Dopamine Horology: The New Style Language For The Post-Pandemic Watch Boom

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Dopamine Horology: The New Style Language For The Post-Pandemic Watch Boom

Words by Mr Timothy Barber

3 August 2022

Two-and-a-half years ago, in September 2019, the independent Swiss brand Oris released a future-facing addition to its venerable aviation watch collections, the ProPilot X Calibre 115 (or PPX 115 for short). Made from titanium, its angular, industrial look suggested jet engines and stealth planes, while the view through the dial to the skeletonised movement was like peering into a piece of heavy machinery. It was aggressive and quirky. Mainstream it certainly was not.

If you’d told me then that this hulking piece of techno-chic gear would, by 2022, have morphed into a slinky, unisex, pink-dialled watch for the masses, I’d have given you short shrift. But, as an illustration of how watch design is evolving on the other side of the pandemic, the 2019 PPX 115 and the watch Oris dropped earlier this year, the PPX 400 (or ProPilot X Calibre 400), offer a handy before-and-after comparison.

Reduced to a lithe 39mm of air-light titanium, the case and bracelet of the PPX 400 follow the same form factor as the earlier watch, but substantially streamlined and elementally different. It feels smaller than it is. It has the supple elegance of the best sports-luxe bracelet watches, but also the fluid wearability of a smartwatch. It’s fresh, non-retro and specifically unisex. The dial, rather than amplifying the techy feel of the case, now offsets it, with a soft, minimalist design in grey, deep blue or eye-popping salmon pink.

As a collision of conflicting elements, it shouldn’t work. But in the era of dopamine-boosting colourways, high/low cultural mash-ups and relaxed, anything-goes attitudes in design and style, it does.

“The pink dial was the wild card, but it’s the best-selling version and the best activated of the three,” says Mr Rolf Studer, co-CEO of Oris. He says it’s a 2022 take on the idea of “salmon-dial” vintage watches, which have gained plenty of currency in recent times, though the Oris version is considerably pinker and poppier than those. And in watch design’s post-pandemic remix, a colourway that might have been seen as eccentric, even provocative, has struck a chord. “It’s elegant and relaxed, but uplifting,” says Studer. “People seem to understand this. They want to make themselves smile and to have that thing on their wrist that’s a bit of a talking point.”

It’s stating the obvious that a mechanical wristwatch remains, in 2022, a deeply anachronistic thing, long out-manoeuvred by digital technology. But it’s one reason why over the past decade, and particularly against the background of the smartwatch explosion, brands have tended to emphasise the elements that made their watches different from all that. They wanted their products to be luxurious havens amid the information onslaught and exclusive reference points for old school quality and analogue style.

Retro revivalism has had a decade-long field day. So, too, has anything that opens up and highlights the mechanical, crafted nature of a “proper” watch (such as the PPX 115). Pre-pandemic, owning a luxury watch wasn’t just a matter of taste and preference; it was a vote for the old school and, depending on which brands’ marketing spiels you drunk in, an act of connoisseurship and cultural flexing akin to fine-art patronage.

“Working from home has democratised how we dress and that’s allowing people to wear less restrictive, more daring watches. It gives people the chance to show their personal taste like never before”

Things are changing. The mainstreaming of the luxury watch market didn’t begin with the pandemic, but the cultural firestorm of lockdowns, social media, hype watches, sneaker culture, crypto, NFTs and any number of concurrent factors turned a slowly shifting landscape into a landslide. A new generation of buyer has come to the party and their interests, touch points and values are fundamentally different.

“We’re in the middle of a generational shift,” says Mr James Marks, a member of the MR PORTER Style Council and head of Phillips Perpetual, the contemporary watch business at the auction house Phillips. He points to Rolex’s launch in late 2020 of a series of boldly coloured Oyster Perpertuals, the so-called Stella dial collection, as a galvanising moment. “Rolex was giving lifeblood to a tired reference, which suddenly was the hot watch. But they were very clever, taking a Swiss watch and moving it into the high-fashion market. You can match your car, handbag, bikini, sneakers to these watches and it just caught on.”

You can see the ripple effect of that moment in the 2022 glow-up Breitling recently applied to its 70-year-old icon the Navitimer, an airman’s chronograph that’s long shared the good-old-boy cultural cachet of things such as vintage motorcycles and leather flying jackets. For the anniversary year of this monochrome old-timer, Breitling unveiled a flurry of dial variants in distinctly non-trad, sorbet shades such as peppermint green, coppery pink and ice blue, along with more saturated options in deep blue and green.

“We’re at a very interesting period in the watch industry,” says Breitling’s head of design, Mr Sylvain Berneron, who has been watching Gen Z buyers coming swiftly of age. “On the one hand, they don’t want a carbon copy of what their parents or grandparents had and on the other, our norms are evolving. Working from home has democratised how we dress and that’s allowing people to wear less restrictive, more daring watches. It gives people the chance to show their personal taste like never before.”

Over the past decade, TAG Heuer has been notable for both earnest evocations of its 1960s motoring watches and a succession of talking-point technical pieces that burnished its manufacture credentials. Of late, though, it has been exploring fresh territory with energetic takes on its versatile, long-overlooked Aquaracer dive watch, including the major surprise of a solar-powered quartz version powered by Citizen’s Eco-Drive technology. Not long ago, that would have been unthinkable. Whatever brand guidelines TAG Heuer was observing in ye olde luxury before-times, the Aquaracer Solar is a step into the bold and brilliant beyond.

The old-school purists, those one-time tastemakers/pedantic cultural enforcers of the watch world, may splutter, but, according to Mr Christoph Grainger-Herr, CEO of IWC Schaffhausen, their tastes are changing, too, not least thanks to the influence of Instagram, where watches that make a simple, instant impact win out. “We are noticing even the more conservative ends of the market are increasingly demanding more casual and expressive styles,” he says. “Today, such designs are well received across the board, possibly also because they make an impact on social media.”

IWC is happy to serve them up. The company’s latest evolution of another dad-watch classic, its Pilot’s Watch Top Gun Chronograph, throws caution to the wind with colour-ups not just for the dial, but the ceramic cases as well, in novel shades of green, white or sandy beige.

“Our first experiments with coloured ceramics date back to the 1980s, but at that time the market was not ready for colours,” says Grainger-Herr, noting that black has been the default shade for the Top Gun range for ever and a day. “Now we’re taking the colour theme to a new level, technically and creatively. This is only possible in a market open to such eye-catching designs.”

To emphasise the point, IWC registered the new shades with Pantone, the colour arbiters. But it was the sight of Sir Lewis Hamilton breezily wearing a trio of the things all at once, including the sandy perpetual calendar version, that showed how the solemnity attached to such watches has become distinctly old hat. Right now, a watch ­– luxury or otherwise – is whatever you want it to be, to be worn however you want to wear it.

“A mechanical watch has become a piece of jewellery, and everyone accepts that, and we can charge it with emotions, great proportions, design, technology,” says Studer. “The pandemic has really helped us gain confidence in doing interesting or unexpected things. Suddenly everyone realised that the old concept of exclusive luxury was holding things back. Inclusive luxury is not about the object. It’s about the joy of the object. People have their own reasons for appreciating things, but the important thing is that it makes you smile.”

Rock the bright watch