It's easy now, through the combined power of hindsight and Google to look back and weave conclusions from seemingly disparate threads. Despite the on-the-ground reality of the watch trade in 1993 being far from simple or clear-cut, few who lived and worked through the time would argue that it wasn’t a period of new beginnings. A renaissance that followed the tremendous upheaval and winnowing of the industry known as the Quartz Crisis. The 1990s, in general, was an era that witnessed not just the return of mechanical watchmaking, but also the birth of 'big watches', which dominated watch design for decades to come.
Even though the fundamentals of mechanical watches have remained unchanged for generations, it's remarkable how different the horological landscape was 27-odd years ago. In 1993, Peter Chong – noted collector and founder of Deployant – was in Singapore and had just starting to take an active interest in watches. "The Haute Horlogerie 'scene' had not yet come of age, and Swiss brands were starting to re-establish themselves after being slaughtered in the Quartz Crisis, realising that luxury was where they should be pitching their stories."
An early sketch of an Offshore case.
This sentiment is echoed by William Massena, lately of Massena Lab, who notes: "That year I was working for a major investment bank in New York City, and had just been promoted. To celebrate my new job I had purchased a Jaeger-LeCoultre Duoface. A few months later, I had my name on a waiting list for a steel Daytona which I purchased right in time to celebrate the New Year 1994 (it's worth noting that the steel Daytona had a waiting list even in 1993). I was just starting to build my watch collection, and the return of the mechanical watch was trending, led by brands like Blancpain under Biver, as well as Jaeger-LeCoultre. The trendiest brand was Ebel with the Discovery line, but no watch collector would be caught with an Ebel on his wrist." On the secondary market, the pecking order was becoming clear according to Daryn Schnipper, Senior Vice President and Chairman of Sotheby's International Watch Division in New York: "In the 1980s multiple watch brands commanded a share of the collectors’ market. By the 90s, Patek Phillip and Rolex emerged as the leaders, a position they maintain today."
It's worth noting that while most of the developments emerging in the early 90s that came to shape the industry came from Switzerland and the States, changes were afoot all over the world. For example, the fateful trip that Svend Andersen and Daniel Roth, of the newly formed ACHI, made to Tokyo in 1993 at the invitation of retailer Shellman. This trip by some of watchmaking's leading lights, was a watershed moment for the Japanese market, which would go on to be an exceptionally significant one for independent watchmakers.
That's a quick, broad brushstroke picture of where watches were in the early 90s, but how about the specifics? For me, four moments stand out as tipping points that would come to define the coming decades. Sure, for the 80s yuppie greed might have been good, but for watch brands, it quickly became clear, that bigger was better.
In the shadow of the warhorse
IWC in the early 90s was gearing up, as is a watch brand’s wont, for a significant anniversary — their 125th. While that number lacks some of the gravitas of the 50th or 100th, IWC's quasquicentennial will surely go down in the books as the brand’s most influential.
The ‘Warhorse of Schaffhausen’, courtesy of Christie’s
The champion in IWC's stable was, without a doubt, the Grand Complication known as Il Destriero Scafusia, or 'The Warhorse of Schaffhausen'. This uniquely IWC take on an exceptionally complicated watch, was a project driven by Gunther Blumlein, who, since 1985 had been on a mission to demonstrate that IWC could be competitive at the top tier, in addition to the brand's bread and butter tool watches.
The movement of this special watch is remarkable in several ways. Utilising the combined genius of Kurt Klaus on the perpetual calendar, Richard Habring on the chronograph and Dominique Renaud and Giulio Papi on the minute repeater: essentially a supergroup of modern watchmaking. The other remarkable feature of this movement is that it is based on the humble Valjoux 7750. Schnipper counts this watch as a significant development of the time, "the Destriero Scafusia had a huge impact on the new market, and in many ways laid the groundwork for the revitalisation of the Swiss watch industry by raising awareness among collectors that mechanical watchmaking was alive and well."
The movement that drove the Il Destriero Scafusia, courtesy of Christie’s
Since the Destriero Scafusia, IWC has pursued an economical and utilitarian approach to Haute Horlogerie, setting the tone for subsequent decades of development. The Warhorse was also a shot across the bow of Blancpain and their acclaimed 1991 grand complication, the reference 1735, developed under the dynamic leadership of Jean-Claude Biver (shortly before he flipped it for a massive profit to the SMH Group, now known as the Swatch Group).
While Il Destriero Scafusia is the most remembered watch of IWC's 1993 release schedule, there was another annoucement that, while perhaps not as impressive, has been more significant in the long run. A reissue of a design initially created in 1939. A design so obscure that, in the original production run ending in 1981, only 690 watches were produced. Today the model is amongst IWC's most popular. We are talking, of course, of the mighty Portuguese. The story behind this model's rebirth is as accidental, as it is innocuous. A board member visited Schaffhausen in the lead up to the 125th-anniversary celebrations with a reference 325 (as the Portuguese was known) on his wrist, its beauty was noted, and it was quickly deemed worthy of resurrection.
The original 325 and the Portuguese Jubilèe, courtesy of IWC.
It was that chance meeting led to great things, according to Massena: "The most attractive watch from that time was the IWC Portuguese Jubilée. The Portuguese was revolutionary, not only because of its huge size for the time but also because it was truly the first re-edition of a vintage watch. For this re-edition, IWC used the original pocket watch movement calibre 98, which was used in the original Portuguese wristwatch. I really loved it, it was a classic design, but the larger size gave it a modern vibe that could not be found with other brands. The size of the movement fitted the case, it was in-house, limited, all things that were important to me. The big oversized watch trend had just started, and it would last for the next 20 years, most notably with Panerai, though nobody realised that at the time."
