Book Review – Retro Watches: The Modern Collector’s Guide

They say that what makes a person a collector and not merely an accumulator is a focus. Many vintage watch collectors choose a brand such as Seiko, or a genre of functional tool watch such as divers. Others focus on appreciation of the decorative arts of movement finishing, or on finding an untouched case with its original bevels, or a particular color or font in a dial.

What makes Retro Watches unusual is that it focuses on overall wristwatch design at a particular point in time. It takes as its subject matter an industry in motion, leaving behind old design cues and boldly striking into an uncertain future.

The peculiar focus of this book is the transitional period of the 1960’s and 1970’s during which staid old mechanical watches reacted to the new dynamism of the electronic age for the first time. There was a new bold, iconoclastic, and above all futuristic design aesthetic that characterized the zeitgeist of the time. Even mechanical watchmaking movements innovated by creating digital displays that mimicked electronic watches, and electronic watches hummed, beeped, and ticked their way into the future. Advances in materials especially plastics also allowed for bold new designs choices in case material, bracelets, and even movements.

The book itself is 255 horizontally oriented pages with a pleasant heft in the hand. It features about 100 watches in alphabetical order by brand. Interspersed amongst the watches are helpful features such as “Space Age Design” and “The Retro Aesthetic” that place the design language of the watches into a larger cultural context. The organizational structure is conducive to looking up watches by brand but it would perhaps have made more organizational sense to organize the watches by design theme. Some design elements repeat themselves throughout the book, and it is difficult to compare similar watches without organization by theme. The photos are high quality and full color. The text generally gives a well researched description of the often obscure brand and points out the unusual design elements that merited inclusion.

Some of the Book’s Themes

Innovative time displays including digital displays with mechanical movements, jump hours, displays for electromechanical movements, LED or LCD displays for quartz movements, fuel gauze type displays, horizontally oriented “driver’s watches.”

Unusually shaped or strangely oriented watch cases, especially when using asymmetry.

Use of nonmetallic materials such as wood dials or plastic cases, movements, or bracelets.

Rarely seen or defunct brands.

Futuristic designs inspired by space travel.

Perhaps this area of vintage watch collecting has not received as much attention because the term “vintage” conjures up images of so-called classic designs. Innovation and technological change is associated with the future, and not the past. This book brings welcome attention to the innovative spirit of the horological dark ages surrounding the time of the “quartz revolution.” Unconcerned with traditional values like movement decoration, shock resistance, and traditional design elements, this book celebrates the innovative spirit of the age. Ironically, as wristwatches are encountering the new challenge of the smartwatch, the tendency has been to dig deeper into the back catalogue rather than try to break new ground. Perhaps this book and others like it will inspire watch brands to try to be bold in their design choices and look towards the future.

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Buy the signed edition here