What year is it again? Baselworld goes big on vintage watches

Attendees at the just completed Baselworld watch fair in Switzerland would have been forgiven for mistaking the year for 1957 or even 1917, given the predominance of new models harking back to the past.

Baselworld, as it’s called, is possibly the greatest tease a timepiece tragic can experience. Here, packed into one-and-a-half million square metres of lavishly bedecked exhibition space, are hundreds of watch brands showcasing the thousands of new models they hope to tempt you with in the coming months.

The tease? Despite being open to the public – and attracting some 130,000 visitors – this is about the only spot in Switzerland you can’t actually buy a watch unless you’re a distributor or retailer, in which case it’s here that you place your order.

That means the real interest lies in seeing what’s in the pipeline, and what trends the industry is relying on to fix the predicament of flagging sales. That’s right, watch sales have been falling for months on end, with the latest figures revealing yet another 10 per cent drop in February.

Omega unveiled not one but three heritage watches at Baselworld: its Trilogy series features updated versions of the ...
Omega unveiled not one but three heritage watches at Baselworld: its Trilogy series features updated versions of the 1957 Seamaster, Railmaster and Speedmaster. Supplied

Despite the usual surface energy at Baselworld, pessimism in the industry is palpable, and confusion about how to get things back on track reigns. Well, almost. As far as the product goes, the hounds were running firmly in one direction, and that’s vintage.

If winding back the clock is hardly new for watch companies – they love re-editions – it’s unusual to find the past getting a raking over in so many quarters. Still, what else to do? Embrace the smart watch?

Reprising earlier models is also not the most difficult or expensive route to take. There are no nasty research and development costs, and few industries have retained past records, drawings and archived so assiduously; this is a business that feeds off an image of authenticity and history. In reality, and despite the impressive hands-on aspects, watch companies are modern-day mass-manufacturing concerns, many of which built massive new facilities to meet a rising demand that stalled seemingly overnight sometime around 2014.

Vintage tactics

Can vintage save the day and, indeed, what exactly classifies as vintage when it comes to a watch? Regarding the latter it’s a watch that looks like the one your father or grandfather abandoned, a now nostalgic ticker with a domed glass called a crystal, in watch-speak, a case size that doesn’t dwarf the wrist, and a mellow look to the dial.

The Tag Heuer Autavia began life in the 1930s as a dashboard clock.
The Tag Heuer Autavia began life in the 1930s as a dashboard clock. Supplied

Regarding the likely success of the trend, it’s certainly resulting in some handsome watches of a wearable size, and while you wouldn’t expect it to save the industry, it chimes with current tastes and contrasts wonderfully with the techno-brittleness of smart watches, that new competitor for wrist real estate.

Not that watch lovers necessarily see it that way; for them only a mechanical timepiece does the trick, both as an accessory and an object of delight.

To them vintage watches are independent little souls while smart watches spend half their lives tethered to chargers. Then there’s the different vista and experience mechanical pieces offer when you glance at your wrist.

With a smart watch the reward is the content it delivers. With a mechanical watch the reward is the machine itself, and vintage looks – with their modesty and warmth compared with show-off pieces – seem to be the flavour of the moment, at least in these post watch-boom times.

Research has revealed that the first Oris Big Crown pilot's watch appeared in 1917.
Research has revealed that the first Oris Big Crown pilot’s watch appeared in 1917. Supplied

As to who did 2017 retro most effectively, it depends which decade you’d like to return to, but here are 10 we liked that go back as far as 100 years, yet might just be the thing for today.

10 of the best new golden oldies

1. Omega Trilogy

Omega hardly has to send out a search party to find old favourites – the Speedmaster is 60 years old this year, ditto the Seamaster and the Railmaster. To mark the occasion the brand has released a trio – we’ll count them as one – replicating the originals down to the tiniest detail. None spans more than 39mm and only the movements have been upgraded. You can buy them as a limited-edition set or individually, each priced under $10,000.

