New Watch Heritage FTW?

Breitling Premier Heritage Chronographs Datora

Once upon a time, the watch industry based its competitiveness on technological prowess. Innovations in accuracy, reliability, shock resistance, water resistance, etc. elevated brands to the top of the sales charts. Those days are gone. While enthusiasts may dwell on small details, when you take the ten thousand foot view modern mechanical watches are pretty much of a muchness. What matters now? New watch heritage! Luke Benedictus at timeandtidewatches.com nails it . . .

Heritage has become a very big deal in watchmaking. This is partly because laying claim to a long history gives a brand a reassuring sense of provenance and authenticity. This deepens the value perception while adding an extra sprinkle of prestige. As a handy bonus, heritage also gives a brand a narrative to tap into that can be retold in exhaustive detail by the marketing team.

Panerai Luminor Power Reserve

There’s a lot to unpack there. Start with this . . .

A brand is psychological shorthand. Readers of this site and its pimping peers know what a watch’s power reserve means, what makes Seiko’s Spring Drive the bomb and why the Rolex Milgauss’ magnetic resistance can’t hold a candle to any modern OMEGA. Most watch buyers don’t know, don’t care and don’t care to know.

Rolex Milgauss has new watch heritage

For the majority of the gen pop, watch branding is a simple “this equals that” equation. Panerai = Italian. Rolex = status. Seiko = affordable reliability. G-SHOCK = tough. OMEGA = Swiss quality.

As a general rule of thumb, the tighter the watch brand, the less confusing the unique selling point, the more powerful the brand. That’s because watch buyers seek safety and recoil from overchoice (a.k.a., analysis paralysis).

Not to belabor the point (much), watch heritage is all about reassurance. The average buyer’s horological aspirations are always tempered by their desire not to make a mistake. In other words, buyer’s remorse is the shadow hanging over the entire watch industry. Indeed every consumer industry. Especially at the mid- to high-end.

Ball pocket watch

Heritage is the ultimate expression of safety. Ipso facto. A watch brand with a long heritage has been making timepieces a long time. They must know what they’re doing! They must be good! Otherwise they wouldn’t still be selling watches, right? Never mind whether or not the heritage is “real.” Yes, there is that . . .

You can round down to zero the percentage of buyers who know that a watchmaker claiming an illustrious heritage switched owners, management, manufacturing and even countries (e.g., BALL) or was resurrected from the dead in a bid to [re]claim someone else’s heritage (e.g., DOXA). And yet, the number of watchmakers claiming a “noble” heritage is legion.

Audemars Piguet lineup

There’s another level of faux heritage below products produced by watchmakers touting their corporate link to a distant [not to say dubious] past, when quartz was something rockhounds collected and a “smart watch” referred to a timepiece that looked stylish. We’re talking about modern recreations of “historic” timepieces.

As you know, these horological reboots are all the rage – from the $169 Timex Marlin to the $53,100 Audemars Piguet [Re]master01 Selfwinding Chronograph. The success of these retro watches is often down to the watch’s heritage rather than the makers’. Enthusiasts may beg to differ, but the OMEGA Moonwatch is the watch worn on the moon first, an OMEGA second.

Longines Heritage Military 38mm automatic

“Nostalgia remains the dominant source of inspiration for new watches,” Mr. Benedictus opines, acknowledging the inescapable fact that what’s old is new. And why not? Talk about branding! Not only are watchmakers who somehow survived the quartz crisis (now facing the smart watch crisis) selling their heritage, their selling their heritage. If you know what I mean.

Bonus! A faux old new watch like the $2150 Longines Heritage Military (above) is right-sized for modern tastes. It doesn’t rust, break, lose time or die underwater. In fact, the LHM comes complete with a manufacturer’s warranty. What better way to buy “real” heritage?

Richar Mille RM069 Erotic Turbillion

You can buy a thoroughly modern watch from a maker who spends zero time or energy marketing their past. You couldn’t pay me to wear a Carnegie deli-thick watch by Richard Mille (the maestro’s RM069 Erotic Tourbillon above), but at least the Swiss tackometer maker looks forwards, rather than backwards at their past (est. 1999).

Oh wait. Tourbillon, invented in 1795. Anyway, how much heritage does a watchmaker need, given that the Internet is busy rendering everything older than five years hopelessly outdated? A fact that Mr. Benedictus kinda sorta misses.

