The Rise of Neo-Vintage Watches
By A Collected Man
For a long time, watch collecting was firmly divided into two camps. Vintage and modern. One offered elegant aesthetics, characterful patina, and a romantic attachment to a different vision of watchmaking. The other provided reliability, and the excitement of something which was innovative or cutting edge. Often, when people initially get interested in watches, this early fork in the road, is the one they come across first, but which way should they go?
In more recent times, a third category has gained prominence – neo-vintage. Neither modern, nor vintage, as the name would imply, it gathers elements from both. From the aesthetics, production techniques, materials, and context in which they were produced, watches that belong to this group are the result of mixed influences. They were long discarded by collectors, precisely because they fell between the cracks. To many, they either lacked the charm of older pieces or the excitement of new releases.
As time has passed, however, the appreciation for so-called neo-vintage watches has clearly grown. From the work of early independent watchmakers, to the efforts of established manufactures to remain relevant in the wake of the Quartz Crisis, this has become an area of increased focus for enthusiasts. Collectors are drawn to this period for a range of reasons, from their rich historical context, to the great value which can often be unearthed. Considering we also spend much of our time researching and sourcing watches that fall under this umbrella, we’ve naturally become quite fond of them. As such, we thought we would explore the topic, drawing on our own insights, as well as those of a few collectors.
What makes a neo-vintage watch?
As you might expect, what makes a watch neo-vintage is open to discussion. The logical place to start is at the end of the Quartz Crisis, in the aftermath of a period when the core purpose of mechanical watchmaking had come under threat. Tom Chng, the founder of the Singapore Watch Club, reckons that this event “gave the mechanical watch a new purpose to survive and thrive, not one of necessity, but desirability. For the industry at large, the 1980s was an era of glorious renaissance.” It’s the pieces from this period onwards that we consider to be neo-vintage, with the category probably no longer applying for anything which was made in the last fifteen years or so.
An early milestone, which marks the beginning of this era, was the release of the Audemars Piguet Quantième Perpetuel reference 5548, in 1978. Though complicated watches were exceedingly rare at the time, the manufacture chose to double-down on their heritage and craftmanship, by releasing the world’s thinnest automatic perpetual calendar. Although the Royal Oak often gets credit for helping the brand survive this tumultuous period, evidence suggests that the Quantième Perpetuel played a much greater role.
What makes these pieces, and many others, fall under the neo-vintage umbrella is that they combine both vintage and modern influences, by virtue of the transitional period in which they were produced. This tension is clear in several areas, notably aesthetics, materials, manufacturing techniques and the scale of production. Firstly, if we take the Quantième Perpetuel as a case study, the design borrows from the past, but also looks to the future. The case sizing is restrained, and the dial uses a shiny lacquer which resembles enamel, whilst also displaying a traditional serif font. At a glance, it could very much belong to the 1960s. However, Audemars Piguet also introduced distinctively more modern design elements into this collection, from their skeletonised or “Tuscan” textured dials, to the unusual case shapes which they embraced.
The pieces from this period also display the shift in the materials and production techniques which were occurring at the time. Let’s take the Patek Philippe Aquanaut, introduced in 1997, as an example. Some of the first models use tritium, a luminescent material which had been around for several decades at this point, for the hour indexes and hands. Over time, these can develop patina, by turning to a warm, creamy tone, in a way which is reminiscent of earlier dive watches.
Meanwhile, the exact same watches can also be equipped with a front crystal and a display back made from sapphire, which is a much more recent material, praised for its hardness and scratch resistance. The combination of these different elements, which seems almost incongruous, is emblematic of this period. It also influences the aesthetic, as you can still find the ever-desirable patina, combined with the reliability of other, more modern, components.
Of course, this juxtaposition of different materials speaks to a wider shift in production techniques which was taking place. At the higher end, things were moving from a more artisanal, hand-made approach to one which relied more heavily on machinery, technology, and innovation. For example, whilst Patek Philippe hand-carved the sub-dials for their reference 3940 in the first year of production, they quickly moved to a less labour-intensive approach, which relied on machinery.
