Spread the love

This originally appeared in Box + Papers, GQ staffer Cam Wolf’s watch newsletter. For more stories like it, hit the link and subscribe.

The watch world feels slightly inebriated right now: things are getting fun as hell. As enjoyable as it is to argue about mainsprings, hand-finished bridges, and gear trains—not that fun, TBH!—the hobby seems to be moving in a sexier and more design-forward direction. And I’m not (just) referencing Tony Traina’s thigh!! I’m talking about the way that runway-grade fashion watches are starting to court serious collectors who once turned their noses up at the very same pieces. Now, vintage fashion watches—from the likes of Pierre Cardin, Balmain, and Dior—are here to spike the watch world’s punch bowl. 

James Lamdin of New York-based watch shop Analog:Shift says he never would have bought pieces like these 10 years ago. “Not a chance,” he says. Fashion watches were radioactive goo, (or maybe, less dramatically, Dasani water) to all but the most open-minded collectors. There was simply no market for them. Now, though, when an opportunity came up to purchase a set of 20 pieces made by the famous French designer Pierre Cardin, Lamdin jumped at it. The pieces come from Cardin’s Espace collection and are inspired by space (pronounce it spah-che). And while they were produced in 1971, these watches somehow feel like a breath of fresh air in 2023: They come with such luscious curves, bubbly cases, and out-there designs it’s hard to believe they were designed in the same universe that produced the Rolex Submariner

Let’s zoom out briefly.

A lot has been written about fashion watches—meaning watches produced by fashion brands, rather than watch companies—over the years. Hodinkee’s rather famous series on the history of modern horology dedicated an entire section to fashion watches. But this examined watches as fashion—the idea of buying up cheap quartz pieces from places like Swatch and creating a whole “watch wardrobe.” Consumers were encouraged to change out what was on their wrists the same way they might switch T-shirts or sneakers. We’re also in the midst of a different fashion-watch revolution, one that’s sending well-made Hermès and Chanel wristwatches to the top of collectors’ wishlists. The resurgence of retro fashion watches is something else entirely. 

What’s unusual about watches like the ones from Pierre Cardin is that in the midst of the quartz crisis, when many brands were taking advantage of the new technology to mass-produce cheap timepieces, these fashion-brand tickers arrived defiantly with mechanical movements. They use a rare formula in this world, Lamdin says: “They’re fun, they don’t take themselves too seriously, and they’re mechanical. So there’s a little bit of horological cred there and then a ton of design cred.” Sometimes, when it comes to horological cred, you only need a sprinkling—at least when the watches look this good. (One guess as to why designers in the early ‘70s kept on using mechanical movements despite the advent of quartz? The watch industry was booming just before the crisis hit and the ability to produce watches was at an all-time high.) 

This is true for nearly all the designers making watches at the time. Dior’s collection with the watchmaker Bulova from 1972 includes pieces shaped like one of those pressed pennies or offset from center. Pierre Balmain made kooky rectangular watches for a future in which the moon hosted its own fashion week. 

The surge of interest in these fashion watches—Lamdin’s already sold several of the Cardin pieces—is a natural result of the now-overcrowded watch market. Think of the watch hobby as a multi-tiered fountain: millions more people get into watch collecting, forcing the folks who were in the upper pool to dive deeper to find something more unique. 

Trends, which typically move glacially in the watch world, are starting to pick up. “Interest in timepieces is just exponentially greater than it’s ever been in history,” Lamdin says. “And with that comes faster changes in taste and style.” This is bearing out in the ways we talk about and wear watches. Our friend Traina recently predicted in Hodinkee that collectors will start embracing watches as accessories and that’s certainly played out in real life. Bad Bunny, thank God, won’t stop wearing beautiful little Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet pieces; Michael B. Jordan was recently spotted wearing a Piaget Polo, a watch that’s half-watch, half-bracelet; everyone wants to get their hands on Rolex’s Rihanna-approved King Midas. Like those pieces, the retro fashion-designer watches are more accessory than watch. 

Greg Pallante 2016

And as funky ‘90s watches come into fashion, some of those also have designer-made pieces from the ‘70s to thank. Look no further than a Paul Smith watch from the early ‘90s that was inspired by his very own collection of pieces from the ‘70s, according to Josh Sims and Mitch Greenblatt’s bible to this very topic, Retro Watches. It looks an awful lot like one of Pierre Balmain’s watches, and both are designed to be worn exclusively on the side of the wrist. 

Most importantly: these designer-made watches are fun, different, and cool. Walk into any room with one of these and you’ll immediately have the most interesting wrist. While it’s fun for watch collectors to play the IYKYK game, these pieces are made to impress even the biggest watch dummies. They’re also relatively affordable, as far as great-looking watches go. “They play very nicely for a collector because you can literally buy 20 of these for the price of a [Rolex] GMT-Master on the secondary market,” Lamdin says, “You can have an instant important collection.”