Retro Watches – The Industry’s Last Gasp?

Retro watches: Audemars Piguet Remaster01 Selfwinding Chronograph

When it comes to traditional timepieces, retro watches rule the roost. That’s true at every price point, from the Timex Q to Hamilton’s field watches to Eberhard’s Scafograf 300 to the Audemars Piguet Selfwinding Chronograph. It’s not just that older designs are better – which they are, generally. The retro trend reflects a sea change in how traditional watches are viewed by consumers. How they will be viewed in the future . . .

At the moment, no one thinks twice about wearing a traditional watch. It’s a watch. It tells the time. It’s on your wrist. Which one you wear may be fascinating to people who care about such things, but no one thinks twice about the decision to wear a traditional watch. It’s the simple continuation of cultural norm.

With over a hundred million people wearing smartwatches – a practice that’s increasing at a monumental pace – wrist-borne computers now share the same mindspace as a traditional watch. The cutting edge cool factor is gone. Wearing one is also a cultural norm.

Timex Q Falcon Eye - new watch alert

Although smartwatches are outselling traditional watches by a factor of ten, the two types of timepieces seem to coexist on a relative equal footing. You can buy one, you can buy the other. Who cares?

On the face of it, the transition from the “dumb” to the “smart” watch looks nothing like the obvious and gigantic shift from pocket watches to wrist watches – a switch that completely destroyed one industry even as it created another.

But the rise of the smartwatch is a far more profound change than the death of the pocket watch. At the risk of stating the obvious, the smartwatch is fundamentally different from a traditional watch. It isn’t a time telling machine as much as gateway to, well, everything.

Retro watches: Hamilton Khaki Field Mechanical

We live in a world where information is no less a staple than food, shelter and water. The ability to gather, process and act upon information determines our social and financial success or failure. The smartwatch is a “tool watch” for the Third Wave information economy, enabling real-time interconnectivity on a previously unimaginable scope and scale.

There will come a point where not wearing a smartwatch will put an individual at a disadvantage in the only battle that matters: the fight for resources. In fact, there’s only one thing preventing the traditional watch’s complete obsolescence: the smartphone.

I’m wearing a Victorinox watch. An iPhone sits on the desk next to me. I could easily function without the quartz watch, or any watch at all. But I couldn’t exist in any commercial or social sense without my smartphone. As long as I have both, I can have both.

Eberhard Scafograf 300

When the Apple Watch and its WearOS competitors added cellular capability and voice recognition, it didn’t make the smartphone obsolete – it didn’t eliminate the market for a traditional watch. But it started that process.

You could say that the smartphone will remain a watch companion as long as people use the phone’s bigger screen to take photos, text, access social media, read news and watch video. (Note: it’s only a matter of time before the smartwatch – or smart glasses – take photos and video.) The thing is, when you wear a smartwatch it doesn’t just augment a smartphone, it changes the phone’s utility.

It’s far easier to read and dismiss alerts, texts and reminders with a smartwatch than a smartphone. The watch’s pared down apps – whether fitness, scheduling, social media alerts or music – are more accessible and less intrusive. In short, the smartwatch is more efficient than a smartphone. When it comes to securing resources – money and sex – efficiency is the name of the game.

Yema Rallye Mario Andretti Special Edition

I repeat: as long as people have a smartphone they don’t need a smartwatch. Until, that is, people who wear a smartwatch “do better” (i.e., process information more effectively) than the people who don’t. The current and next generation, the workers of the future, “get it.” How many Apple employees wear an Apple Watch? All of them. How useful are they? Very.

Even if you don’t accept this analysis, the general population have a common perception about the smartwatch: it’s the future. Which makes the traditional watch the past.

And that’s why retro watches are all the rage. They’re a tacit, maybe even subconscious realization that a traditional watch – any traditional watch – is an anachronism. If not now, soon. And forever.

TAG Heuer Carrera 160 Years Silver Limited Edition

I don’t expect traditional watches to go the way of magazines and newspapers – although I haven’t seen anyone reading one for years. Some relatively small percentage of the population will continue to wear a traditional watch for decades to come – because that’s the best way [for them] to keep track of time. Or, equally, advertise status.

But there’s no getting around it. The smart watch’s sales stats tell the tale: the traditional watch’s days are numbered.

Retro watches: Casio

Industry bigwigs tell themselves that retro watches are just another style trend, one of the many they’ve exploited since 1868. In fact, retro watches are a clear indication that a day will come when all traditional watches will be a thing of the past.

5 thoughts on “Retro Watches – The Industry’s Last Gasp?”

  1. It is certainly hard for arguably obsolescing technology to credibly wear a modern face. That’s the analogue watch in the digital age.

    I see retro as something gimmicky that calls back to an ephemeral time period, as opposed to something classic or iconic. The Hamilton Futura would be retro; a field watch or other archetypal watch in a style that never truly went away is something else.

    Yes, heritage rehashes are all the thing and there is little groundbreaking stylistic innovation to be seen. Breaking the mold is always riskier, and it looks like lots of “playing not to lose” is going on. However, styles always get conservative in economic down times. Frivolity and trendiness clash with bleak outlooks. There has been a similar derivative stagnancy in clothing styles for years now.

    1. Digital speedometers did die off for a while but are certainly not dead. New cars with the glass cockpit digital screens tend to stick with representations of analog gauges, even though digital number readouts are usually an option. The odder holdout, as Doug DeMuro mentions, is the center dash analog clock directly above the touch screen’s digital time display because this is considered to be a hallmark of a luxury car.

  2. Do we have a breakdown of quartz vs mechanical watches? I wonder if the smartwatch is killing the quartz watch, not necessarily automatics.

    The thrust to retro is that it was probably good design, we forget that if a design is right, there’s little need to change it. (See corvette, mustang, VW Bug in sports car trim….)

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