Why the Coolest New Watches Look Like Vintage Grails
One of the most beautiful new watches to emerge this spring doesn’t actually look very new at all. It’s the Patek Philippe reference 5172G-010, a white‑gold, hand-wound chronograph with a gorgeous salmon dial. It’s a fresh model that borrows some of Patek’s most venerated design moves. In fact, when I first saw the watch, I thought I knew it already. The new 5172G almost teases the wearer with a sense of déjà vu: The protruding “box” crystal, syringe hands, and stepped bezel and lugs look ripped from the pages of vintage Patek catalogs. As Patek Philippe president Thierry Stern explains, “It looks like it is from the past, but it is made for the present,” underscoring the push at the company to update its iconic design history for a new customer. At Patek, this sort of watchmaking is known as a “vintage contemporary.”
Get used to hearing the term. Across the watch world, brands—and customers—are embracing a rather antique sensibility. As in fashion, watchmaking in the aughts was defined by absurd sizes and baroque design features. But the pendulum always swings back. At the time, I remember the late Luigi “Gino” Macaluso, the then owner of Girard-Perregaux, predicting that the stylish European customer would soon be clamoring to buy simple, time-only watches that measured around 36 mm across—or about the size of any fine midcentury timepiece. He was right: In the years that followed, case diameters shrank and got slimmer. The straightforward beauty of a three-hand watch face snapped into sharp focus too. One of the absolute hottest watches right now is the aptly named Philippe Dufour Simplicity. Dufour has been crafting a handful of the clean, time-only designs each year for the past two decades. In the early days, you could buy one for around $35,000. In recent years, several Simplicities have hammered for over $1 million at auction.
Such is the cult of the watch world today that brands can create more hype around recognizable old watch components than around new designs. Take Vacheron Constantin’s cornes de vache (cow horns) lugs, which were exhumed from the Swiss brand’s archives and reintroduced in the middle of the last decade. I remember vintage-watch enthusiasts describing them—the lugs, not just the watch—as if they were explaining a fresco by Michelangelo. My favorite encomium came from Hodinkee, which called them “stunning, expressive, and masterful.” Which might seem silly, but it indicates something great: that we’re in a golden age of horological literacy, where a close appreciation of watchmaking history feels more interesting than any new technological leap.
This nostalgia kick has also led to closer inspection of company archives, and brands with a rich back catalog have been mining a fecund seam of heritage. Some have updated vintage models with modern materials and movements. Personally, I was very happy to see the 2020 return of Breitling’s AVI model in an almost museum-quality revival supervised by Breitling fundamentalist Fred Mandelbaum, whose pitch-perfect retreads have been a welcome feature of the brand’s rebirth. Over at Omega, the dynamic Raynald Aeschlimann has also redeployed the brand’s classics masterfully. I’ve always loved the solid-gold “Nixon-spec” Speedmaster, issued to celebrate the moon landing in 1969. With its revival half a century later, it features such historically correct touches as an oxblood bezel and onyx hour markers—but with a movement that meets exacting new modern standards. Meanwhile, at Cartier, Cyrille Vigneron has brought the brand’s watchmaking firmly back into the conversation by revisiting such Art Deco classics as the Tank Chinoise, which will return this year with a brand-new dial that nods to ancient Chinese design.
At a time when art and fashion are chasing innovations in the metaverse, there is nothing more satisfying than seeing the excitement around neo-vintage timepieces that incorporate historic artistic touches. The 5172G might look familiar, but it actually reflects a radical creative path: The most revolutionary way forward in watchmaking can be found by looking backward.
A version of this story originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of GQ with the title “Why the Coolest New Watches Look Like Vintage Grails”.