Half past heritage

Bringing back old watch favorites from the archive.


WORDS  BRIAN M. AFUANG

Most watch guys know the story by now.

The founder of watch-interest web-site Hodinkee, Benjamin Clymer, had in the last few years occasionally posted Instagram photos of his 1945 Longines oversized “Calatrava.” Apparently, Longines noticed this and asked Clymer if it could borrow the watch. It was a request for which no clear reason was given, but one the Hodinkee boss did not turn down; he handed his watch over to Longines during the 2016 run of Baselworld, the annual horologists’ and jewelers’ Mecca in Basel, Switzerland. 

At this year’s edition of Baselworld, held in March,  Longines brought out several new pieces. Included among these was something called the Heritage 1945. Now, what this is is a faithful rendition of Clymer’s watch, only with a bigger case — measuring a contemporary 40 millimeters (from the original 38 millimeters) — and a self-winding mechanism. But its subdial, blued hands, dial color, and numeral markers all conspire to make for a near-exact replica. As Clymer noted in a Hodinkee video report, the similarity goes right down to the beige suede strap on which he wears his vintage piece. In a subsequent article, for which Clymer sought the watchmaker’s permission, he disclosed Longines did use his watch as the model for the Heritage 1945.

In all this, what was not made clear is why Longines needed Clymer’s watch as a reference. Longines is known in the horology community for keeping a record of every watch it has made throughout much of its existence. In most cases, the watch manufacturer is also able to supply the name of the dealer that sold the watch, in what country the watch was sold, the price of the watch at the time of purchase, along with the technical specifications of the particular watch. In fact, anyone who needs information on a certain Longines piece can simply e-mail the company and ask for details about a certain watch (the service is available on Longines’ web-site).

Going by the Clymer piece then, it seems that Longines keeps track only of its watches’ serial numbers. One might surmise that Longines does not store technical illustrations or photos of every watch it has made and therefore needed to seek an actual model to copy. And, thanks to Instagram, the company found an accessible resource person in Clymer, who also happens to be a leading watch journalist.

Whatever the reason, the steps taken to resurrect the Heritage 1945 — not to mention the fair bit of accompanying theatrics — capture the watch industry’s fascination with watches that evoke, if not totally mimic, the aesthetics that defined timepieces during the mid-1900s. The sundry watchmakers’ prose refers to such styling approach as “heritage,” and at this year’s Baselworld this could well be the theme.

Because, certainly, Longines was not alone in this pursuit.

Omega

The stars of the Omega releases, for instance, were the brand’s modern replicas of its own Speedmaster, Seamaster, and Railmaster models, all of which were first released in 1957 (meaning the watches are marking their 60th year). And in these three pieces, “replica” means exactly that: Omega used imaging technology on models taken from its museum to duplicate the watches, resulting in completely faithful designs (except for dials that use modern luminants instead of the radioactive coating preferred by watchmakers of yore). The case diameter for each model — 38 millimeters for the Speedmaster and Railmaster, 39 millimeters for the Seamaster — is exactly the same as that on the originals, too. The line’s signature broad arrow hands, straight lugs and distinct metal bracelet (save for its clasp, which is now adjustable) are retained in the new watches as well.

Not carried over from the originals, expectedly: the movements, which are now certified master chronometers like those powering current Omegas. To ensure these recreations are even more coveted, Omega is limiting production to only 3,557 examples of each model.

Omega pushed the vintage theme even further by offering all three 60th anniversary pieces in a collection called Trilogy. Each watch is differentiated by a “Trilogy” mark on its dial, placed just below the Omega logo, along with its limited-edition number. Only 557 Trilogy-marked watches will be produced. They come in sets of three (Speedmaster, Seamaster, and Railmaster) and cannot be bought separately, unlike the “mere” 60th year models. They are also housed in a special red box that’s larger than Omega’s vintage boxes, complemented by a leather pouch, an extra leather strap for each, and a strap-changing tool. Quite a nice vintage-looking set, if one can get it.

TAG Heuer

While Omega’s and Longines’ Trilogy and Heritage 1945 announcements were unexpected to most, TAG Heuer’s Baselworld launch of its revived Autavia model was anything but — the company hyped the watch’s arrival for over a year. TAG Heuer started things off in Baselworld 2016, when brand’s enthusiasts — and the Autavia faithful, in particular — were asked to vote on which of the 16 vintage Autavia models (including four “fantasy” pieces) they would most like to see re-issued.

The Autavia, a portmanteau of “automotive” and “aviation,” was released from 1962 to 1985 when Heuer turned into TAG Heuer, following the brand’s acquisition by the TAG Group. It was re-released in 2003 as a TAG Heuer, only to be pulled out a couple of years later in the face of lukewarm reception. This time around, TAG Heuer hedged its bets by involving Autavia fans, majority of whom picked the Reference 2446 Mark III from 1966, or the “Rindt” Autavia nicknamed after the Formula One champion Jochen Rindt.

The new Rindt Autavia was released in this year’s edition of Baselworld. As expected, the watch discards the TAG logo on its dial, opting for the period-correct Heuer badge alone. Most elements on its dial — thick stick hour markers, reverse “panda” color scheme, three-register layout, straight hands, typography  — have remained faithful to those found on the watch’s forebear. Even the peculiar “tropical” brown accents on the tips of the hour markers have made it to the new piece. The addition of a date window, discreetly tucked at the bottom of the center subdial, is one of the cleverest treatments for such a complication seen in years.