Montblanc Minerva

Montblanc, for example, have some great watches, but they’re a relative newcomer having only started making them in 1997. From the outside at least, Montblanc’s decision to acquire the Minerva watch factory that was established in 1858, seemed like a calculated move to get a veneer of historical legitimacy. 

Hello? DVD’s hit the streets in 1997, as did the Toyota Prius. The New York Times (a newspaper) printed its first color photo that same year. I reckon a watchmaker born in 1997 could make a credible heritage play – just as a watch design dating to ’97 could legitimately be called nostalgic. After all, an automobile manufactured in 2001 now qualifies as “vintage.”

TISSOT Powermatic 80 on wrist

I’m not saying it’s wrong to buy a watch based on the manufacturer’s heritage (not that the market gives a tinker’s damn what I think). But I am saying that the heritage play is indicative of the mechanical watch industry’s unacknowledged and yes as-yet-unrealized death throes.

When a watch brand is all about heritage, well, let’s just say there are only so many people who will buy a restomod Corvette. At any price. More to the point, at some point, everyone who wants one will have one. In short, Apple Watch si, Tissot no.

13 comments

  1. Short term, this is going to be a win. Long term, it is going to be a huge loss. What originally got me into watches, really into watches, was for the most part, forward looking designs. I wasn’t immune then (or now) to vintage or vintage inspired pieces. In ten years from now, the current crop of twenty year olds are going to start feeling nostalgic for Apple, Samsung, Fitbit, and Garmin smart watches. They will have some disposable income, probably more than they do now. They will want luxury products that match their design sensibilities, their interests, and a Tag Heur or maybe even a Rolex Sub just isn’t going to cut it.

  2. You’re quite correct. Heritage is the crutch of the middlebrow who, unable to recognize what is stylish or substantial currently, timidly resort to aping what has proven the test of time. Virginia Woolf called this out with furnishings and art long ago.

    This is all supposed to be safe, the comfort of the familiar and established. There’s a theory that the longer something’s survived, the longer it will last. But my father has pointed out that a company highlighting their history is unwittingly admitting that their best days are behind them.

    As a side note, hipsters are big on authenticity and heritage for some reason. I think mainly it’s the bragging right of the uninspired. But, to circle back, if you can’t assess quality or style, you can fall back on history and heritage.

    1. The hipsters are out of line, but they’re right. It’s easy for Virginia Woolf or Paul Fussell to turn their noses up at the conservatism of other people, but vinyl does hold its value in a way that a CD or a cassette tape can’t, and what is “classic” and what is “faddish” isn’t always immediatelt apparent.

      1. Ha, i was tempted to mention Fussell’s use of “archaicism” or however he said it, but that didn’t support my premise as he listed it as an upper class affection.

        Of course this heritage is largely an extension of the “in stormy weather, seek safe harbor” or whatever that has been said here about consumers seeking refuge in established brands in economic down times. Similarly, the manufacturers are afraid to take chances and fall back on low risk propositions. Little risked, little gained, but everyone is playing it safe. Well, except RM et al.

        1. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out ten or twenty years from now, and what kind of resale value these “classic” watches have, especially when compared with the value of the original watches that the current “classic” designs are based on.

  3. I wish Grand Seiko would start using the heritage card so that they can see how dull looking many of their offerings have become when compared to their original designs, particularly those using the original 44gs case styles. On the other hand some of the Seiko Prospex middle and high end homages are real crackers, such as the sla 043.

  4. How would you say this all relates to wearing cowboy hats in public in 2021? Are you trying to invoke the nostalgia of the prairie roaming man-icle tending to the various lifestock and shooting your pistols at them Induns?

    Is it appropriating some sort of heritage you’re not really any part of? Do you have a deep southern drawl to go with it? Do the local ladies go, “well isn’t there a sweet, sweet man, mmmhmmm I would like me there some dat rough and tumble southern gentleman, yessssir”.

    Or maybe just, do you imagine that this is what happens, or could happen?

    This is what your audience wants to know, pardner.

    1. I don’t wear a cowboy hat to get laid. That’s what you’re asking, right?

      If you’re accusing me of cultural appropriation – a Yankee dressing up like a Son of the South – them’s fightin’ words! Let’s take this outside and settle this thing like men.

    1. I always assumed that the owner went around to the bikini babes stocked on his yacht and clumsily made them look at it until he found one that took the hint. It’s the equivalent of the crude “Mustache Rides 5 cents” stickers on biker helmets.

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