Did it ever really go away? For a long time, style mavens looked back on the era of Starsky and Hutch and Saturday Night Fever and dismissed it as the decade that fashion forgot. But myopia runs like a fault line through fashion. A better rule is that what goes around comes around.
As watch connoisseurs will know, the 1970s was one of the most memorable decades in watch design history.
Ending the golden age of watchmaking
The 1940s to 1960s, often described as ‘the golden age of watchmaking’ – certainly it was economically – were defined by conservatism. This was the age of the classic, round-case, three-hand watch. Broadly speaking, diver’s watches in the 1950s, and chronographs in the 1960s.
Even the groundbreaking designs of that time were unthreatening – think of the Submariner, the Speedmaster, the Carrera and even the Navitimer. Great, great watches, but hardly conceptual.
That all changed in the 1970s. In came the weird and the wonderful, the revisionist and the revolutionary, starting with the experimental and largely short-lived ‘flight’ cases made by Omega as the 1960s gave way to the new decade.
The birth of the luxury sports watch
Those proved the precursor to what would become the luxury sports watch, the defining genre of the 1970s. In 1972, the Royal Oak landed with all the subtlety of a heavyweight uppercut. Experimental it may have been, but successful it wasn’t. Not only was it industrial-looking, with its octagonal bezel and exposed screws, it was also judged to be too expensive. History records that it took four years to shift the first 1,000 pieces.
Gérald Genta, whose bold designs have done more to enliven the watch industry these last 50 years than anyone else’s, penned what is now Audemars Piguet’s cash cow, and then followed it up in 1976 with IWC’s brutal, angular Ingénieur SL and Patek Philippe’s softer Ref 3700 Nautilus, arguably his finest work.
Add to that list, albeit it’s not considered in quite the same league, Vacheron Constantin’s 222, produced for the company’s 222nd anniversary and created by a young Jorg Hysek, and not, as many thought for a time, Genta.
These pieces would go on to define a generation (the 222’s legacy is Vacheron’s Overseas), and to shape watch design right up to the present day.
An end to identikit watch designs
Collectors go wild for early models of each, while watch companies – Audemars Piguet being the notable example – have built businesses around them. The New York Times posted a story in March reporting that waiting lists for the current Nautilus can run to eight years. While Patek is desperate to avoid it, opportunistic buyers are known to flip theirs for at least twice retail.
Icons of the decade don’t just stand out for their value, significant though vintage prices are. They endure because they bravely broke with decades of identikit design and gave new expression to a traditional form.
They also live on because there are, relative to previous decades, so few of them. During those dark days of the Quartz Crisis, watch companies found themselves penniless. Most went into survival mode. Many collapsed; two thirds, or around 1,000 companies according to most estimates. And some 60,000 workers were laid off. Who knows how many of them were designers ready to explode from the chrysalis of design sobriety and embrace influences as diverse as graffiti, punk and technology’s new dawn.
Goodbye gadget watches
Still, despite its limited resources, this was a fertile period for Swiss watch design. Besides Genta’s famous trilogy, there was Piaget’s Polo, introduced in 1979. It would become a regular on the 1980s A-List party scene and served as the inspiration behind the Polo S, Piaget’s current sports watch.
Chopard’s Happy Diamonds first appeared in 1976 (something in the water that year?) and the company continues to explore the creative possibilities of diamonds set to float between two sapphire crystals over a dial.
Or you could look to Girard-Perregaux’s Laureato, another steel sports watch, released in 1975 as a quartz model, now revived as a flagship and powered by some top-grade mechanical calibres.
In a way, it’s highly ironic that it’s pieces such as these that survive, while many of the trailblazing electronic designs of the time have since been consigned to the style dustbin of history. Hamilton’s LED watches, such as the power-hungry Pulsar Roger Moore put to such practical use as James Bond in Live and Let Die, for example; or the Seiko and Casio gadget watches of the time, cheapened by their obsolescence and which now encourage, at best, gentle sympathy from the collector set, rather than awe.
The last of the great watch design decades
The other thing about 1970s as a watch design decade is that it was also the last of the great watch design decades. There are pieces that define the 1980s (the Rolex Datejust, as a status symbol, although its roots are in the 1940s), the 1990s (TAG Heuer’s Kirium, anyone?) and the 2000s (Bell & Ross’s BR 01 for one), but none can hold a candle to the 1970s for significance. At least not yet.
The decade that time forgot? Not for a second.