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A Return to Classic

After a decade of progressive technology, the watch industry returns to most of its classic values
By Elizabeth Doerr | From 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."

The philosophy of this German company could not be more aptly described. Upon its relaunch in 1994 (following a forced 50-year break due to Germany's division after World War II), A. Lange & Söhne introduced four new models-all inspired by the company's long and rich history-one of which was destined to become the definition of German luxury timepieces. The Lange 1, well proportioned at 38.5 mm, combined the "classic" look of a gentleman's wristwatch with an innovative off-center dial layout that immediately set it apart from the rest-and has kept it fresh for 16 years and counting, though the company did make a concession to the trend of large wristwatches in 2003 with the introduction of the Grand Lange 1, which comes in at a 41.9 mm diameter.

While in the last decade of horology the tendency has been to highlight technical advancements by proclaiming them outwardly on the dial, Patek Philippe has naturally never succumbed to this temptation, preferring to base its concept and continuing reputation on the grand quality of its products. A very good example of this is the 10-day tourbillon by Patek Philippe, that was introduced in 2005. Housed in platinum, this Art Deco example of haute horology is pure understatement: the tourbillon cannot be seen from the dial unless the observer glimpses the miniscule word "tourbillon" printed within the subsidiary seconds dial; the tourbillon escapement-an element of the highest technical art-is only visible through the sapphire crystal case back when the watch is flipped over.

Patek Philippe cases are usually equal parts understatement and classic beauty: cases in platinum-the most valuable of all precious metals, whose look hardly differs from steel-are denoted by the placement of a single diamond between the lugs at 6 o'clock on the case.

The brand's latest introduction is called Ladies First Chronograph. This is surprising because the watch's complicated movement-designed to replace the brand's current standard chronograph movement-is housed in a unique cushion-shaped case measuring 35 x 39 mm that emulates a design from 1929. The "cushion" was a typical case shape at the dawn of the wristwatch era when watchmakers feverishly looked for new forms to set the trendy timepieces apart from pocket watches. Also available without diamonds, this chronograph's size and design make it a classic choice for either sex. The movement is slated to be used in the near future in complicated men's models.

H. Moser & Cie, a luxury watch brand not yet 10 years old, also operates according to similar principles. Developing traditional complications using advanced engineering technology, much of which is proprietary, this brand maintains über-classic watch dials and cases using no unnecessary embellishment, maintaining an openly classic and understated air.

Another brand that has not strayed far from its original concept is Vacheron Constantin. The Les Historiques line is a collection of Vacheron Constantin watches released once a year to express its heritage by reviving vintage models emblematic of the company's long past, but with contemporary reinterpretations. It is after all the oldest continuously manufacturing Swiss brand.

Following the Chronomètre Royal 1907 and the Historiques American 1921, this year sees two new introductions each outfitted with ultra-flat mechanical movements: one hand-winding and one automatic, respectively ticking in the Historiques Ultra-Fine 1955 and the Historiques Ultra-Fine 1968. These two timepieces are as classic as classic can be in appearance, one round and one square, both housed in gold and featuring white dials with applied gold elements and hands.

Zenith, on the other hand, strayed from the brand's winning game, eschewing its 145-year history opting instead to venture into the risky-and high-priced-world of experimental aesthetics. The move was not very successful. Not only did it manage to scare off some the brand's most loyal followers, but, coupled with the economic crisis, it led to the exit of Zenith's CEO in 2009.

Changing A Winning Game
Zenith's new CEO, Jean-Frédéric Dufour, has many years of experience in the watch industry with a variety of brands. Dufour now plans on taking Zenith back to its roots. "Fashion and all economic domains have realized that classic features are the more requested in these difficult times. People want to acquire long-lasting objects that have a real value," he explains. "Since my start with Zenith in June 2009, I have been traveling all over the world-and have visited over 200 points of sale-listening to what my clients and sales people ‘in the field' think about Zenith. I was very pleased to hear that they want to see what Zenith really is, where it comes from, and discover our real values. So for us, this is not fashion but a real need to communicate and show our roots and 145-year-long history in classic precision watches."

Thus, Zenith returns to the style and measure of reliable technical competence that it made its name on. "This is a very important basic factor that will be continued devotedly by all our watchmakers, engineers and entire teams," he promises.

Jacob & Co., a jeweler who entered the world of high watchmaking in the late 1990s, confirms the new power of "classic" in the company's corporate philosophy. A watch brand born of the mechanical boom of the last decade, Jacob & Co. was one of the proponents of the funky new style of mechanics aimed at high-quality collectors. Combined with owner and founder Jacob Arabo's own style of design-his jewelry brand, famous for its hip-hop clientele, profited greatly from the bling era and the motto "more is more"-this company's watches became the epitome of interest-attracting mechanics.
Intuitively ahead of the trends, Arabo was able to divine the market's inclination to simpler mechanics and unveiled his first classically styled watch in 2008: the Epic. It is so devoid of any of Jacob & Co.'s signature flashy elements, that the round Epic could almost be mistaken for another brand. Closer inspection, however, reveals a number of geometric design characteristics that identify Arabo's style.

In similar manner, Cuervo y Sobrinos made a slight detour from its usual "shaped" forms (in watch-making parlance, "shaped" refers to any form that is not round) to present a new round watch. Cuervo y Sobrinos finds most of its inspiration in the Art Deco period of Havana, Cuba. Thus, the very fine cases of this brand focus on unusual shapes that are named for cigars. In late 2009, however, the brand released the Historiador Cronógrafo. Though its 41 mm size projects a more modern feel, the watch's roundness and 1940s style typeface reflects the public's current appetite for classics. "Not all of our clients like shaped forms," confirms managing director Massimo Rossi. "We thought it was time for a classic round watch." Accentuating its traditional appearance on the outside is an absolutely classic movement doing the work on the inside: an original Venus 188 chronograph caliber from 1960.

Introduced in 1993, Chopard's classically appointed L.U.C. line centers around the company's exceptional mechanical movements-technology created in-house as opposed to purchased from outside sources-clothed in classic horological beauty. One of the line's only concessions to fashion is the case size, which currently comes in at 42 mm. But Chopard will be delving even deeper into antiquity this spring when it releases the L.U.C. Louis-Ulysse Tribute pocket watch. The 49 mm timepiece pays homage to Louis-Ulysse Chopard, who founded the brand in 1860, and can be transformed into a wristwatch.
Classic beauty in wristwatches can also include "classic" models that become a brand's signature. Cartier, for example, boasts a number of "classic" wristwatches that have become nearly legendary: the Santos, the Pasha, the Panthère, and above all the Tank.

The stylistically interesting Tank is both a square and a rectangle. Legend has it that Louis Cartier designed the watch in 1917, based on the horizontal section of the Renault military tanks. Created during World War I, the first prototype of the Tank watch was presented to General John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe. The strength of the watch's design made a clean break with the fashion of the times, ringing in a new design rigor. Timeless and contemporary at the same time, it tends to be an eternal favorite that is reissued year after year in various versions.

Zenith, one of the brands involved in the 1969 race for the first automatic chronograph, has now geared its collection for an almost complete return to classic. This year, consumers can expect to see Zenith offering the types of watches that sealed its reputation-and at prices that are far more modest than those of recent "boom" years.

"I cannot speak for the entire industry," Dufour remarks, "but it is certain that the entire world is [now] looking for real value for their money, and in my opinion this is very closely linked to a ‘return to classic.' "

Elizabeth Doerr is a freelance watch writer based in Germany.