The Most Important Decades In Modern Watchmaking (Part 2: The 1990s)
The 1990s represented the dawn of a new era, where high-end makers emerged from the tumultuous 'Quartz Crisis' into what has come to be known as the Mechanical Watch Renaissance. We explore how this exciting decade transformed watches from objects of utility to luxury, and paved the way for where we are today
For all that it is easy to look at the 90s through the rose-tinted glasses of pre-digital meme culture and perfectly synchronized boy bands; it was a decade dominated by change. That is true in all aspects of society and culture, including watches. We suspect that when scholars distant future look back on the 1990s, it will be a decade defined by a single event — the Millennium. The anxiety and the optimism that defined this millennial era can be seen in clear examples like the millennium bug — a date-related computer glitch predicted to cause widespread chaos, as well as a broader social change leading up to the year 2000, for example, the Handover of Hong Kong in 1997 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. For watches, the 1990s represented the dawn of a new era, where high-end makers emerged from the tumultuous and troubled era of the 'Quartz Crisis' into what has come to be known as the Mechanical Watch Renaissance. This exciting era saw Swiss watches reframed from objects of utility to luxury, and paved the way for where we are today.
New Directions, New Opportunities
One of the most influential architects of this reformation was Günter Blümlein. The German business may not enjoy the level of watch-world name recognition as his peers Nicolas Hayek and Jean-Claude Biver, but he had a massive impact on the contemporary watch landscape. In the 80s, Blümlein worked at Les Manufactures Horlogeres (LMH) and oversaw IWC and Jaeger-LeCoultre, and was instrumental in changing the tone of these two venerable brands. It was Blümlein who pitched IWC as an unashamedly masculine brand, spearheading the (now rather dated) 'IWC for Men' series of ads. At JLC, he enshrined the Reverso as the core model of the brand and introduced 'Master Control' testing (and the associated collection) in 1992, a pioneering example of using in-house quality control as a marker of difference, something that has subsequently been widely adopted.
The lessons that Blümlein learned at these two brands all came together at A. Lange & Söhne. Blümlein was instrumental in reviving the Glashütte-based brand, something impossible prior to the reunification of Germany in October of 1990. In 1994, The revived brand launched four models, including the Lange 1. Not only did the return of the brand to Glashütte prove that a true top-tier watch brand could exist outside of Switzerland, but the deconstructed design of the Lange 1, with its adherence to the golden mean and restrained design, provided a blueprint for the imagination and innovation of independent watchmakers for years to come. In 1999, LMH was sold to Richemont for CHF 2.8 billion, a dramatic uptick in fortunes for the once beleaguered brands Blümlein oversaw.
The 1990s proved that the business of watches was booming, and so were the watches. The 90s bore witness to the birth of the 'Big Watch'. Sure, there are earlier examples of plus-sized timepieces out there, but the 90s made them cool. Among the biggest was a watch that debuted in 1993, known simply as 'The Beast'. That watch is, of course, the iconic Royal Oak Offshore, designed – in an example of incredible trust and faith – by then 22-year-old Emmanuel Gueit.
Gueit was given the task of evolving the famous Royal Oak, and making it relevant for a new generation. Smartly, Gueit didn't mess with the fundamentals of the icon, he just added more. The fact that the original ROO was considered a Beast at only 42mm in size is a clear indicator of just how much our perceptions of size have changed in the last 30 years. Size wasn't the only factor of course; Guiet aggressively upscaled the case geometry and the bezel, as well added never-before-seen elements like rubber details on the chronograph pushers. All this added up to a watch that has come to be a true successor to the original Royal Oak.
Another hugely influential 90s' Big Watch' was, of course, Panerai. Though the brand has a longer history, the modern history of Panerai can be traced to 1993, when Dino Zei acquired the rights to the Panerai name and made the bulky divers available for civilian use. One of those civilians was Sylvester Stallone. The apocryphal tale is that he stumbled upon the brand while filming in Italy, but what's undeniable is that he wore Panerai in 1996's Daylight, and, by the time the 90s rolled into the 00s, the oversized Italian divers had entrenched themselves in Hollywood, quickly becoming a staple on the wrists of action stars like Stallone and Schwarzenegger, executives and anyone drawn to this larger-than-life image. For many, Panerai has come to be the defining face of the 'Big Watch Trend.'
