How Do Watches Reflect the Times?

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For many watch collectors and luxury watch enthusiasts, it is the legacy behind their favorite timepieces that fuels their passion and intrigue. To create a luxury wristwatch that will stand the test of time, watchmakers must master the art and science of watchmaking, incorporating technical innovations and changing aesthetics over time to meet the needs of contemporary consumers. Designed to last a lifetime, watches are meant to be handed down from one generation to another and in the process, they offer insights into the past that go beyond telling time. 


First Rolex Oyster Perpetual Model, 1931
Early Rolex models, like the first Oyster Perpetual model from 1931 shown in the photo above, adhere to an elegant aesthetic that is now reserved for dress watches. In the 1920s and 1930s, men's fashion trended toward tailored suits, with sweaters and jackets considered casual. The Fashionisto offers a glimpse at depression-era fashion in this post on 1930s men's fashion. The fact that men wore suits almost exclusively when leaving the house makes it logical that the wristwatches they wore would seem formal and dressy based on current trends. These days, the idea of wetting a dress watch with a leather strap seems almost reckless, with so many waterproof stainless steel dive watches available. Back then, however, wearing anything other than a dress watch would have been considered a faux pas.
First Submariner, Milgauss and GMT Models from the 1950s
After World War II, men's fashion became less rigid and suits began to be replaced by more casual clothing, especially by the youth. It was an age of exploration, with submarines exploring the ocean floor and airlines like Pan Am offering passengers the chance to see the world. This decade also saw the introduction of the stainless steel tool watches that dominate the market today. The first Submariner, Milgauss and GMT models were all introduced in the mid-1950s and have seen little change since then in terms of aesthetic. Rolex still offered dress watches, like their popular Datejust model, but innovations in watchmaking allowed them to apply their craft to making watches that do more than just tell time.

Apple Watches
Advances in technology would affect the Swiss watchmaking industry in the 1970s and 1980s with the advancement of quartz movements. This technical innovation saw the end of many traditional Swiss watchmakers, with companies like Rolex incorporating the technology into their watches to stay above the trend. Many call it the quartz crisis, while others attribute the growth of companies like Rolex after the 1980s to the fact that many other luxury watchmakers in their industry ceased operations as a result. Technology is still affecting the luxury watch industry today with the advent of the smartwatch. I recently covered the rise of the Apple watch in post found here. I don't believe that smartwatches will take customers away from companies like Rolex, but they still represent an innovation in watchmaking that is reflective of the tech boom of the past decades.

Rolex's 2016 Yacht-Master II and Deepsea models
While technology and innovation with always play an important part in the watchmaking industry, the current trend in luxury watches is size. In 2007 and 2008, Rolex released their largest wristwatches, the Yacht-Master II and Deepsea models shown in the photo above. With 44mm cases, these nautical tool watches offer contemporary customers Rolex watches that size up to the large cases offered by companies like Panerai. Size matters these days and while many would advise against wearing one of these models with a suit, the reality is that men's fashion is far more sporty now that it ever has been. Many work environments now allow for rolled up or even short sleeves, freeing men from the restrictions of a suit and tie and allowing them to accessorize with tool watches instead of traditional dress watches.

As society moves forward and technology with it, luxury watches follow suit. Collectors and enthusiasts appreciate the combination of craftsmanship and design aesthetic that have gone into creating the wristwatch models that have endured for decades, offering them a glimpse into the ingenuity and sensibilities of days past. What the future holds for luxury watches remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain: wristwatches are designed to tell the time, but they are also telling of the times.

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