Like the Longines Heritage 1945, the heritage Heuer’s case has bulked up — it now measures 42 millimeters, way bigger than the original’s 38 millimeters. The added girth made the watch’s distinct 12-hour bezel expand, as did the numeral markers. Apart from the increase in size, the new Autavia does not detract much from the one favored by the F1 driver.

Rolex

In the case of Rolex… well, all current Rolex models, save for a couple or so, are inarguably heritage-style pieces. The Crown has, since the mid-1900s, consistently taken an evolutionary route design-wise, with the cues and elements defining each model tweaked ever so incrementally. The result is that Rolexes have become some of the most identifiable watches on wrists, succinct statements of what an eloquent design language can do for a brand.

This did not change at Baselworld 2017. Rolex released a new Sea-Dweller that basically carries over every single design element that identified the watch from its inception 50 years ago — its hour markers, “Mercedes” hands, grooved bezel, bezel markings and crown guards all remain identical. But the big news about the latest Sea-Dweller is that its dial has grown to 43 millimeters — its most inflated yet, apart from its special Deepsea versions.

Besides heft, what also caused a stir was Rolex’s addition of its signature “Cyclops” magnifying glass over the Sea-Dweller’s date window. Previously, it was the lack of a Cyclops that visually set apart the Sea-Dweller from Rolex’s identical-looking Submariner collection, hence the buzz. Another element that the truly geeky among Rolex fanatics take issue with in the new Sea-Dweller is the single line of red-painted text on the watch’s dial. This is because the coveted original model had two lines of red text, and so is reverentially referred to as the double red Sea-Dweller.

Rolex also updated the aesthetics of its Cosmograph Daytona — the brand’s star attraction at Baselworld 2016 — as it released three gold versions, each of them attached to a patented rubber/alloy composite bracelet called Oysterflex. Like the Cyclops on the Sea-Dweller, the appearance of the Oysterflex on the Daytona — a first for this hallowed line — drew reactions ranging from disgust to delight.

In contrast, Rolex’s addition of a moon phase complication on its most classically styled piece, the Cellini, was embraced by vintage-watch enthusiasts who pine for just that feature on a contemporary Rolex — the brand has not peddled a moon phase-adorned watch since the 1950s.

TUDOR

Rolex’s Tudor sub-brand, for its part, continued on its string of Baselworld hits by bringing out new versions of its wildly successful Heritage Black Bay line. Defined by a collection of Rolex’s and Tudor’s divers’ watch clichés from the 1950s onwards, the Black Bay this year starts its ascent into modern times through a model with a brushed-steel bezel, as well as a blown up 41-millimeter rendition of the sedate 36-millimeter piece that, though a sensation, is regarded by many as a tad feminine.

And then there is the new Black Bay version that wears the same brushed-steel bezel, this time around marked by a tachymeter scale instead of the traditional 60-minute diver’s countdown. The new bezel treatment matches the watch’s two-register chronograph, which in turn is surrounded by the same Submariner-like hour markers and Tudor’s signature snowflake hands. Notwithstanding the visual elements borrowed from later models, the new Black Bay offerings retain their decidedly vintage feel.     

SEIKO

 

Of the 2,000 or so brands that set up shop at this year’s Basel gig, the list of watchmakers that dug up their heritage, not even mentioning those that sought to “create” their own when none existed, spanned mid-tier names to truly exalted ones — from Oris to Patek Philippe, for instance. The trend went beyond the European outfits, showing up in Japanese brands as well.

Seiko is clearly riding on the wave of interest its pieces have, in the past years, been enjoying. The popularity has transcended horologists and genuine watch guys who have, for decades, recognized the virtues of the brand (typical Japanese competence and sturdiness at an affordable price). Over the last couple of years or so, Filipino enthusiasts who only last Tuesday possessed a vague idea of which hand on a wristwatch tells the hour have turned Seiko fanatics — if not downright Seiko trolls — for whom the brand’s heritage pieces are the Holy Grail.

At Baselworld, Seiko jumped on its revitalized fame to announce that it was spinning off Grand Seiko, its line of best watches, into a separate brand. To tout the development, it brought out three limited-edition models in steel, platinum and gold, all of which are designed to look like they just rolled off a craftsman’s table from the 1960s. The pieces are embellished with Grand Seiko just below 12 o’clock on their dial (where the Seiko badge traditionally belonged), with the logo rendered in its original script. And nowhere does the Seiko name appear anywhere on the watches now, nor the “GS” tag that used to accompany the Grand Seiko mark.

Besides this new approach to branding, which will be the norm for all succeeding Grand Seikos, there’s little else to tell the pieces are new rather than decades-old — their dials are largely unadorned; their simple stick markers, crisp; their crystals, generously domed; their cases, graceful at 38 millimeters; their hands, still finished using a technique originally developed for polishing samurai swords. But they also clearly benefit from the advances made in manufacturing technology over the intervening half-century or so (Grand Seiko first came out in 1960) as the watches come off more refined than any period piece could hope for.

Seiko did not stop at the Grand Seiko spin-off move. Obviously aware that its divers’ watches command a fair chunk of its most rabid following, the company released a compelling reproduction of the first diver’s watch it ever made, back in 1965, that’s commonly referred to as the 62 MAS.

In this new piece, the significant differences lie beneath the surface. The watch is powered by a contemporary self-winding movement, and its stainless-steel case gets a new type of coating that better resists scratches. But, visually, there isn’t much that sets the sequel apart from the original (aside from small deviations in the bezel and dial markings). Like all the noteworthy recreations seen at the 2016 edition Baselworld, Seiko’s new rendition of its original diver’s piece recalls its best form, paying proper homage to history even as it moves a half hour past its heritage.

At some point, shouldn’t we all, too?