Computers also started to gain prominence, which helped with the design of complicated pieces, such as perpetual calendars, minute repeaters and tourbillons. Take for example the first watch produced by François-Paul Journe under his own name, the Tourbillon Souverain. At this time, in 1999, there were very few tourbillons on the market, which helped the young watchmaker stand-out from the crowd. Though many might not be aware of this, he used a computer to design his movement in an efficient and cost-effective way. That being said, he ultimately relied on more traditional techniques to make the watches themselves, combining the best of the old with the new.
This shift in production techniques was also the driving force behind another trend which characterises neo-vintage watches, notably complicated ones, which is that they were produced in a series, for the very first time. If we return briefly to the Quantième Perpetuel, Audemars Piguet state that they made 7,219 of these over a fifteen-year period. This is a significant departure from the past, when the manufacture would only have had the capacity to make a small handful of these in any given year, many of which were special orders for clients. This idea of producing complications at scale is one which feels intrinsic to the neo-vintage period.
Though we’ll explore this in more depth throughout the article, our understanding of a neo-vintage watch is therefore one which was produced between the late 1970s and the turn of the 20th century. More importantly than just the period itself, these pieces sit within the liminal space between old and new, tradition and progression. This becomes obvious if we look at the aesthetics, production techniques, materials, and context in which they were born. Though this doesn’t apply to everything which was made during this period, some certainly stand-out. They’re “clearly crafted with one eye on the past and another towards the future,” as Chng would puts it.
Vintage romance, modern convenience
So, why do people care? To better grasp why these watches are sought-after by some collectors, it makes sense to look at the alternatives which sit either side of them, chronologically speaking. Although vintage watches can offer strong design, charismatic patina, and romance, they can also be rather burdensome to collect, for several reasons. Firstly, originality is always difficult to determine. From unreported service parts, to those which have been maliciously tampered with, figuring out whether a watch is “correct” is never easy, especially when there is little information to rely on and multiple diverging accounts of what one should expect. It can often take years to accumulate enough knowledge to make certain purchases with confidence, and, even then, there is always an element of uncertainty.
Assuming you’re confident that everything is original, sensitive repairs can also be a source for concern. Older models tend to be more delicate, as they were made with more primitive technology, meaning that everything from the lubrication, to the lume on the dial can be temperamental. Furthermore, many of the most coveted models – especially from Patek Philippe and Rolex – have now become out-of-reach for many collectors, especially for the most well-preserved examples.
If we look at more modern pieces, the risk is often reduced. However, so is the romance. For many collectors, the more contemporary end of the spectrum doesn’t give them what they’re after. Some modern models feel more like mass-produced commodities, than artisanal works of art. They can lack the charisma of something which was clearly the product of a certain time, now long past.
Seamus, an Irish collector who focuses on pieces from the period, from Vacheron Constantin perpetual calendars to Audemars Piguet minute repeaters, echoes this sentiment. “The artisanship has faded somewhat in modern offerings – modern skeletonization, for example, looks basic compared to the sublime engraving and finishing found in neo-vintage skeletons,” he argues. If you want to purchase a watch at retail, you’re also often faced with a disappointingly long waiting list or the prospect of immediate depreciation.
“They’re clearly crafted with one eye on the past and another towards the future.”
Of course, both vintage and modern have a huge amount to offer, and always will do. However, it is worth considering their downsides to explain why certain collectors have turned to neo-vintage watches in recent times. Arguably, the finest examples of neo-vintage offer the best of both of vintage and modern, whilst minimising the potential liabilities. If we start with what they draw from the vintage world, they often have a classic, restrained aesthetic. For example, it’s telling that Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin all chose a 36mm case size for the ultra-thin, automatic perpetual calendars which they released between 1978 and 1985. Later, when Patek Philippe designed the first Aquanaut, they also chose the same modest diameter, despite it being released as a sports watch.
