A Great Era For Super-Watches
The 1970s saw the arrival of eight great timepieces that look even cooler in the 21st century .
Avocado bathroom suites, mutton chops, jumpsuits, Boney M – there’s a lot about the 1970s we laugh at now. The creative freedoms of the 1960s gave way to a decade of unrestrained experimentation, producing some of history’s most regrettable – sometimes downright ugly – designs and style statements.
So much of what we now consider cool from the 1970s has had to travel through the time machine of irony; it’s gone out of style before it’s come back in. Watches have proved the exception. Somehow, the decade of overgrown hair and bell-bottom flares produced some of the greatest and most enduring watch designs of all time.
One explanation for this is that the 1970s heralded the dawn of the luxury steel sports watch, a look that has since become the go-to for discerning watch-wearing gentlemen. At the start of the decade, the idea that a luxury watch could be made of steel was anathema – luxury meant gold, and nothing else. But with the talents of the industry’s first legitimate watch designer, Mr Gérald Genta, coming to the fore, that all changed.
Mr Genta, the decade’s watch designer nonpareil, broke with convention, producing code-busting models – many of them in stainless steel – that successfully challenged the status quo. Designs created by Mr Genta and his peers weren’t universally popular initially, but in time they came to represent the height of masculinity – unlike handlebar moustaches and velour.
Watches such as Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak would come to define the period, the brands they represented and watchmaking cool. Here are eight 1970s super-watches that style-savvy gents today would do well to add to their wristwatch wardrobe.
01. IWC Ingenieur Automatic
IWC’s first Ingenieur of the 1950s had been a round-cased, classic-looking piece that followed all the conventions of the time. In 1976, the company turned to Mr Genta and asked him to reinvent the most utilitarian watch in its collection. The result was the Ingenieur SL, a beefy steel watch on a steel bracelet with a sharp, angular case and a round bezel. Mr Genta’s design stuck and lives on in the Ingenieur Automatic, a black-dial beauty.
02. Cartier Santos 100
Cartier’s contribution to gentlemen’s wristwatches began in the early 1900s, when Mr Louis Cartier created a watch for his Brazilian friend, Mr Alberto Santos-Dumont. Mr Santos-Dumont was a pioneer aviator, and he asked Mr Cartier to make him a watch he could wear when piloting his madcap planes. In 1904, Mr Cartier delivered the Santos, a watch now considered the first true gent’s wristwatch. After a lengthy hiatus, it was revived in 1978, taking the form of the original, only bulked up in line with the heavier, more overtly masculine design tropes of the 1970s. It’s since become one of Cartier’s most iconic timepieces, not least in its bicolour Santos 100 guise, which was released for the model’s centenary.
03. Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Extra-Thin
Back in 1972, when the Royal Oak first appeared, it was dubbed the “Jumbo” because its 39mm case was then considered unconventionally large. Audemars Piguet’s octagonal-bezel watch was also the world’s first luxury steel watch, and more expensive at the time than some of Patek Philippe’s gold watches. For both reasons, and no doubt also because of its frank rejection of traditional design values, Mr Genta’s most famous watch was shunned initially, gaining traction only after it was spotted on the wrist of 1970s Fiat boss and style maven Mr Gianni Agnelli. Mr Genta’s original is reborn in this ultra-thin automatic.
04. Patek Philippe Nautilus Ref 5711/1A
Judging which 1970s watch design is the best is a wonderfully subjective business, but you’d be hard pressed to argue against Patek’s Nautilus. One of Mr Genta’s trio of enduring 1970s luxury sports watch designs, its steel case is more fluid than either IWC’s Ingenieur or Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak, giving it a louche, rakish charm the others don’t have. The original’s look lives on in the oceanic black-blue dial and steel case of this particular model.
05. Zenith El Primero Original 1969
Zenith’s El Primero Chronograph was supposed to launch in time for the brand’s centenary in 1965, but it took Zenith longer than planned to perfect it, and it wasn’t released until 1969. It was worth the wait. The case came to define the best of 1970s design: a taut, straight-edged, industrial silhouette with a softer round bezel. The latest interpretation of it is the more classic 38mm El Primero Original 1969, which comes complete with the grey, black and blue sub-dials of its famous forerunner.
06. Omega Speedmaster MkII
Omega’s iconic Speedmaster Professional Moonwatch was never made to go into space, unlike the Speedmaster MkII, which the Swiss watch company designed with NASA. Together, they streamlined its case, tucked its bezel away under crystal and added an integrated steel bracelet. But NASA’s finest were a superstitious bunch, who wanted to stick with the original Moonwatch, making the MkII a watch that was designed to go into space but never did. It was revived and upgraded last year and still has that Space Race retro-cool vibe.
07. Rolex Explorer II
Rolex’s Explorer first appeared in the 1950s, and was named in honour of Sir Edmund Hillary’s Everest climb. It was followed in 1971 by the Explorer II, which had a black dial with a second-time zone function indicated by a fixed bezel, and a 24-hour night and day scale. It was bigger and more stylised than its famous forebear, and a confident expression of 1970s modernity. That original look has been updated three times since, but always within the basic form. The last of those was in 2011, bringing a larger, 42mm case, while retaining the oversized orange, arrow-tipped GMT hand first seen almost 45 years ago.
08. TAG Heuer Monaco Calibre 11 Automatic Chronograph
TAG Heuer’s sports chronograph met with indifferent reviews when it was launched in 1969, due to its square case. But its prospects were jump-started when Mr Steve McQueen wore it in the 1971 epic Le Mans (which also met with indifferent reviews initially). A modernised version of this watch was released in 1997, but the period design quirks of the original – left-sided crown, horizontal hour markers, red-tipped hands – have only now returned to TAG’s core collection in this 39mm automatic (ignoring the limited-edition 40th anniversary piece of 2009). The new watch restores much of the original’s mystique. While instantly recognisable, the Monaco will remain far from ubiquitous, unlike many iconic pieces with a similar price point.