Seamaster, Omega Seamaster
One 90s-era action star who steered clear of the oversized timepiece was everyone's favorite fictional spy, James Bond. Bond, who had been on hiatus since 1989's License to Kill burst back onto the screen played by Pierce Brosnan in Goldeneye. On his wrist was the Omega Seamaster. Of course, this high-profile endorsement turned the scallop-bezelled, wavy-dialed diver into an instant hit, but the real impact was in the deal done behind the scenes. A deal orchestrated by none other than Jean-Claude Biver. Rather than pay a nominal sum to have an Omega worn by Brosnan's Bond, Biver proposed a much bigger deal, which would see a much more comprehensive, formal relationship between the movie franchise and the watchmaker. EON Productions, which, in the 90s, was not the powerhouse it is today, accepted, and the rest is history. Obviously, this association was hugely important to Omega, but more than that, it went on to define the modern watch brand ambassador.
Patek Philippe has a — carefully cultivated — reputation for being the blue-chip patrician brand of the watch world. It is a brand of quiet excellence and well-worn traditions. This might explain why, in 1997, the brand released a watch quite unlike anything they had done before. We're talking, of course, about reference 5060, aka the Aquanaut.
Clearly inspired by the then 30-year-old Nautilus, the Aquanaut was a sports watch, which is already unusual for Patek Philippe. On top of that, it was the first watch from the brand to come on a rubber strap, a cut-to-length number with a chocolate block-type pattern that echoes the dial. Speaking of dials, the pattern, with straight horizontal lines and curved vertical lines, is certainly evocative of a hand grenade, hence its nickname. The Aquanaut was released to attract a younger watch buyer to the venerable brand, but in the early days, the Aquanaut wasn't as universally loved as it is today. The Aquanaut was a controversial release amongst fans of the brand, who felt that it lacked the elegance and aesthetics associated with Patek, and fiercely criticized everything from the strap to the hand design and the perceived lack of weight and heft. While taste is truly subjective, history is on the side of the Aquanaut.
It wasn't just the big brands that were enjoying their time in the sun in the 90s; the era of optimism and renewed appetites for watches saw an explosion of independent watchmakers. Franck Muller founded his eponymous brand in 1992 and soon had a hit on his hands with his updated take on Deco designs.
Roger Dubuis, a veteran of Patek Philippe set up his own shop in 1995, and began making watches imbued with classical elegance under his own name. François-Paul Journe spent the decade honing his skills — he displayed his first tourbillon at the Académie Horlogère des Créateurs Indépendants booth in 1991. By the end of the decade, he had formally founded F.P. Journe the brand, thanks in no small part to funding raised from a series of 'Souscription' watches that he announced in 1998. While Muller and Journe's watchmaking fell well within the conventions of the craft, other independents were determined to break the mold. Vianney Halter was a peer and colleague of Journe's, and in 1998, he launched his own brand, which took watchmaking on a Jules-Verne-inspired trip through time and space. His most iconic design is the ingenious perpetual calendar that is the Antiqua.
Urwerk is another brand inspired by conceptions of the future, and since 1995 they've been refining their satellite-based time displays. This list could go on, but while the independent makers we've highlighted here have diverse styles and approaches, what's clear is that the 1990s was a fertile environment for boutique brands to sew the seeds of future success.
New Technology for a New Millennium
In the waning days of the second-millennium Omega finally released a watch powered by technology 25 years in the making; the first major development in escapements for 250 years. The Co-Axial escapement. George Daniels dreamt up the idea for the Co-Axial in 1974, but major brand after major brand turned the invention down citing that it offered marginal improvements and would be too tricky to scale commercially. Eventually, in 1994 Omega sealed a deal with Daniels and got to work industrializing the process. It took them five years, but finally, a special series of De Ville's was released powered by the new, Co-Axially powered Calibre 2500. Today, the Co-Axial is a key element of Omega's technical identity, and a major factor in their continued success.
The recurring theme of the 1990s, in watches as well as the wider world, was change and renewal. The excitement and energy of this decade certainly set the tone for the coming millennium.