; and there’s been a revival of all things artisanal, as blog empires trumpet the return of the “gentleman”, with hats, brollies, and high-waisted pants. Old is gold, and watch companies are only giving consumers what they want when they rehash last generation’s icons.
It is not a bad thing. Petrolheads should be so lucky to have car companies ape their cousins in the watch trade. But they are not. And for watch buyers, let us count our blessings and sample some of the notable icons that have been given a refresh of the body, but thankfully, not in spirit.
Zenith Pilot Montre D’Aeronef Type 20 Extra Special
Watchmakers can be inspired by aviation in any number of ways, like making watches with design cues lifted wholesale off actual flight instruments. Zenith is among a very few who can boast that it actually made these cockpit instruments, from 1910 to 1960. These were very momentous decades for aviation, stretching from the dawn of powered flight, through two World Wars, to the flowering of jet propulsion technology. And after shedding its fancy pants in recent past, Zenith decided to re-connect with its roots in classical watchmaking, and with its aviation heritage in particular when it released three pilot’s watches in 2012.
Of these, the Type 20 in particular, is a spitting image of vintage aircraft cockpit clocks that Zenith used to supply, as well as the watch that Louis Charles Joseph Blériot was wearing on his wrist when he made the world’s first Channel crossing in a heavier-than-air aircraft in 1909. The Type 20 has since grown into a diverse collection, encompassing a variety of complications including GMT, annual calendar, tourbillon, and even ladies’ models; as well as models showcasing elaborate engraving, skeletonisation, and dials of enamel and meteorite. But of particular interest here is the Type 20 Extra Special in bronze, introduced in 2015.
To make the collection more accessible, Zenith previously released a Type 20 Extra Special in steel, in 2014. However, with a lower price tag, came a third-party movement supplier (Sellita). No shame in that, but a third-party movement for an accomplished movement maker and vertical manufacturing pioneer like Zenith is, to say the least, inappropriate. Hence, the bronze model released in 2015 came equipped with an in-house movement.
For its colour, and the way it ages, bronze delivers character, charisma, and stand-out looks without the cost of a precious metal. There is such a thing as “bronze disease”, which refers to an irreversible chloride corrosion that affects copper-based alloys including bronze, manifested as a greening of the metal. Saltwater is one factor, and one might even be wary about sweating on the watch; but in reality, bronze artefacts have survived from as far back as five millennia BC (seven thousand years, some in the sea), and bronze is still used to make ship propellers, which are dipped into the ocean all the time! Moreover, at least among bronze watches from brands of comparable cachet, the Type 20’s asking price is attractive, in one case, by nearly half. Titanium (hypoallergenic) case back is a thoughtful feature towards wearer comfort.
IWC Big Pilot’s Heritage Watch
Vintage Pilot’s watches are the stuff of legend in part because pilots of today – in an age of GPS, radar, and planes that can practically fly themselves – do not need watches as much as their forebears, who depended on watches to derive such fundamental information such as where one is, and how long the fuel will last. In this regard, a pilot’s watch had to be precise, and hardy enough to operate reliably in the flight environment, in the face of gravitational stress from fast manoeuvres, rapid fluctuations in temperature and pressure with altitude, and magnetic fields emitting from flight equipment. IWC has much claim to making authentic pilot’s watches, for the long years it has been supplying them to the preeminent air forces of the day, including the Luftwaffe in the 1940s, and the UK Royal Air Force during the post-war years.
For 2016, IWC has refreshed its pilot’s watch collections, most distinctive of them being the Big Pilot’s Heritage watch in a colossal 55mm case size, as large as the 1940 model that was a saucer of a watch strapped to the thigh rather than worn on the wrist. Legibility counted for much, and one flew seated. Unlike the original, IWC has chosen to construct the case out of sandblasted titanium, cutting the weight by 18 per cent to 150g. Limited to 100 pieces, it’s a piece of history. But for something more wrist-friendly, the Heritage also comes in 48mm case size. This model features a longer running movement than the 55mm model (eight days’ power reserve, as opposed to 46 hours), and while both have soft iron inner cases to shield the movement against magnetic fields, IWC has managed to craft a sapphire crystal window onto the 48mm model’s back case. Hero jewellery.
