Three ways that heritage reissues can differ from real vintage watchesFergus Nash
At this rate it seems like we’ll end up with more vintage reissues in the world than actual vintage watches, if that’s not already the case. We started out with homages and vintage-inspired watches, then moved towards the meticulous and accurate recreations, before the current era of watches that look old no matter what vibrant colours they display. The evocation of “vintage” has far departed from the genuine thing, so let’s point out some key factors where the two still differ.
The “Mandela Effect” is the name of a phenomenon given to false memories accepted by a large group of people, which can cover anything from global events to movie quotes. The Mandela Effect also extends to the watch world to some extent, creating the visual aesthetic of what a “vintage watch” looks like that is totally separate from reality. The fumé dial is one extreme example of this. The gentle gradient between the dial colour and the black borders verges on the same vignette effect used in movies to represent an older time period, which makes us think of old things, but fumé dials were only briefly popular in the ‘70s and are extremely rare to find.
The approach to texture is quite anachronistic too, as there weren’t many dials that had such rough-grained finishes that we see on vintage-inspired watches today. Rather than just gaining an even, stippled texture, a black dial could turn brown, bubble or blister, and become what’s now known as “tropical”. Although there are a few tropical recreations being made, it’s definitely not what’s become the definitive look of an aged dial. White or cream dials would also discolour, but usually in an uneven way that just looked dirty. Water damage can case some discolouration and spots, but before “patina” became trendy, most of those damaged dials got binned.
Case size is an incredibly contentious topic, especially now when more attention than ever is being paid to lug-to-lug measurements and how watches sit on the wrist. This was never really an issue in the first 50 or so years of wristwatch popularity, because things tended to start small. With the exception of pilot’s watches that could even reach up to 50mm in diameter and were intended to be worn over several layers of clothing, it was pretty common to see men’s watches as small as 30mm. Even chronographs of the 1960s with well-spaced subdials and multiple units of measurement were considered “jumbo” if they were 35mm or above.
The current trend is towards smaller watches, so much so that some manufacturers would rather label a watch 39.5mm as if it’s going to be noticeably smaller than a 40mm sports watch. In fact, 38mm is also a very popular size now, with some braver brands going for 36mm, but a new 34mm watch is difficult to find without it being marketed towards women and alienating everyone along the way. There is definitely a practical element to modern watches being larger, fitting more reliable movements and being more legible, but constantly trying to fill out your wrist space without overhang can be more trouble than it’s worth when smaller watches can also look great.
Unless you buy watches purely for investment or to impress other people, there is always going to be some kind of romantic notion to wristwatch ownership. Despite continued modern innovation, watches are thoroughly outdated in a practical sense and each one you own ties into your own aesthetic or philosophical values. That said, there’s definitely a distinct difference in feel between vintage reissues and the originals, for better or for worse.
Vintage watches have had decades to loosen up, get scratched, or otherwise gather wear, but even the pristine examples have an air of age that a brand new watch just cannot replicate. Whether it’s the softly diffused light on an acrylic crystal or just a trick of the brain, old objects feel special for their connection to a different time.
To be clear, I’m not trying to say that vintage watches are better than the reissues or inspired models. If you want reliability, affordability, and just appreciate the looks of a different era, then a modern recreation is definitely the choice for you. But, considering how powerful and unregulated marketing can be, it’s worth remembering that the past is always there to be explored in your own ways.