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02/10/2021
 6 minutes

Retro vs. Innovation: Are Watch Fans Creatures of Habit When it Comes to Design?

By Tim Breining
Retro vs. Innovation: Are Watch Fans Creatures of Habit When it Comes to Design?

Retro vs. Innovation: Are Watch Fans Creatures of Habit When it Comes to Design?

One season it’s blue dials; the next, green. Sometimes stainless steel watches are all the rage until bronze or two-tone models rise back to the top. Most watch trends come and go; however, one has persisted for quite some time now: retro design. One brand after another has unveiled their own version of the “stainless steel sports watch with an integrated metal bracelet.” Whether it’s a low-budget quartz TIMEX or a technical masterpiece from A. Lange & Söhne, everyone seems to be on board. To be fair, it’s rarely in a manufacturer’s best economic interest to disappoint the rabid fans of Royal Oak and Nautilus lookalikes.

A timeless classic: the Patek Philippe Nautilus, Image: Bert Buijsrogge

We could get into a discussion of seemingly banal trends, but where would that lead us? Plus, I actually count myself among those caught up in the hype. When I see yet another interpretation of a stainless steel sports watch, I usually think, “Wow, that turned out quite well.” In short, I don’t think there is anything wrong with the cliché or backwardness of some trends, especially if they leave both manufacturers and consumers satisfied. Plus, even if a trend is bordering on bland, that by no means suggests the development of the product itself is banal.

A. Lange & Söhne Odysseus
A. Lange & Söhne Odysseus

Okay, so where is there room for discussion? Well, you may have noticed that many brands struggle to find success with entirely new designs. It seems to me like most other industries allow much more room for experimentation. In the watch industry, however, recent attempts at progressive designs have been met with harsh critique, while retro designs and reissues (i.e., remakes of older models) are seen as a safe bet.

What’s going on here? Are watch fans simply creatures of habit who want to stick with the same well-known models and familiar designs? Do we hastily disregard new, groundbreaking ideas, even though we know that many of today’s legends were criticized just as harshly in their own times? With these questions in mind, I’d like to discuss the dominance of the retro trend and consider how the industry deals with new, innovative designs.

Retro, Reissue, and Patina

There is a number of sub-trends that fall under the “retro” umbrella. What specific style is currently in fashion shifts with the times. For instance, flashy two-tone designs from the 1980s have been making a comeback for some time now.

Breitling Navitimer Re-Edition 1959, Image: Bert Buijsrogge
Breitling Navitimer Re-Edition 1959, Image: Bert Buijsrogge

Reissues watches re-create past models down to the smallest detail. Certain brands like Breitling have taken a beating from fans on their new collections only to return to critics’ good graces after releasing reissues. Yet another retro trend worth mentioning is the “fake patina,” i.e., new watches that are purposefully given an old and worn appearance by adding dents, scratches, and weathered dials. It’s absurd to imagine an employee inflicting just the right amount of “authentic” damage on a brand-new case.

When it comes to the retro hype, however, those trends are secondary. Nothing comes close to the persistent enthusiasm for luxurious stainless steel sports watches in the style of the Royal Oak and Nautilus. The draw is so strong, in fact, that even brands you would never have expected to release a steel sports watch have unveiled their own renditions. Some manufacturers need only reach into a cobweb-filled box of long-discontinued models, adjust the dimensions slightly, and – voilà – their new watch is ready for the market (again). Industry media rarely have anything but accolades to shower on such – admittedly successful – remakes.

Harsh criticism only seems to arise when a brand dares to venture into unchartered design territories. Let’s take a closer look at an example of each extreme.

New Designs Don’t Stand a Chance

Audemars Piguet [Re]Master01
Audemars Piguet [Re]Master01
Audemars Piguet has offered evidence to prove my point with one of their most recent releases: the widely celebrated [Re]Master01 chronograph. At first glance, the watch is hardly distinguishable from a mid-20th century timepiece; however, it boasts a generous contemporary size and state-of-the-art movement. The outer appearance gives no clue to the ultra-modern technology within. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, seeing as the original version of the movement first debuted in the infamous CODE 11.59 collection, which landed with quite a thud. Critics largely ignored the fact that Audemars Piguet had finally released their long-awaited in-house chronograph movement. The CODE 11.59 watches are much more aligned with the caliber’s design than a timepiece reminiscent of those worn in the 1940s and 50s, but that’s neither here nor there.

If you compare the reception of the CODE 11.59 to that of the [Re]Master01, you can get a sense of how the industry deals with a brand stepping outside of the box. While I don’t intend to praise the CODE 11.59 as a design masterpiece, I think we can all agree that we aren’t dealing with the Fiat Multipla of wristwatches. It’s simply a watch design that many fans found somewhat disappointing.

Audemars Piguet Code 11.59 Selfwinding, Image: Bert Buijsrogge
Audemars Piguet Code 11.59 Selfwinding, Image: Bert Buijsrogge

There’s no denying that a lot of effort that goes into creating any new collection. The [Re]Master01 cases are geometrically complex and certainly difficult to finish with their numerous chamfers and openings. Critically speaking, however, all that was required was dusting off an old design, scaling it up to modern dimensions, and adapting the insides to current movement standards.

Everyone knows that the CODE 11.59 – an enormous risk on the part of Audemars Piguet – was widely declared a flop. On the other hand, the formulaic release of the vintage-inspired [Re]Master01 was met with cheers from collectors and industry media alike. It’s no wonder this low-risk, high-reward approach is popular with so many brands. But is that all we can expect or demand from new watches – a preset design formula? Is there no room for true innovation? Again, this is not about the CODE 11.59 specifically, but rather the general lack of imagination coming from the industry’s biggest players. Take a moment to consider how many major brands have recently debuted groundbreaking new designs. Now, think about the number of brands that have released retro or reissued timepieces. I think that makes things pretty clear.

The Hubris of the Enthusiast

Mechanical watch enthusiasts love to remind each other that the “grail watches” of today were once incredibly cheap and how nobody wanted them when they were first released. This is paired with bewilderment at the collectors of the time who had legendary watches at their fingertips. Why didn’t they snap them up while they could? It’s easy to judge collectors of the past. However, we are guilty of the same behavior. We presume to be able to immediately label today’s new releases as future icons or flops. It’s more than a little ironic, isn’t it? Where does this self-confidence come from? After all, history is full of countless timepieces that struggled out of the gates but later became highly-coveted classics.

AP Royal Oak

How about another AP example? When Audemars Piguet first introduced the Royal Oak in 1972, the general opinion was so poor that the company predicted it would result in their bankruptcy. Nowadays, the Royal Oak and its numerous variants are the brand’s bread and butter. It’s difficult to be taken seriously as a watch enthusiast if you don’t count the Royal Oak among your personal favorites. No one today would dare deem the Royal Oak a terrible design or predict Audemars Piguet’s impending ruin – that would be simply ridiculous.

So, what exactly has changed since 1972? Of course, hindsight is 20/20. It’s easy to tease the “obvious” misjudgments of the critics at the time, just as you would the prediction of a global market for computers in the mid-20th century. The difference is we can learn from the past. When it comes to new releases, history teaches us that we should be more careful in making hasty judgments about the success or failure of watches that buck the trend. Who knows, perhaps the ugly duckling of today will become the grail watch of tomorrow after all!

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About the Author

Tim Breining

My interest in watches first emerged in 2014 while I was studying engineering in Karlsruhe, Germany. My initial curiosity quickly evolved into a full-blown passion. Since …

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