Few objects can match the tactility: the gently worn case and softly faded face of a watch that has been worn for decades, or even generations. That hasn’t stopped contemporary watch brands from leaning into this trend and offering up, in ever greater numbers, brand new watches that look decades old. The trend for vintage-inspired watches makes perfect sense; one of the greatest assets major Swiss brands have is a history (and archive) that can date back more than a century. And while brands being inspired by their own past is hardly new, the last decade has seen this style evolve from an occasional release, geared towards specialist collectors, to a dominant trend and a key pillar of many makers’ product line-ups. But do these nostalgia-based designs have a future? How Japanese watch brands Casio, Citizen and Seiko took on the Swiss The appeal of vintage watches (both the real deal and the more modern interpretations) is clear, according to Hong-Kong based watch collector Carson Chan. “The attraction goes beyond the functionality of a mechanical watch; vintage watches also bring back the focus on storytelling, the appreciation of craftsmanship of a different era. These combined factors made vintage watches a fresh breeze in watch collecting,” he says. Chan goes on to point out that vintage watch collecting is a pursuit that isn’t for the faint of heart, often requiring deep pockets and knowledge to get in the door. And it’s here where modern “re-edition” or heritage-inspired pieces shine: “These watches can ride on the brand’s hard-earned heritage recognition, but also bridge the gap between the love of the vintage look and the reliability of a modern piece.” It is a very real example of watch brands monetising their patrimony. This can be brands releasing a watch loosely inspired by an archival model, such as Rolex’s Milgauss and the Vacheron Constantin Fiftysix. Or making watches that are as close to a 1:1 facsimile of the original as you can get, like Omega’s Speedmaster Calibre 321 in steel, where the precise proportions were achieved by scanning the Speedmaster Nasa Astronaut Gene Cernan wore on Apollo 17. Chan notes that this type of reissue is indicative of watchmakers’ changing attitudes: “Brands used to be quite cautious when they did reissues, taking only hints and cues from vintage models and producing something that is inspired by them. However, in recent years, we have started to see some very faithful re-editions.” The most talked-about luxury watch releases to lust after this season The industry’s pre-eminent awards, the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève, now has an “Iconic” category for watches which have had a lasting influence (both historically and commercially) for more than 25 years. The advantages of this “greatest hits” approach to watch design include a ready-made customer base of devoted fans, and a style that is fundamentally hard to get wrong. But there are also downsides, chief among them being that straight-up heritage-hype watches aren’t sustainable in the long run. If your current catalogue relies on watches based on 50-year-old designs, what do you do when the winds of fashion change? The answer, as any Swiss watch designer or executive will tell you, is to emulate the Porsche 911. The iconic sports car dates back to 1958 and has, since that time, retained the same clearly defined look and undeniable cool, even though the technology and construction have changed dramatically . This evolutionary design approach is key to successful, long-lived watch design. A Cartier Tank from today looks remarkably like one from 1920, and the same can be said for the current Patek Philippe Nautilus, and its 1970s inspiration. It is also true of Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Master Control collection, which debuted in 1992. The line aims to represent the purity of classical watchmaking, and it manages to do so without looking too much like a throwback from the 1960s. In a recent Zoom meeting, Stéphane Belmont, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s director of heritage, addressed the challenge of looking to the past for contemporary design. “When we work on our watches, we always try to keep the spirit of the past but make it for today. From the technical point of view, we always introduce the best of the latest technology in our traditional movements, while keeping the traditional finishings. And on the case and dial side of things, it’s really a balance between the spirit of the past and the proportions of today.” Leap year? No problem with a luxury perpetual calendar watch Of course, it’s not just men’s watches that take this approach. Over at Van Cleef & Arpels, one of their most famous watch designs is the Cadenas, a jewelled timekeeper inspired by the American socialite Wallis Simpson that was initially released in 1935, and updated in 2015. This padlock-inspired design, made for discreet timekeeping, is just as chic and relevant today as it ever was. So, on the one hand you have those watches that lean heavily into heritage nostalgia, hugely influential in recent years. On the other, you have the more reserved, incremental product design, an approach epitomised by the likes of Cartier and Jaeger-LeCoultre, where old meets new and the final result is largely timeless. There is, however, another path, one that has become more popular in recent years. Watches that are inspired by the designs of decades past, but do not seek to imitate or replicate, and seamlessly integrate the best of modern technology. Great examples of this approach include the H. Moser Heritage Tourbillon and Montblanc Heritage Manufacture Pulsograph Limited Edition that has reminiscent of the 1940s and 1950s Minerva watches. Another case is the new Breitling Chronomat, which is clearly inspired by the original 1984 model, with its unconventional “rouleaux” style bracelet and large onion-shaped crown. But, thanks to some small-but-significant cosmetic tweaks and some contemporary proportions, the watch feels perfectly at home in 2020. Watches & Wonders 2020: highlights of Geneva’s first digital-only fair “It’s very all-purpose from an aesthetic point of view. Very modern, not really retro, it’s an iconic design. The best designs keep being modern”, remarks Breitling’s CEO Georges Kern. Perhaps the future of heritage-inspired watches lies not in the case size or the colour of the luminous paint, but simply with the application of good, timeless principles of design. Want more stories like this? Sign up here . 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