I often think the strongest human feeling is that of nostalgia. It may be nostalgia for something real, or for something imagined, but that misty-eyed longing for the “good old days” is like a dopamine hit to the brain cells. People lose all sense of judgement and just give into that feeling, and readily shell out some cash.
That is because nostalgia is a powerful weapon especially when someone is trying to sell you something. This is why The Rolling Stones still sell out arenas, the reason Netflix can laugh its way to the bank with the 80s stylings of Stranger Things. Nostalgia sells, if packaged well.
Nowhere is this truer than in the watch industry. Not a single year goes by without a host of manufactures releasing new models or novelties, as either limited editions or in permanent collections, that tap into nostalgia. Thankfully, most of the time, the results are great because most manufactures that have been around for a while (hundreds of years in some cases) have a wealth of archival designs to call upon.
After all, nostalgia is good, and it works, if the product that you’re being sold is still top notch. Just look at Paul McCartney’s legendary headlining gig at Glastonbury last week, for instance. Just like great songs, great design never goes out of style, especially if you marry nostalgia for a timeless piece of design to modern materials and engineering.
Another reason for re-issues of old designs has got to be the boom in vintage watches over the past few years. As I have written in my previous columns, vintage watches, as collectibles, have been a craze for over half a decade now, and this is a market that is driven almost entirely by watch enthusiasts. Mid-century designs—be it a classic Omega Seamaster dress watch or a Rolex Explorer 1016, or the Universal Genève Polerouter, or the original Seiko “Willard” dive watch—have proved to be durable and stylish even today. And alongside this resurgent popularity of vintage designs has been the gradual shrinking of watch sizes.
Now, a Seiko 62MAS dive watch (see Instagram photo above) from the Sixties would cost you an arm and a leg, and even if you do buy it, you certainly cannot take it diving. But a heavyweight manufacture like Seiko knows that the demand is there. It knows that enthusiasts would like a mid-sized dive watch with a proven design heritage. So, in 2020, Seiko released a new line of divers modelled on the 62MAS, the SPB 14x line (see Instagram photo below), in three colourways.
The new watches kept the same mid-century “skin-diver” look, but the upgrades were all modern, from a sapphire crystal, to a technically more advanced automatic movement with a 70-hour power reserve, and high quality stainless steel case with anti-scratch coating, to mention just a few. They were a hit then, and they continue to be a hit now. In fact Seiko has had an exemplary recent track record of re-issuing old, iconic designs with modern upgrades. But it’s not alone.
Let’s look at a fantastic example from earlier this year, at the highest end of the Swiss watch market. At the Watches & Wonders trade fair in Geneva in early April, among all the great new models and novelties, there was one watch that garnered most of the headlines. This was Vacheron Constantin’s Les Historiques 222 Ref. 4200H/222J-B935, a beautiful integrated-bracelet sports watch in gold. A new version of the cult classic 222, which was released in 1977 at the height of the luxury sports watch boom (led by Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak in 1972 and Patek Philippe’s Nautilus in 1976), the new 222 hits all the same highs, and with better, modern materials and engineering. It’s fair to say that nobody really saw it coming, but now it has already become one of the biggest releases of the year.
The 1970s were the decade of funky wristwatch designs, and also the decade when the quartz revolution, ushered in by Seiko in 1969, put most Swiss watchmakers out of business. The ones that survived, like Tissot, combined quartz movements and the craze for steel sports watches with integrated bracelets to stay relevant. For Tissot, this was the Seastar, a flagship model unveiled in 1978.
Years later, in early 2021, Tissot hit a home-run by bringing back the Seastar’s design to create the quartz PRX sports watch in 40mm. Probably the biggest release of the year, Tissot followed it up with an automatic version in June last year. Its continued popularity has seen the release of a svelte 35mm version in March, followed by a 42mm PRX automatic chronograph earlier this month.
At the budget end of the spectrum lies Timex, a brand also on a nostalgia-driven spree, re-imagining watch models from the 1960s and 70s to great effect. Long associated with low-cost, functional and fun quartz watches, Timex threw a curve-ball in 2017 by releasing a 34mm handwound dress watch, the Marlin. Not seen since the 1960s, it quickly became a hit.
Then Timex topped that by reviving its very own 70s steel quartz sports watch, the Q, in 2019. Over the past three years, Timex Q has brought the hype, becoming a cult classic all over again. So much so that Timex has just released a Q with a GMT function. I think I can safely predict that it’s going to be a huge hit too.
Never bet against nostalgia.
Handwound is a column on watches and watchmaking.