On the deck of the Durand De La Penne
For most of the twentieth century, the naval watches of Officine Panerai were the exclusive domain of the Italian Navy. That changed in September 1993 when Dino Zei, the engineer who took over the Panerai name from Giuseppe Panerai, released a collection of watches that, for the first time, became available to the public. This inaugural civilian collection was launched on the deck of a recently commissioned Italian Navy destroyer, the Durand De La Penne, named for the combat diver who led successful human torpedo missions in WWII, a perfect choice given Panerai's history and lore. How the brand reached this point and ended up making publicly available watches is an even more interesting story.
The original cover of World Wrist Watch Time Spec proudly showing a vintage Panerai Luminor.
In 1992, a vintage Panerai Luminor appeared on the cover of the 10th issue of Japanese watch magazine World Wrist Watch Time Spec. This image, or more specifically the interest it garnered, was enough for Dino Zei to take a gamble on a civilian version of this naval timer. As we now know, the gamble paid off, but then again it helps to have Sylvester Stallone at the table. As is often the case with the early years of Panerai, there is some ambiguity in the chain of events. Some accounts reckoning that Stallone organically discovered the brand while filming in Italy, and others suggesting the socialite Monty Shadow was involved in connecting the star to the watch. It’s clear that without the influence of Stallone and his Hollywood coterie, Panerai's big watches would not enjoy the status they do today. Fitting then, that Phillips is auctioning off the original 1993 watch, that starred alongside Stallone in the movie Daylight in December. It’s also fair to say that Panerai, more than any other brand, single-handedly popularised the big watch.
Former President Bill Clinton sporting a Panerai whilst giving a speech and Sylvester Stallone’s Panerai that is going up for auction at Phillips in December.
The Panerai has become somewhat of a modern icon, worn by all sorts from professional athletes to Presidents (Bill Clinton, coincidentally inaugurated in 1993, was known to wear Luminor GMT PAM00089). In many ways size has become the brand's entire raison d’être, as core to their identity, as their naval origins. So much so that it has only been in recent years that we’ve seen a sub-40mm watch from the brand.
The beast unleashed
When it was released in 1972, the Royal Oak was a novelty in the truest sense of the word, but by the 1990s, the genre-defining luxury steel sports watch had found its place. Twenty years on from its debut, Audemars Piguet was determined to pull the same trick again — release a watch that would shock, awe and ensure the ongoing relevance of the Le Brassus-based brand. That job was entrusted to the then 22-year-old designer Emmanuel Gueit, surely only someone full of the bravura of youth would be up to the task of re-imaging Gerald Genta's already iconic octagonal design. Gueit's solution to the challenge was essentially simple – more.
The Offshore’s designer Emmanuel Gueit, courtesy of Phillips.
The execution was a little more complicated, it wasn't as simple as adding three millimetres to the 39mm original. A chronograph was added for the first time, including the intriguing use of Therban rubber detailing on the chronograph pushers. In fact, this complex development process pushed the planned release of the Offshore back, so instead of celebrating 20 years of the Royal Oak in 1992, Audemars Piguet formally launched the model in 1993.
If the original Royal Oak was a luxury sports watch, the Offshore was a luxury extreme sports watch. Massena remembers his reaction to the watch at the time, "I saw that watch on the wrist of a friend's father. I really loved it, but I thought the watch was gigantic, I remember commenting that the Offshore was a Royal Oak on steroids, it looked badass with so many details of the original Royal Oak."
The watch that grew the Royal Oak, in more ways than one.
Massena wasn't the only one to have that reaction: The Royal Oak Offshore was a polarising watch upon its release — there's a good reason its nickname was 'The Beast'. The design has proven to be a powerful and popular platform for the brand to explore its more outré designs and material combinations. A watch with a legacy born in 1972, and again in 1993.
The powerhouse of Biel
If Schaffhausen, Florence and Le Brassus were busy with their plus-sized plans, a more quiet revolution was underfoot in Omega's hometown of Biel. While the change was ordered from the top by the engineer of the Swiss watch industry's return to glory, Nicolas Hayek, the on-the-ground execution of that vision was entrusted to the one and only Jean-Claude Biver. Blancpain, which, under Biver's stewardship, had seen a phoenix-like rebirth, was sold to the SMH group in 1992, leaving Biver's famous passion for business wanting.
Biver convinced Nicolas Hayek that he could perform a similar trick with Omega. This hugely important legacy name at the time was suffering from a bloated catalogue and confused identity. Biver (who had briefly worked for Omega in the late 70s and early 80s) set about changing these faults, energetically working to reposition the brand's somewhat utilitarian reputation, with one entirely more prestigious.
Two of the men at the very top of the new Swatch Group, courtesy of Hodinkee.
His main achievement was, of course, getting Omega on Bond's wrist — a significant and successful move for the brand, and one which managed to write the most significant chapter in ambassador marketing since Mercedes Gleitz wore a Rolex in 1926. However, during his tenure at Omega, Biver also managed to reposition the Speedmaster from a long-in-the-tooth chronograph, to a perennially relevant commercial staple, while also tripling turnover of the model between 1993 and 2000.
Of course, the fact that today, Omega is one of the biggest powerhouses in watches isn't just down to Biver's magic touch, as Nicolas Hayek, Stephen Urquhart and George Daniels would be quick to note, but it's fair to say that from when Mr Biver joined the brand in 1993, Omega took on a little extra flair and panache.
From Blancpain to Omega.
The last decade of the twentieth century was one of quietly seismic change in the watch industry, defined by innovation and expansion across the board. While each and every year of that decade mattered in some way, I'm confident in claiming 1993 as the year the 'Big Watch' was born, even if the trend took a whole decade to fully mature.
We would like to thank William Massena, Daryn Schnipper and Peter Chong for taking the time to share their memories and recollections of the year 1993.