How to identify vintage classic watches like a pro
Then & Now
With good design, as a rule, we often don't need to see the brand to know what the object looks like. Think the Porsche 911, the Chanel 2.55, an Eames chair... With watches it's the same. You don't need to see the words Jaeger-LeCoultre to know it's a Reverso, you don't need to see the word Omega to know it's a Constellation. And you never need to see the word Rolex to know it's an Oyster Perpetual.
But did you know that the Rolex Oyster Perpetual didn't always look like this?
Rolex Oyster Perpetual
The superlative chronometer was created almost a century ago in 1926 and was credited as the first true waterproof watch ever made. Worn by Mercedes Gleitze as she swam across the English Channel, it opened up a world of possibilities for the humble wristwatch.
Rolex named it the Oyster because it was so completely and utterly watertight, just like the shellfish. With a solid 904L steel (or 18K gold or 950 platinum) case, the Oyster Perpetual also has a fluted case back, a fluted bezel and a screw-down crown. You see it on all Rolex watches, with the exception of the Cellini models.
This classic combination however took several decades to evolve. At the very beginning, the Rolex Oyster came in a cushion-shape. That model also had ornate fleur-de-lis hands, loop lugs, a fluted bezel and a fluted onion crown. It then morphed into an octagonal shaped case for a few years, before adopting the more familiar tonneau shaped case with a round bezel combination.
Incidentally, this was also when Oyster became Oyster Perpetual – referring to the self-winding capability of the movement. Today, the Oyster Perpetual is synonymous with Rolex across both its dress and sport range.
Corum Admiral's Cup
Likewise, the Corum Admiral's Cup has a strong visual identity thanks to its 12-sided case marked with colourful nautical pennants. This watch got its name from the biennial international yachting regatta and is all about maritime pursuits albeit above-water. Corum came up with this watch to commemorate the first Admiral's Cup race and at that point it was remarkable for being one of the rare few waterproof square-cased watch.
Hang on. Square? Since when was the Admiral's Cup a square-shaped watch? Isn't it best known for the dodecagonal case?
Since 1960 apparently. So the first Admiral's Cup event started in 1957, and Corum started operating just two years before in 1955, which meant that the Admiral's Cup was one of Corum's very first watch collections. And also, it's longest running one.
In addition to the square case, the early Admiral's Cup also didn't have the nautical pennants, having Roman numerals instead and very elegant baton hands. What linked it to the yachting world was the engraving on its back. In retrospect, this model looks perfectly on-trend today, so if you see it in a vintage store someday, don't walk out without it.
This year being the 50thone after the 1969 Moon landing, there's no way we can avoid talking about the Omega Speedmaster Moon Watch. Worn by the astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Apollo 11 space module, the Speedmaster's classical good looks is literally the stuff of legends.
Several Moon Watch and Omega experts have spoken on the asymmetrical lyre lugs which help keep the case elegant while protecting the pushers and crown.
The Speedmaster was also known for being the first sporty timekeeper that placed the tachymeter scale on the outside of the dial. You'll see that it has the scale around the bezel. But this version came around only during the 1960s. The very first Speedmaster looked a little less sleek.
Launched in 1957, the original Speedmaster had a tonneau case with a bracelet that's integrated with the lugs. The tachymeter scale is outside of the dial yet not like how the later models that have it on the bezel. While it may be chunkier than the later models, this series holds a special place among Speedmaster fanatics.
IWC Da Vinci
Truth be told, the IWC Da Vinci has gone through more facelifts than the average watch. It started out tonneau in 1969 and then went for round sometime in the 1980s. Then in 2007 with the arrival of a new creative director it embraced the tonneau again. But then 10 years later it went back to round, with models that would attract both men and women.
The current Da Vinci is defined by soft, smooth curves and articulated lugs that wrap the strap perfectly around the wrist. Detail-oriented watch nerds just love poring over the stepped bezel, genteel crown and pushers, and refined numerals. It's a big leap from the original even though those articulated lugs have been dutifully preserved.
And an even greater chasm divides it from the angular, oversized original which was also quartz powered. Indeed, IWC along with several other companies during the late 1960s invested heavily in quartz technology because it was perceived as the future of watchmaking.
Today of course IWC is 100 per cent mechanical. But again if you ever come across any of these battery-powered vintage watches at a great price, it wouldn't hurt to give it a whirl.
Franck Muller Cintrée Curvex
Think Franck Muller and it's almost a given that you'll start seeing images of curved tonneau shaped watches with loud colourful numbers. But before the brand became so synonymous with the Cintrée Curvex case, it actually made its grand complications in regular round cases – just like 95 per cent of the brands in the world.
The world premieres that made Franck Muller famous cemented his reputation as a Master of Complications. But it was only till the turn of the millennium that the one-of-a-kind Cintrée Curvex case was finally designed. These days, while connoisseurs appreciate the technical virtuosity of the brand, an equal number of fans love it for the crazy colours and outrageous designs.
Bell & Ross BR03
Everybody loves the Bell & Ross BR03, but none more so than designers of any kind - fashion, graphic, interior, you name it. There's something primordial about the square case with a round dial that speaks to our lizard brain. In spite of its utter lack of curves, wearing that solid chunk of metal (or sometimes carbon or ceramic) feels like the most natural thing in the world.
Of course the BR03 didn't start out so darn good looking. Like the majority of all watches in the world, it began life as a round watch. With a generic case, generic lugs and a generic crown. The only thing that really stood out about the BR03 in the early days was the oversized hour numerals and hands. In fact, until it adopted the square case, it was just called BR123. It was only in 2005 that the brand created the square series that eventually made up the BR03 collection.
Today Bell & Ross embraces both the modern BR03 and the vintage BR123 collections, having done both watches in a range of colours, styles and materials.