It’s inevitable that the past casts a long shadow over something as inherently retro as the watch industry, whose very existence today could be seen as anachronistic, and in which many of the most important historic designs have never really gone away. Patek Phillipe’s Nautilus, for instance, a watch currently so hot that steel versions with a retail price of £26,870 ($36,512) are trading at $100,000 more than this, has a design virtually unchanged since 1974; the same brand’s Calatrava dress watch dates back to 1932.
On the other hand, a booming vintage market, the proliferation of scholarship and awareness among online communities, and a continuing zest for retro that’s generating new versions of everything from old-school games consoles and analog synths to classic cars recreated down to the last engine rivet, creates an ever-richer landscape for brands to plunder the archives. As the following retro models attest.
Omega Speedmaster 321 Canopus Gold
Most people know the Speedmaster as the watch that went to the moon with NASA’s astronauts, but it started life as a motorsports wristwatch back in 1957. This version harks back to that original 1957 model, albeit in a superdeluxe format: The case is in Canopus gold (Omega’s particularly bright white gold alloy) rather than steel, and the dial is cut from black onyx.
But in this case, the real vintage play is the movement (the mechanical “engine” powering the watch) inside it. Three years ago, Omega put a hand-wound movement it had last made in 1969, Calibre 321, back into (extremely limited) production, reserving a special workshop in its high-tech factory for hand-assembly the old-school way.
Calibre 321 powered the Speedmasters worn by Apollo astronauts in the 1960s and early 1970s (including in the moon landings), and holds a special place of affection among enthusiasts and collectors. This is only the third modern watch to contain it: retro on the outside, even more so on the inside, but with an eye-wateringly modern price tag of $81,000. One glint of hope is that if we were of the betting persuasion, we’d put money on Omega at some stage releasing a more affordable steel version of this piece.
Zenith Chronomaster Original
Unlike Omega’s Calibre 321, Zenith’s historic chronograph movement, the El Primero, never went out of production: Introduced in 1969, it was the first self-winding chronograph (a watch with a stopwatch function), and has been the backbone of Zenith’s watchmaking ever since. It was also used by Rolex in the 1990s. Today’s El Primero is a thoroughly modern engine, but Zenith has been playing on its vintage origins with a series of retro-inspired models.
Launched in 2021, the Chronomaster Original throws things gloriously back to the first El Primero watch of 1969, known as the A386. In particular, the handset and typefaces are lovingly re-created, while the historically correct 38-mm diameter plays into another current trend, that of smaller watches (Zenith’s modern El Primeros tend to be in the 40-to-42-mm mark). While it’s undoubtedly a watch to please the purists, the fact that Zenith has already iterated this in a few versions, including a distinctly non-vintage, female-facing style with mother-of-pearl dial and diamonds, demonstrates the mileage it sees in the original design. Sometimes oldest really is best.
Swatch Bioceramic 1984 Reloaded
The original Swatch Watch appeared in 1983, and it was a bolt from the blue: cheap, plastic, and disposable, but also a piece of rigorous analog design, and Switzerland’s modish retort to the Japanese digital watches then flooding the market.