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Do You Believe in Reincarnation?

Watch enthusiasts crave the new—new materials, new complications, fresh designs. But they also love the old watch designs.


What’s behind that allure held by vintage watches? Is it a greater feeling of authenticity to know your watch is “the real thing”—the notion that classic watches are more original than recent ones? The romance of wearing a piece of history on your wrist? If you’re a vintage fan, you might not even know why. Whatever the reason, there’s something undeniably exciting about a vintage watch.


Companies know that many people in the market for new watches love the vintage look, so they’re constantly reviving the old designs. Adam Harris, our museum’s guest curator who returned to his home in Spain a few weeks ago, gave me a few tips on such design revivals before we said goodbye.


Adam was really excited about the watch he was wearing that day, a restored 1918 Elgin with an offset crown. This piece came from the earliest years of the wristwatch, when makers were still adapting small pocket watch movements to the new form. They used two different types of movements: hunter and lepine. The hunter was ideal for use in wristwatches because the crown was at 3, so a band could be attached at the 12 and 6. The lepine movements proved trickier: with a crown at 12, the dial had to be offset so the bracelet could be properly fitted. Most of the time, they rotated the dial 90 degrees clockwise, so that the 9 was at 12, the crown on the right side. But sometimes, as in the case of Adam’s Elgin (pictured here), the 12 was at the 1 position. “12″ was painted red to make the dial easier to read.




A reincarnation of the early wristwatch made with the “hunter” movement was recently made by Dubey & Schaldenbrand. The cushion shape, the red 12, and the art deco-style numerals link the Carré Cambré line to the earliest wristwatches ever made. But they have been upgraded with features such as sweep seconds, a 24-hour display, a chronometer-quality escapement, dual time zones, and a date display. Pictured are the “Diplomatic” and the “Caprice” from the collection.


Adam showed me a whimsical style made in 1930 by Girard-Perregaux; it’s amazing that such crazy design innovations were made so soon after the advent of the wristwatch. The distorted numerals seem to slip and slide around the rectangular dial.

Here is another “exploding dial” design by Longines: for its shiny, reflective surface, this watch is called an “Exploding Mirror Dial.” The photo was pulled from Robert Maron’s website.

These early models have inspired many; Dubey & Schaldenbrand seem particularly fond of that cool art deco aesthetic. The only design difference here is that rather than using a geometric dial, D & S chose a softer “cartouche” shape and more modern numerals.

Nowadays, we think of the digital watch as that chunky plastic marvel with a dull-green screen, occasional blinks, and perhaps some annoying, inexplicable beeps throughout the day if the wearer is unlucky or technologically unsavvy. Actually, the first digital watches were mechanical! In 1923 Peseaux received a patent for its design of a mechanical digital watch with a movement by Charles Bernese. Mechanical digital watches are also called “jump hour,” according to the blog Unique Watch Guide, because the hour is seen through a window in the dial and when the hour ends, a spring-driven finger makes the next hour marked on the disc “jump” into view. A separate wheel marks the minutes, which can be viewed through another window.


The mechanical digital watch was brought back in the 1950s and 1960s and became really big in the 1970s, when cheap quartz had entered the industry and the first electronic digital watches were being produced.


Many thanks to Adam for his tutelage and the great photos from his collection! His enthusiasm will be missed.

Here is a link to the Unique Watch Guide page I consulted for information on digital mechanical watches:

Mechanical Digital Watches



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