vintage vs Innovation
Does an industry obsessed with the past have a place in the future?
The clash of old and new.
I used to be 100 percent sold on the premise that luxury mechanical watches will always be around. Now I’m not so sure because some things are not adding up right. See, this is 2018. We’re way past the point where people need to be told the differences between automatic and manual-winding, what is a chronograph, or why wear a mechanical watch at all when time is literally everywhere around us.
Yes, there’d been some good years, some crazy years, then there were some lean years, and finally the great crisis that saw pockets of the industry disappearing for good. These days, perhaps for fear of walking into their own traps or getting blindsided by world events—God only knows how unstable the global economy is right now—or seeing recent history repeat itself, luxury watch brands seem to have willingly given up their mojo. What is this? The proverbial seven years of famine, haute horlogerie edition?
Look at what’s been presented at the last five Basel and Geneva watch fairs. Seven out of every 10 novelties are some kind of throwback to a historic milestone of the brand or a modern interpretation of some historic timepiece or other. Vintage-inspired is the latest buzzword in the way that grande complication, in-house manufactured, craftsmanship and bespoke had once been. The difference, however, is that ideals such as grande complication, in-house manufactured, craftsmanship and bespoke were exactly that—ideals. They were about making better watches.
But vintage-inspired isn’t. It refers merely to a style of aesthetics rooted in the past; it has nothing to do with quality or performance. If anything it’s a regression; although thankfully, brands do make it a point to upgrade their vintage-inspired pieces with modern materials and techniques. Watch crystals, for instance, are often made of sapphire crystal instead of Plexiglas, cases are made waterproof, and movements are usually contemporary calibres with better precision—which begs the question: what is the point, then, of vintage-inspired watches that are not historically accurate?
Still, vintage-inspired sells. People just keep buying them. And that’s why brands keep making them. Encouraged by the worldwide vintage fashion redux as well as the growing prominence of luxury watch auctions, neo-vintage timepieces have never been more popular than now. Brands at every level of the market are pursuing consumers with this same strategy. Those with centuries of history have lots to mine—and they don’t hold back. Those without much history to speak of find ways to bridge themselves with a landmark event; the Second World War is a popular one.
The appeal is real of course, there’s little doubt about that. Vintage is beautiful. You only need to scroll through the online sales catalogue of luxury watch auctions to start getting hooked. It only becomes a problem when brands get so caught up in the vintage onslaught that they neglect other important areas of watchmaking, such as R&D. Once the backbone of the mechanical watch industry, research and development today feels like a vanity project more than anything else. Indeed, the watchmaking industry was built on science and technology. Not so much anymore.
Manufactures have finite amounts of time, money, manpower and production capacity. The more a manufacture devotes itself to producing neo-vintage watches, the less likely it is to push onward with new technical innovation. Technically innovative watches are not only more complex to produce; they are also more expensive and hence more difficult to sell. Neo-vintage watches on the other hand are comparatively inexpensive to produce and have a wide and long-lasting appeal. If you’re the CEO of a watch brand, what would you do?
Yet there isn’t a complete dearth of R&D and innovation. A few brands continue to fight the good fight. Very briefly, sparks of technical creativity emerged from the likes of Zenith with its Zenith oscillator delivered in the revolutionary Defy Lab; Audemars Piguet has made R&D a core competency as it unveiled the new RD#2 ultrathin perpetual calendar; Piaget too presses on with mind-blowing ultrathin concepts; Hublot pushes out a stunning all-red ceramic Big Bang; Rolex consistently introduces improvements to its watches; Patek Philippe has its Advanced Research pieces; Bulgari pulls no punches in producing ultrathin grande complications; Panerai worked on novel and useful technical advancements like BMG Tech and polarised crystal. These are all fantastic creations but even collectively they’re just a blip on the five-billion-dollar luxury watchmaking industry.
Why is the past so seductive to the modern watch aficionado? Is the rise of vintage-inspired timepieces killing innovation? There are many ways to look at it. Even leading chief executives are divided on the issue. We speak to seven of the most prominent CEOs in the industry to mine their thoughts.