Watchmakers of the 21st century have tools at their disposal horologists past could not have dreamed of. “An electrical device on which one can devise and envisage the shape of a wristwatch, calculate exactly its dimensions and provide a rendering in three dimensions? Stuff and nonsense!” they might have spluttered.
But while computers have made it relatively easy to create timepieces, many of today’s most popular watches are design classics, with their origins 30, 50 or even 100 years in the past, and all were devised using nothing more sophisticated than pencil and paper.
For lovers of the vintage look, it often makes good sense to buy a contemporary version of a classic rather than an original. The truth is that new watches are usually better made in terms of materials, shock- and water-resistance, reliability, accuracy and, above all, fit and finish. And with values of vintage timepieces soaring, a brand-new, 21st-century reincarnation with box and guarantee is often far less expensive.
Breitling, for example, offers modern takes on the legendary Navitimer pilot’s watch that remain remarkably faithful to the 1950s original. Bulgari, meanwhile, this year celebrates the 40th anniversary of its first men’s watch – the Bulgari Roma – with the beautifully understated Roma Finissimo.
Cartier, too, has a catalogue replete with classic designs, including variations on its celebrated Tank (first sold in 1919) and Santos (originally made for the aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont in 1904), while IWC recently refreshed its cornerstone Portugieser models. First seen in 1939, the design is replicated for 2015 in the exquisite, vintage-look Portugieser Hand-Wound Eight Days 75th-anniversary edition.
Equally historic is the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso, which first appeared in 1931 when British army officers in India called for a watch that could withstand boisterous polo matches. The Reverso solved the problem with its ingenious flip-over case, and it has been a best-seller ever since.
Panerai is equally rooted in its history and wowed the crowds at this year’s Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie in Geneva by unveiling a recreation of one of its most mythical watches, the huge 52mm Mare Nostrum chronograph of 1943. Made only in a handful of prototypes, the Mare Nostrum is one of the most collectable of all vintage Panerais. The Mare Nostrum Titanio 52mm tribute piece retails for around US$40,000 – a fraction of the price of an original – and is remarkably similar, save the practical titanium case and a rich, chocolate-coloured dial in place of the original green.
Other makers to delve into their back catalogues include Vacheron Constantin, which this year celebrates 260 years and revisits its classic, cushion-cased pieces from the early 20th century with the new Harmony collection, and Van Cleef & Arpels, which is enjoying success with its Pierre Arpels dress watch based on a design created by Mr Arpels for his own use in 1949. One of Patek Philippe’s most popular pieces, meanwhile, remains the Calatrava dress watch, first designed on the Bauhaus “form and function” principle in 1932.
Perhaps the late, great American typeface designer Frederic Goudy got it right when he said: “The old fellows stole all of our best ideas . . .”
Words by Simon de Burton