The energy, boldness, and distinctly modern design language of the 1960s and 1970s is well recognised across many collecting genres.
For today’s vintage watch collector the period offers a range of innovative designs to choose from and it seems that an appreciation of the period is growing.
Stylistically the 60s and particularly the 70s provide a contrast to the important watch designs of the 40s to 50s. The design template for the functionalist ‘tool’ watch – the diver’s watch with its calibrated bezel, military watches, and chronographs with their tachymeter bezel scale – came from this earlier era.
The arrival of the 60s and 70s vibe brought a new vocabulary.
The two decades that witnessed pop art, protest movements, the Moon landing and the release of the film Saturday Night Fever also saw the arrival of newly designed watches that brought fresh stylistic elements in case, bracelet, and dial designs.
Consider for instance the 1969 Heuer Monaco. A chronograph, yes, but now with a bold square case and a blue dial. Even the concept of the luxury watch was re-imagined and given a sportier feel during the 70s.
Two watches in particular have driven the appreciation of designs from this period. Both designed by Gérald Genta (1931-2011), these are Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, launched in 1972, and the Patek Philippe Nautilus from 1976.
Genta is credited with creating the modern luxury sports watch incorporating the then radical use of stainless-steel and the integrated bracelet.
In May this year Sotheby’s (25/20/13.9% buyer’s premium) brought to market Genta’s very own Audemars Piguet, ‘Jumbo’ Royal Oak, ref 5402 from c.1978.
Uniquely, as Sotheby’s notes, the signature Royal Oak octagonal bezel with eight screws is in 18ct yellow gold on this watch. It was probably made at Genta’s own workshop in Switzerland.
Reflecting the esteem that the designer is held in, the watch sold at Sotheby’s Geneva Important Watches sale on May 10 for SFr1.672m (£1.483m). Comfortably selling well above the top estimate of SFr500,000, the watch set a record for a vintage Royal Oak at auction.
The growing appreciation of the ‘retro’ aesthetic is encouraging watch enthusiasts to seek out other brands too.
Vintage watch dealer Daniel Somlo (Somlo London) notes the trend: “Collectors are looking beyond the Patek Philippe, Nautilus and Audemars Piguet, Royal Oak to see what else is out there. With 60s, 70s and now 80s watches, collectors are picking through the designs to see which fit best with today’s aesthetic appeal.”
Current collector interest has now firmly focused on another luxury sports design from the 70s: the watch commonly known as the ‘222’ by Vacheron Constantin. The model has two references: the 44018, 37 mm cased Jumbo plus the 46003 34mm case version.
The ‘222’ was produced to celebrate the 222nd anniversary of Vacheron Constantin’s foundation in 1755. The watch was designed by Jorg Hysek and includes a ‘monobloc’ case, distinctive bezel, and integrated bracelet made by the specialist workshop of Gay Frères. VC’s small Maltese Cross logo appears to the lower right case.
The October online auction conducted by specialist dealership A Collected Man (no buyer’s premium charged) included a brushed and polished yellow gold ‘222’ from c.1980. In a 34mm case, it has an automatic cal. 1124 based on Jaeger-LeCoultre cal. 889. The hammer price was £36,000.
At the Geneva sale held by Phillips in Association with Bacs & Russo (26/21/14.5% buyer’s premium) on November 5-6, a rare stainless-steel version of the ‘222’ in the larger ‘Jumbo’ case size from c.1978 sold for SFr 65,000 (£57,190). Phillips said there are thought to be less than 500 stainless-steel versions.
Another unexpected beneficiary of the search for rare watches from this period has been the venerable firm of Cartier.
The French atelier is justly recognised for its ground-breaking early 20th century wristwatch designs such as the Santos-Dumont, Tank, and Tonneau. However, in the late 60s and early 70s Cartier had another ‘purple patch’ of design inspiration.
This time it was the turn of the London branch. Connecting with the design flair of the period, the Mayfair outfit under the direction of Jean-Jacques Cartier commissioned very small batches of highly creative case designs that in recent years have become eminently collectable.
As Somlo says: “Cartier went relatively under the radar for a while as it was not seen as mainstream collecting like Rolex or Patek Philippe, but collectors are now more fully understanding the design story behind Cartier and other brands.”
Perhaps most spectacularly and visually impactful is the Cartier Crash made from 1967 in London. In November 2021 Sotheby’s sold one from c.1970 in Geneva for SFr640,000 (£568,000).
Another Cartier London watch from 1972 is the Pebble which is now firmly on collector’s wish lists. Bonhams will feature one in its Fine Watches sale on December 14.
It is offered on behalf of the original owner with an estimate of £150,000-200,000.
Bonhams believes that only six examples of this 35mm size and cream-coloured dial were produced. This will be the second Cartier Pebble that Bonhams has recently brought to market. Another from c.1975 sold in June 2021 for £180,000.
Piaget, another brand recognised for its 70s panache, is now also on the list for some collectors.
The Swiss brand founded in 1847 had by the mid-50s become known for its ultra-thin movements and elegant dress watches. Colourful hardstone dials aligned watchmaking to high fashion and Haute Joaillerie in the 60s.
Christie’s (26/ 20/ 14.5% buyer’s premium) recently auctioned a group of vintage Piaget wristwatches as part of an online sale titled The Dubai Edit that closed on October 26. Estimated at $6000-8000 and sold for $5500 (£4788) was a dual-time watch with a distinctive tiger-eye dial and textured white gold case and bracelet, c.1974.
The 70s were about style but there was also change ‘under the bonnet’ too. This was the era of the quartz watch and the so-called Quartz Crisis that sent many brands to the wall.
Early quartz watches can now be considered vintage but in general they have not proved as popular to collect as their mechanical cousins.
Those quartz watches that do have a collecting following are luxury products made with precious metal cases and bracelets. These were expensive watches in the 1970s.
Bonhams (27.5/26% buyer’s premium) sold a version of the Omega Megaquartz Constellation c.1972 in Knightsbridge on September 13. With a ‘stardust’ blue dial and 18ct gold case and bracelet, it sold for £6000, above the estimate of £4000-5000.
Tempting as it is to think that many more watches from the 60s and 70s are awaiting their moment in the sun, a key point remains.
Typically for a vintage watch to gain serious collector traction it must have a credible authentic back story. It’s sometimes not enough just to stand out.