Why the coolest new watches look like vintage grails

A die the hottest new watches coming out this spring don’t really look new at all. This is the Patek Philippe reference 5172G-010, a manual winding chronograph in white gold with a beautiful salmon dial. It’s a new model that borrows some of Patek’s most revered design moves. In fact, when I first saw the watch, I thought I already knew it. The new 5172G almost teases the wearer with a sense of deja vu: the protruding “box” crystal, syringe needles, bezel and stepped lugs seem torn from the pages of vintage Patek catalogs. As Thierry Stern, President of Patek Philippe, explains, “It seems like a thing of the past, but it’s made for the present,” underscoring the company’s desire to update its iconic design story for a new client. At Patek, this type of watchmaking is known as “contemporary vintage”.

Get used to hearing the term. All over the world of watches, brands – and customers – are embracing a rather antique sensibility. As in fashion, watchmaking in the 2000s was defined by absurd sizes and baroque design features. But the pendulum always swings back. At the time, I remember the late Luigi “Gino” Macaluso, then owner of Girard-Perregaux, predicting that the elegant European customer would soon clamor to buy simple, timed watches measuring around 36mm in diameter – or around the size of any fine mid-century watch. He was right: in the years that followed, case diameters got smaller and thinner. The simple beauty of a three-hand watch face is also brought into focus. One of the hottest watches right now is the aptly named Philippe Dufour Simplicity. Dufour has created a handful of clean, unique designs every year for the past two decades. At first, you could buy one for around $35,000. In recent years, several Simplicities have hammered over $1 million at auction.

Such is the cult of the watch world today that brands can create more hype around recognizable vintage watch components than around new designs. Take for example Vacheron Constantin’s cow horn horns, which were unearthed from the Swiss brand’s archives and reintroduced in the middle of the last decade. I remember vintage watch enthusiasts describing them – the lugs, not just the watch – as if they were explaining a fresco by Michelangelo. My favorite praise came from Hodinkee, who called them “superb, expressive and masterful”. Which might sound silly, but it points to something big: that we’re in a golden age of watchmaking culture, where a deep appreciation of watchmaking history seems more interesting than any new leap in technology.

This kick of nostalgia also led to closer inspection of the company’s archives, and brands with a rich back catalog tapped into a rich vein of heritage. Some have updated vintage models with modern materials and movements. Personally, I was very happy to see the 2020 return of Breitling’s AVI model in an almost museum-quality revival overseen by Breitling fundamentalist Fred Mandelbaum, whose flawless retreads have been a welcome feature of the brand’s revival. At Omega, the dynamic Raynald Aeschlimann has also masterfully redeployed the brand’s classics. I’ve always loved the solid gold “Nixon-spec” Speedmaster, issued to celebrate the moon landing in 1969. With its revival half a century later, it features historically correct touches like an oxblood bezel and onyx hour markers, but with a movement that meets demanding new modern standards. For his part, at Cartier, Cyrille Vigneron has reintroduced the brand’s watchmaking into the debate by revisiting Art Deco classics such as the Tank Chinoise, which will return this year with a brand new dial in a nod to Chinese design. ancient.

At a time when art and fashion are driving innovation into the metaverse, there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing the buzz around neo-vintage timepieces that incorporate historic artistic touches. The 5172G may look familiar, but it actually reflects a radical creative path: the most revolutionary path in watchmaking can be found by looking back.

A version of this story originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of GQ with the headline “Why the coolest new watches look like vintage grails”.

About Robert L. Thomas

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