Montblanc 1858 Chronograph Tachymeter
Why are vintage-inspired products lately resurgent? Is it just a matter of aesthetics? It could be, for some. And that would be enough. But for others, it is also about the way things used to be done, that with progress, we had somehow traded away beauty, elegance, and significance for cost effectiveness and convenience. To right that balance is probably why Montblanc took the Minerva manufacture under its wings in 2006. Established in 1858, Minerva is notable for creating beautiful, handcrafted movements, and since its acquisition, its expertise and ideals have been secured, and have coloured Montblanc’s watchmaking collections, from limited edition high complications to more accessible, non-limited timepieces. The 1858 chronograph, in a limited edition of 100 pieces, follows this fine tradition; it’s Old School through and through.
The watch face is of the traditional bi-compax layout, with two sub-dials; lumed Arabic numerals and quaint needle-tipped cathedral hands are right for optimal legibility; while traditional railway track markings are hard to beat for precise division of time. There is good reason for having a pair of chronograph pushers, but a monopusher integrated with the crown is visually cleaner. Montblanc has also reverted to an old logo, to more coherently pair with the overall aesthetic of the watch.
Some traditionalists might baulk at the 1858’s case size, though: an immodest 44mm, at odds with vintage codes, to say the least. The upside to this is that it offers room for a large, lushly decorated movement, the manual-winding MB M16.29, inspired by a Minerva movement from 1929. Column wheel, lateral coupling, a large balance with weight screws and swan neck regulator; and a Minerva signature, the chronograph hammer shaped like a devil’s tail. It’s a modern-sized widescreen window into the pillars of classical watchmaking. And what a view.
Jaeger-LeCoultre Geophysic 195
What better way to remember the Cold War than with a wristwatch to commemorate a rather weird episode within this global contest where nations came together across an ideological divide to co-explore the globe with socialist zeal; while on the wings, the Superpowers shadow-boxed like ex-lovers over milk gone sour. The period in question is the International Geophysical Year (IGY) that lasted from July 1, 1957, to December 31, 1958. Some 67 countries collaborated on scientific and exploration projects related to the earth sciences. The Soviet Union stunned the US when it successfully launched Sputnik 1 in October 1957. The US returned the favour in August the following year when the USS Nautilus, the world’s first operational nuclear-powered submarine, steamed from Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean, crossed under the North Pole, and surfaced in the Atlantic, northeast of Greenland, practically in the USSR’s backyard. International cooperation aside, it was about putting one’s rival within nuke range.
Jaeger-LeCoultre’s contribution to the IGY was the Geophysic, the most capable watch it knew how to make at that point in time, best suited to the precision, reliability, and toughness required of scientific exploration. With production run lasting about a year, only a little over 1,000 pieces were ever made in stainless steel, and 30 in gold. In 2014, the manufacture has re-issued the Geophysic, in a slightly larger case size (38.5mm as opposed to 35mm), powered by a modern, proven self-winding movement in place of the original’s hand-wound movement, and validated by JLC’s own 1,000 hours of testing, which exceeds the COSC standard for which the original was certified. A new Cold War is brewing; good time for a new Geophysic, in three variants and two dial layouts.
Vacheron Constantin Historiques Cornes de Vache 1955
Last year, Vacheron Constantin released a vintage-styled chronograph with a recognisably generic design, bearing two sub-dials on a silvered dial. Many other brands have something like this too. But not the lugs! Rounded, voluptuous, and pointy; for an otherwise very sober watch, they are a most peculiar appendage, almost kinky. By the lugs, one can identify it for the Vacheron “Cornes de Vache”. Horns of a cow, in English. The spiritual successor to the Ref. 6087 of 1955. Even back then, it seems Vacheron Constantin already had a sense of humour. A bull would be a fiercer animal some of us prefer to associate with, what with rage, power, and bullish markets. Cows, on the other hand, give butter. But bull would be “taureau”, not “vache” and the wordplay would be lost. Cow (vache) it is… and only from Vacheron!
But it takes somewhat more than a pun to make a legend. Ref. 6087 was the company’s first chronograph that was water resistant and anti-magnetic, being equipped with screwed-in case back and soft iron inner case. It is also among the rarest of Vacheron Constantin’s chronographs – only 36 were ever made; 26 in yellow gold and eight in pink gold from 1955 to the mid 1960s, followed by two in platinum in the 1990s, which bore the same reference number and movement but in a case without the cow horn lugs. Ref. 6087 was also the manufacture’s last chronograph model till 1989.
In name, form, and its pivotal place in the company’s history, the Historiques “Cornes de Vache 1955” makes a compelling proposition, beyond the fact that it’s been so beautifully made.
Text by Yeo Suan Futt
This story was first published in World of Watches.