The original Oris Chronoris, from the 1970s, sported the company's first in-house movement.
The original Oris Chronoris, from the 1970s, sported the company’s first in-house movement. Supplied

2. Tag Heuer Autavia

Tag might have launched a smart watch (the Connected) but hasn’t been foolish enough to abandon the purists. The Autavia was the watch enthusiasts told Tag they wanted to see again. It began life in the 1930s as a dashboard clock, morphed into a sports chronograph in the 1960s and now returns in much the same guise. Differences? The case is up from 39mm to 42mm, the bezel is a bit wider and it’s water resistant to 100 metres. The movement is upgraded and now features a date display. The price is $6600.

3. Oris Big Crown 1917

Until recently Oris believed its first pilot’s watch appeared in 1938 but deeper digging revealed it was in fact in 1917 that a 40mm brass-cased number, essentially a pocket watch with wire lugs soldered on, carried the Oris name. A century on you can have the look for about $3000 with this limited-edition replica that even has a similar pin-lever movement.

The Tribute to Fifty Fathoms MIL-SPEC has a doughnut bezel that's a vintage Blancpain trademark.
The Tribute to Fifty Fathoms MIL-SPEC has a doughnut bezel that’s a vintage Blancpain trademark. Supplied

4. Oris Chronoris

A shallower excavation at Oris revealed another plum ripe for the picking, the 1970s Chronoris, which boasted the company’s first in-house movement. The internals now come courtesy of the Sellita manufacturer, but those ’70s disco looks are there, framed in a cushy period case spanning 39mm. Yours for around $2300.

5. Blancpain Tribute to Fifty Fathoms MIL-SPEC

That orange and white sub-dial is a moisture-alert (and collector alert) indicator as found on early interpretations of the 1950s dive favourite. Back then it spanned 38mm, now it’s 40mm and has an impressive two-barrel mechanism. The doughnut bezel is a vintage Blancpain trademark, the price a more modern $17,650.

6. Longines Heritage 1945

Longines does heritage pieces every year and this salmon-hued recreation of a 1945 model is a winner. Now 40mm rather than 38mm and with a self-winding movement, it retains the curvaceous design of the era, with subtlety and proportion the order of the day. Around $3000.

7. Seiko ‘First Grand Seiko’

With the high-end Grand Seiko about to become a stand-alone brand, 2017 sees a recreation of the very first watch to carry the mantle. The new model comes in platinum, gold or steel and uses the exact case and dial design as the 1960 original, now resized to 38mm. It houses a modern hand-wind movement.

The 2017 Grand Seiko reprises the case and dial design of the 1960 original.
The 2017 Grand Seiko reprises the case and dial design of the 1960 original. Supplied

8. Seiko Prospex Dive Watch

Seiko produced Japan’s first dive watch in 1965 – and here it is again. The looks are there but now it’s a hand-assembled limited edition with a box-shaped sapphire crystal and hardened case rated to 200 metres, available in July.

9. Tudor Heritage Black Bay

Debuting in yellow gold and steel, this new version of the Black Bay looks more retro than ever. Introduced only a few years back, the range replicates details first seen in Tudor dive watches of the 1950s and 1970s, including “snowflake” hands and a curved crystal.

10. Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendar 5320G

This is how a Patek looked six or seven decades back. Now with a slightly larger 40mm case (white gold) there’s the typical opening for the day and month and a moonphase display and date, presented on a rich cream lacquer dial with timeless numerals. Around $100,000.

Bani McSpedden is watch editor of The Australian Financial Review and watch-next.com.

Seiko created the original dive watch in 1965.
Seiko created the original dive watch in 1965. Supplied
The Tudor Heritage Black Bay is now in gold and steel.
The Tudor Heritage Black Bay is now in gold and steel. Supplied
Classic Patek Philippe from six or seven decades ago: the revamped Perpetual Calendar 5320G is yours for $100,000.
Classic Patek Philippe from six or seven decades ago: the revamped Perpetual Calendar 5320G is yours for $100,000. Supplied

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