It’s inevitable that the past casts a long shadow over something as inherently retro as the watch industry, whose very existence today could be seen as anachronistic, and in which many of the most important historic designs have never really gone away. Patek Phillipe’s Nautilus, for instance, a watch currently so hot that steel versions with a retail price of £26,870 ($36,512) are trading at $100,000 more than this, has a design virtually unchanged since 1974; the same brand’s Calatrava dress watch dates back to 1932.
On the other hand, a booming vintage market, the proliferation of scholarship and awareness among online communities, and a continuing zest for retro that’s generating new versions of everything from old-school games consoles and analog synths to classic cars recreated down to the last engine rivet, creates an ever-richer landscape for brands to plunder the archives. As the following retro models attest.
Omega Speedmaster 321 Canopus Gold
Most people know the Speedmaster as the watch that went to the moon with NASA’s astronauts, but it started life as a motorsports wristwatch back in 1957. This version harks back to that original 1957 model, albeit in a superdeluxe format: The case is in Canopus gold (Omega’s particularly bright white gold alloy) rather than steel, and the dial is cut from black onyx.
But in this case, the real vintage play is the movement (the mechanical “engine” powering the watch) inside it. Three years ago, Omega put a hand-wound movement it had last made in 1969, Calibre 321, back into (extremely limited) production, reserving a special workshop in its high-tech factory for hand-assembly the old-school way.
Calibre 321 powered the Speedmasters worn by Apollo astronauts in the 1960s and early 1970s (including in the moon landings), and holds a special place of affection among enthusiasts and collectors. This is only the third modern watch to contain it: retro on the outside, even more so on the inside, but with an eye-wateringly modern price tag of $81,000. One glint of hope is that if we were of the betting persuasion, we'd put money on Omega at some stage releasing a more affordable steel version of this piece.
Unlike Omega’s Calibre 321, Zenith’s historic chronograph movement, the El Primero, never went out of production: Introduced in 1969, it was the first self-winding chronograph (a watch with a stopwatch function), and has been the backbone of Zenith’s watchmaking ever since. It was also used by Rolex in the 1990s. Today’s El Primero is a thoroughly modern engine, but Zenith has been playing on its vintage origins with a series of retro-inspired models.
Launched in 2021, the Chronomaster Original throws things gloriously back to the first El Primero watch of 1969, known as the A386. In particular, the handset and typefaces are lovingly re-created, while the historically correct 38-mm diameter plays into another current trend, that of smaller watches (Zenith’s modern El Primeros tend to be in the 40-to-42-mm mark). While it’s undoubtedly a watch to please the purists, the fact that Zenith has already iterated this in a few versions, including a distinctly non-vintage, female-facing style with mother-of-pearl dial and diamonds, demonstrates the mileage it sees in the original design. Sometimes oldest really is best.
The original Swatch Watch appeared in 1983, and it was a bolt from the blue: cheap, plastic, and disposable, but also a piece of rigorous analog design, and Switzerland’s modish retort to the Japanese digital watches then flooding the market.
Recent drops from Swatch have brought vibrant early design favorites back to the fore, including this Memphis Group-influenced number. Not that disposable plastic is such an alluring story today, hence Swatch’s turn toward a new material, BioCeramic, fusing bio-sourced plastic with ultra-tough ceramic, as used here.
At the end of last year, after much speculation, Tudor announced its Pelagos FXD dive watch. What makes this special is that it reestablishes the brand’s long connection with the French Navy (Marine Nationale). The relationship dates back to 1956, when the scientific wing of the French Navy, the Groupement d’Étude et de Recherches Sous-Marines (GERS), tested some Oyster Prince Submariner watches for use in the field. As a result, Tudor became an official supplier to the French Navy in 1961 and continued supplying Submariner watches until the mid 1980s.
It was at the beginning of the 1970s, however, that Tudor began making the French Navy one of its most iconic dive watches, the Snowflake Submariner, reference 9401. These had bright blue dials and large, snowflake-shaped hands that were shaped in response to the Marine Nationale divers’ request for more legible hands (vital for murky or nighttime underwater use).
The design of the new Pelagos FXD very much echoes the iconic 9401 timepiece. It has also been made with specific needs for combat swimming. The 42mm brushed titanium case has fixed strap bars cut from a solid block to make sure they won't break while on a mission. Speaking of which, as well as a fabric strap with a self-gripping fastening system, you also get a navy blue rubber strap included in the box. It is waterproof to 200 meters, not 500 meters like the regular Pelagos, because it is intended to be used for underwater navigation performed at shallower depths by two divers connected by a lifeline. One diver sets the course on a compass while the other times the swim exactly using the watch as they steer through a series of submarine waypoints. As a result, the case is also slimmer than usual, due to the lack of need for a gas escape valve seen in 500-meter dive watches. Pleasingly, this helps the FXD translate to everyday civilian life with considerable ease.
In 1960, US watch company Bulova’s super-accurate, electronically powered Accutron watch was a piece of sci-fi futurism made real. A “Spaceview” version made without a dial, ostensibly for retailers to demonstrate the whizz-bang electronics underneath (including a tuning fork oscillator, copper coil, and transistor), became a hugely popular style in its own right and something of a collectible icon.
Having ended production in the 1970s when its tech was eclipsed by quartz watches, Accutron suddenly reappeared in 2020 as a brand in its own right (spun out from modern Bulova), with a new Spaceview that draws on the spirit and aesthetic of the old model, but with a novel technological approach. Instead of a tuning fork, a confection of visible turbines, electrodes, and motors generate and harness electrostatic energy, powering the drive systems that turn the hands. Whether its tech has a future in watches is debatable, but as a retro-futuristic oddity, it’s as pleasingly exotic as its famous ancestor.
Outwardly an elegant luxury dress watch with a delicate midcentury aesthetic, Montblanc’s Heritage Pythagore tells a richer story when you turn it over. In the early 2000s, the brand acquired Minerva, a historic Swiss firm, bolstering its artisanal watchmaking capabilities while giving it a legacy to draw on in its vintage-inspired watches. In this case, Montblanc re-creates a movement, Calibre 48, that Minerva made in the 1940s—a celebrated hand-wound engine whose pleasing architecture was conceived around the principal of the golden ratio. From the slow beat of its huge balance wheel (a weighted wheel that rotates back and forth in the mechanism that is analogous to the pendulum in a pendulum clock) to the luxurious hand-finishing of its parts, it is distinctly old-school in every way.
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