“Personally, I believe the fashion of large modern watches is a little loud and love the nostalgia of a neo-vintage size,” Seamus tells us. “The market now accepts a more conservatively sized watch,” echoes Chng, “with many brands even scaling-down their new releases to cater to this shift in taste.” Chng points out that the rise in Asian markets has been a key factor in this change. Beyond the dimensions, many subtle details also imbue these pieces with a certain vintage aesthetic, from the serif fonts, to the modestly sized brand signatures.
Furthermore, high quality production techniques had often been carried-over from the previous era. For example, Patek Philippe movements from the period are considered by some to be of a higher standard than what the Genevan brand makes today. This quality is partly down to the fact that Swiss manufactures still relied on external suppliers for many of their components, from movements to dials.
Names such as Lemania, Stern Frères or Gay Frères instantly come to mind, as examples of specialised manufacturers who mastered a certain craft, often to a much higher standard than the brands themselves. When Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin wanted to produce a manual-wind chronograph, they turned to Lemania. As for Cartier, when it decided to recreate some of the designs from its archives, it called on Jaeger-LeCoultre, Piaget and others to help with the mechanics. For Roger Dubuis and Daniel Roth, when the time came to develop their own perpetual calendars, both used ébauches provided by Fréderic Piguet. The list goes on.
“The artisanship has faded somewhat in modern offerings – modern skeletonization, for example, looks basic compared to the sublime engraving and finishing found in neo-vintage skeletons.”
These pieces are also the result of modern influences, which can certainly have a positive effect. Daniel Sum, co-founder of the Shanghai Watch Gang, points out that, “because these watches are simply not that old, they also tend to be less fragile, often still serviceable from the brand, and have robust movements with little risk to perished dials or rust.” Overall, movements don’t need to be dramatically overhauled, and spare parts are much more readily accessible. Components such as sapphire glass or rubber gaskets help protect the watches from humidity and damage, whilst dials are more resilient over time. Sum argues that these characteristics “allow a collector of modern watches to ‘dabble’ in the vintage watch world, with lower risk compared to something truly vintage.”
An exciting period of rebirth in watchmaking
The time in which these pieces were born also happens to be a hugely exciting one, marking the rejuvenation of mechanical watchmaking. A prime example of this trend is the rebirth of Blancpain. In 1981, Jean-Claude Biver and Jacques Piguet purchased the rights to Blancpain, a watchmaker that had gone out of business a decade earlier, under the pressure of quartz.
Biver and Piguet rebuilt the brand from scratch, focusing it entirely on mechanical watches, from time-only pieces to perpetual calendars and minute repeaters. Some of their early advertisements proudly declared, “Since 1735, there has never been a quartz Blancpain watch. And there never will be.” This uncompromising approach is what helped Blancpain to not only survive, but thrive, in the years following its acquisition.
If we look at the “Holy Trinity” – namely Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin – they also refocused their attention on mechanical, complicated watchmaking, to secure and justify their survival. Within the span of seven years, between 1978 and 1985, all three of them introduced their own ultra-thin, automatic perpetual calendars. These were amongst the first perpetual calendars to be produced in a series, marking a departure from the past.
Those from Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin even relied on the same base movement, the ultra-thin Jaeger-LeCoultre 920, which was the thinnest automatic caliber in the world when it came out in 1967. “Innovative calibers such as the JL C920 weave a common thread across this broad array of watches – something as a collector I appreciate,” argues Seamus, who owns several of these perpetual calendars, from both manufactures.
Beyond classic complications, there was a real inventiveness during this period, including within the more established manufactures. The Star Wheel from Audemars Piguet or the Mercator from Vacheron Constantin both presented alternative ways of displaying time, which were thoughtful and daring. It’s difficult to imagine the same designs being released today. As for Patek Philippe, the release of the Aquanaut towards the end of the century was also a daring move, driven by the desire to capture a younger audience, to help stay relevant.
Beyond this, another obvious trend was the rise of independent watchmakers, in the final few decades of the 20th century. George Daniels, Philippe Dufour, Daniel Roth, Roger Dubuis, Franck Muller, Roger W. Smith, François-Paul Journe, and many others, rose to prominence during this period. Many of them put forward their own distinct vision of watchmaking, which was often different to anything else that was being made at the time.
