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A Return to Classic

After a decade of progressive technology, the watch industry returns to most of its classic values
Elizabeth Doerr
From the Print Edition:
Phil Ivey, March/April 2010

Perhaps it was the 40th anniversary of the first automatic chronograph from 1969. Or maybe it has simply been the recent economic situation wreaking havoc on the growth of the watch industry. Either way, what's "in" this year has been "in" before-and before that and before that and before that as well.

Forty years ago, European watch industries were on the brink of disaster with the advent of the quartz movement, though it wasn't apparent at the time. Racing to be the first to offer its customers a chronograph with automatic winding, Switzerland seemed to be forgetting the big picture. In 1969, automatic watches had been around for a decade or two. Combining the newfangled and very comfortable automatic winding-which simply meant that the laborious manual process of winding the watch had been replaced with a self-winding movement that used the automatic energy created by the wearer simply moving his or her arm-with other complications turned out to be a technical quandary. Chronographs-stopwatches for the wrist-constituted the most popular complication of the day, as they do today, and popular watch brands were in serious danger of losing their clienteles completely.

At that point in the history of the watch, "classic" values could not ensure popularity or sales volume. The late 1960s and early 1970s constituted a period of extreme design in all areas of life, and wristwatches were no exception. Technological
advances enhanced the package.

Coining Classic
Watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet (1747-1823) could quite possibly have been the first one to standardize the "classic" look-a look that has been associated with pocket and wristwatches since his time.

He was the first to understand that a light-colored dial with clear, legible numerals and displays was pleasing to the eye and satisfied the human sense of proportion. This was accompanied by slim, elegant hands that made the time easy to see but did not dominate the dial. Furthermore, Breguet's material of choice for watch hands was blued steel-steel that has been heated to precisely 212°C in order to turn it a deep, elegant shade of cornflower blue and harden it at the same time. To this day, blued steel remains the metal of choice when designing watch hands in classic fashion. Breguet also had a penchant for sumptuous solid silver guilloché dials, incorporating an engraving technique that continues to define the "classic" countenance in modern wristwatches. Once done by hand, this look today is generally achieved by machine stamping.

Contemporary Breguet watches (shown on page 96) still encompass all the classic elements the brand is known for, but Breguet's elements are not the only attributes to exemplify the classic look. Classic designers tend to choose white or beige background colors for their dials, and decorative gold is used sparingly. A round case gently and appropriately proportioned to a gentleman's wrist puts the finishing touch on the overall effect, though Breguet's masterpieces were generally somewhat larger as they were pocket watches.

A "classic" sized wristwatch is usually considered to be about 36 to 38 mm in diameter. Men's wristwatches of recent years have more often than not been upwards of 40 mm, a distinctly modern trend. Overly large wristwatches came into fashion over the last decade of mechanical watchmaking-a period characterized by discovery, experimentation and the desire of watchmakers to appeal to wealthy aficionados and collectors by standing out with more unique (and at times downright showy) elements than ever.

Nowhere is this better exemplified than with the complete transformation of watch brand Concord, completed in 2007. Concord, a 102-year-old watch company now at home under the roof of American-owned MGI Luxury Group, offered solid luxury watches that certainly didn't impress anyone in terms of its mechanical elements-until the owners hired Vincent Perriard to metamorphose it into a go-to name for a new generation of affluent watch lovers.

Staunchly Classic
Certain companies have always stayed true to the techniques they built their reputations on: nonexperimental, classic beauty on the outside paired with reliable, aesthetic mechanics on the inside. It could be said that the well-established, top-tier watchmakers strictly adhere to a practice of simple complexity. These brands only rarely make concessions to fashion and thus are among the most respected in the entire industry.

"We at A. Lange & Söhne have never been ‘away' from classic style," confirms Arnd Einhorn, the brand's spokesman. "In recent times we have simply interpreted it more modernly in various ways."

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