Whoever still believes the 1970s was the decade that style forgot should probably get out more – if only to check a few wrists. For years the rediscovery of ’70s aesthetics has been pervading fashion, jewellery and interior design, as well as arousing much interest among luxury watch-makers and collectors. More recently, however, spurred by younger enthusiasts with a keen appreciation of design, the ever-intensifying focus on vintage timepieces has brought about surprising market developments and increased value.
The 1970s were definitely not a period of unremitting bleakness for a Swiss watch industry supposedly blighted by the advent of quartz-regulated watches and space-age LED readouts. Rather, recognising that a perpetual-calendar chronograph was perhaps not ideal for a jog, swim or game of squash – or simply not in tune with changing tastes and fashions – luxury houses created new designs that collectors now think of as classics.
VACHERON CONSTANTIN’S RECENTLY LAUNCHED 1970S-INSPIRED OVERSEAS CHRONOGRAPH
WITH BLUE DIAL. © COURTESY OF VACHERON
For instance, in a testament to its enduring design, one of the era’s earliest “strange” watch shapes, Patek Philippe’s 1968 Golden Ellipse, has never gone out of production, while the firm’s vintage Nautilus, a genre-defining wristwatch designed by Gérald Genta in 1976, has now reached high classic status with prices to match. “If you can find an early Nautilus with the cork box, that is now north of £40,000,” reckons London-based dealer Danny Pizzigoni, referring to the cork-covered box in which the first Nautiluses were presented. So iconic is this box that noted horolophile John Goldberger chose a cork cover for his 2010 limited-edition tome, Patek Philippe Steel Watches.
At Vacheron Constantin, the growth in demand for ’70s designs has not gone unnoticed either. It surely played a part in the decision to return its trapezoidal 1972 Prestige de France to production two years ago. This year, the firm is paying tribute to another of its ’70s icons by launching the Vacheron Constantin Overseas, a successor to the Vacheron 222, a much sought-after luxury sports watch with notched bezel and complex bracelet, designed by a young Jorg Hysek in 1977. There is no greater confirmation that classic vintage looks are the new normal than the fact that at the 2015 Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève, the Swiss watchmaking industry awarded its revival prize to Piaget for the remake of its Slave bangle watches – the ne plus ultra of avant-garde time-telling jewellery of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Now the industry is aware of the rise in popularity of ’70s models, these long-neglected pieces are finally getting the recognition that they deserve.
VACHERON CONSTANTIN’S 1972 PRESTIGE DE FRANCE WAS RETURNED TO PRODUCTION TWO YEARS AGO. © COURTESY OF VACHERON
Such is the case with Audemars Piguet’s 1972 Royal Oak, designed with a distinctive octagonal face by Gérald Genta a few years before he came up with Patek’s Nautilus. Because the Royal Oak established a new design paradigm – the watch head and metal strap were conceived as a whole rather than made separately – this luxury steel sports watch with integrated case and bracelet is the very type of groundbreaking design that younger collectors treasure. As a result, while seen as little more than a second-hand watch just five years ago, the Royal Oak is now in much demand: According to London dealer Pizzigoni, an early A Series Oak with the AP logo above the six o’clock baton and its box and papers can commands a price of £20,000.
George Somlo of Somlo Antiques, the world’s only official vintage Omega shop, has also noted design-savvy collectors’ pursuit of the 1970s models he offers. “Since we started [with the brand] eight years ago, the prices of ’70s Omegas have risen considerably,” he notes. He describes them as “incredibly good watches” that “have been unfairly overlooked.” Somlo also praises their “large, but stylized and flamboyant cases,” particularly those of the dress watches made with then-celebrity designer Andrew Grima, which were sculptural, textured works that blurred the line between art and timekeeping.
Aware of the growing appetite for design-statement watches, Omega has been relaunching such recondite 1970s classics as the Bullhead chronograph – a shield-shaped watch whose top pushers evoke a bull’s horns – and the Seamaster Ploprof, which features a crimson button sprouting from the left-hand side of the case. Both are extreme even by today’s standards (when collectors are used to outlandish creations by trendy boutique makers), and they were long regarded as freaks of the past, best ignored. Now they are finding buyers again, with prices for the Bullhead tripling in the last five years.
LAUNCHED IN 1977, THE FIRM’S 222 LUXURY SPORTS WATCH HAS BECOME A PERIOD ICON.
© COURTESY OF VACHERON
Finally, even the well-studied catalogues of Rolex and sibling brand Tudor are being combed for ’70s design gems. At Rolex, prices for the early Sea-Dweller and Comex dive watches with period design cues, such as snowflake hour markers and hands, have taken off in the last four or five years. Tudor’s Monte Carlo chronograph, so called because its two-tone dials are reminiscent of a roulette wheel, has also soared in popularity. Given its styling and Rolex connection, I would say that the Monte Carlo is a poor man’s Daytona (the popularity of the Rolex Paul Newman Daytona a long-established fact), except that today poor men can no longer afford it.
As a lover of the 1970s, I am delighted to see the period’s remarkable watches gain popularity. But I admit to being a little peeved, as watches that were once within my means are now no longer affordable: one of my great ’70s regrets dates back a few years, when the telephone line died as I was bidding on a 222 – with that went my chances of getting one of these idiosyncratic watches at a reasonable price. I suppose I shall just have to learn to love the ’80s.
Nick Foulkes is a contributing editor of Vanity Fair and The FT’s How to Spend It and the luxury editor of GQ.