Often, independent watchmaking looked to the past, as well as the future. Journe and Roth, for example, wanted to carry the tradition of Abraham-Louis Breguet into the 20th century, whilst also leaving their own mark. Meanwhile, Dufour chose to recreate the traditional movement architecture and artistic expressions of the Vallée de Joux from 1850 to 1920, in a way which no longer existed. It could be argued that this kind of inventiveness, and the appetite from collectors to support it, could only have occurred during this period.
The Passing of Time
One major factor that has affected the desirability of these pieces today is the simple passing of time. Until recently, neo-vintage watches were seen as modern, just from a few years ago. They weren’t particularly exciting. However, as a handful of years have turned into decades, enough time has passed that they are now appealing to increasing body of collectors. The objects themselves, as well as the context in which they were produced, is different enough to anything which is around today, to make them distinctly interesting.
The perception of neo-vintage has improved, which has been helped along by the fact that some of them have started to develop attractive signs of ageing. Indeed, Sum points out that they can “develop a certain charm that occurs magically somehow through the ageing process, that simply cannot be replicated through modern techniques.” For example, looking purely at the ‘90s, you can still find Royal Oaks which turn tropical, Aquanauts with rich, warm lume, and early F.P. Journe dials which oxidise and change colour. Of course, the simple ageing of watches isn’t enough to increase their desirability. There are many other factors at play, but it often helps to make them more palatable, and perhaps even imbue them with a certain romance.
Another effect of the passing of time has to do with how collecting evolves. Until a few years ago, vintage was considered as the only truly collectable category, outside of a few exceptions. Independent watchmaking and other neo-vintage watches were only enjoyed by a small, dedicated group of collectors, whilst being disregarded by most people. However, once many different segments of the vintage world had been explored, increased in value, and reached maturity, enthusiasts started looking for something new. “Watches such as the Royal Oak,” Seamus argues, “have always been popular amongst collectors, but I think it’s fair to say that the universe of collectable watches has increased in the last two years to include offerings that were often overlooked.” Indeed, it’s a natural dynamic of any market that it constantly evolves, and new trends emerge.
The growing interest in independent watchmakers, after years of disregard, follows this evolution. Arguably, part of the excitement surrounding the early work of François-Paul Journe comes from the fact that it can be studied and collected in a similar way to vintage Rolex, so it isn’t too off-putting to newcomers. Though we realise this is a counter-intuitive argument, we think that there are a few interesting parallels, which explain why traditional collectors from the world of vintage have turned to independents such as Journe.
Firstly, the ability to break down the various models into clearly defined generations allows enthusiasts to easily identify when something was made, and where it falls in the sequence of production. Thanks to the order that can be attributed to specific variations, it is also possible to make informed guesses of production numbers, singling out the rare variants. This practice has been carried-out by vintage Rolex collectors for years, but on a much larger scale, due to the higher production figures of the brand.
Moreover, small details can really matter in both vintage Rolex and Journe. Whether it’s a “Frog’s Foot” coronet or a shallow hand-engraving on the caseback, these elements can heavily influence the market price and the desirability of a model. These can be especially significant when they point out how rare or early, a given example is. In Rolex, the prime example is the “Big Crown” found on some of the first Submariners. For Journe, the quirks and unusual details of the early pieces – from the shimmer of the dial, to the depth of the engraving on the caseback – also help set these apart.
The availability of information and the research process if quite similar too, for both Rolex and Journe. There’s just enough information to get started, but in both cases, enthusiasts must also piece the information together by themselves, through observation and time. This adds to the romance of the hunt and the process of discovery. This is partially due to how protective Rolex and F.P. Journe can be with their information.
Though a whole range of other factors are at play, including the incredible quality of the watches themselves, these similarities help explain why the market for early F.P. Journe has gained momentum in the last few years. It could only have been possible with new collectors pouring in from more “traditional” pockets of collecting, so the parallels are interesting to note. This focused example is representative of the wider shift towards neo-vintage, and how markets evolve.
The idea of value
We don’t often touch on the notion of value in our articles, preferring to stick to the historical or aesthetic side of things. However, it is important to look at this dimension when assessing why some have turned to this area of collecting. Precisely because they were ignored for so long, many neo-vintage pieces can offer greater value for money.
“Most desirable vintage watches from the ‘30s to the ‘70s are now, unfortunately, financially inaccessible to many collectors who admire the attractions of vintage watches, but simply do no have the economic muscle to enter,” argues Sum. “Therefore, as newcomers to the vintage watch world, their choice is limited to either cheaper, less well-known brands from the vintage era or to watches from more established brands in the neo-vintage era,” he says. This is echoed by Seamus, who points out that “often savvy and braver collectors will look at a skeleton Royal Oak – which at this point can be more expensive than a house – and wonder why you can buy a Vacheron Constantin skeleton Quantième Perpetuel for a fraction of the cost.”
Today, many of these pieces trade hands for significantly less than what their retail price was back in the day. For example, a Vacheron Constantin perpetual calendar reference 43031 in yellow gold would have retailed for around £45,000 in 1992, whilst the current market value is half of that. This disparity is part of the reason why those who focus on this period enjoy collecting vintage catalogues and brochures, where they can discover the original retail prices for certain models.
Furthermore, if you compare the market prices of certain pieces to their modern and vintage equivalents, value can be found, yet again. For perpetual calendars from Patek Philippe, a true vintage model, such as the reference 3448, costs more than £200,000 in yellow gold. Meanwhile, the modern reference 5327J, retails for just over £71,000. The neo-vintage 3940 is a far better proposition for many and can be had at a fraction of the cost. While this direct comparison might not always work out, if you were to compare it to the price of the recently discontinued 5711, then it starts to become clear just how much you can get for your money, with certain neo-vintage pieces.
“They develop a certain charm that occurs magically somehow through the aging process, that simply cannot be replicated through modern techniques.”
However, whilst discussing value, it is difficult to ignore the strong results that some of the watches from this period have achieved recently, especially those from independents. To take just a few examples from the recent past, a George Daniels Millennium in yellow gold sold for £519,000 just last month at Bonhams.
Going further back, a Simplicity by Philippe Dufour sold for close to half a million pounds at Sotheby’s, in October 2020, and would probably achieve even more today. As for the work of François-Paul Journe, some of his earliest pieces have comfortably broken the million-pound mark, notably at Phillips.
These results aren’t limited to independents either. Recently, one of the first twenty-five 3940 perpetual calendars sold for over £140,000 at an auction house in Germany. These results go to show that special neo-vintage pieces are now being considered alongside other important, historical watches, for the very first time. For several independent watchmakers especially, their work is now in the same league as some of the long-established “blue chip” models, such as the Patek Philippe 1518 and 2499 perpetual calendar chronographs.
So, what does the future look like? Though prediction is always a delicate exercise, the enthusiasm doesn’t seem to be slowing down. As Seamus puts it, “if anything, I firmly believe that over the long run, a lot of these watches will be more popular than even now. The trend back to smaller case sizes is inevitable and even the battle between sports and dress watches might favour dress in the long term. Neo-vintage watches ought to stand the test of time in these scenarios.”
It is possible that the next generation of collectors will see these models as true vintage, as time goes by. However, they also have just enough elements from the modern era that they can hopefully survive, and be enjoyed, for generations to come. As Chng says, “I believe there will always be a place for these neo-vintage classics we know and love today, as they were born to be timeless and evergreen. Their beauty and elegance require no context, and will continue to occupy the hearts and wrists of collectors for many decades to come.”
We would like to thank Tom Chng of the Singapore Watch Club, Daniel Sum of the Shanghai Watch Gang, Seamus of @watches_and_guinness, and @ciaca1970 for their input on this article and lending their thoughts on the neo-vintage watch market.