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Comparing the evolution of watch design of two periods: 1949-1969 and 1999-2019

The idea for this article stemmed from when I was drunk in isolation in March finishing my piece about the evolution in watch design. During this explorative period I learnt so much but couldn’t necessarily include everything I wanted in that article, it was already nearly the size of my dissertation!


One facet that wasn’t included was just how some periods compared with others. Therefore, I thought I would write an article comparing a period with probably the most drastic evolution in design with a period consisting of probably the least drastic changes.


The two decades between 1949 and 1969 saw huge societal and cultural change. A renewed perspective after 3 decades of war lead to attitudes becoming far more liberal and tolerant. An explosion in the mainstream use of psychedelics meant we saw the evolution in fashion from conservative post-war drab to the vibrant bohemian style of the 60s; We saw the evolution in music from Swing and Big Band of the 1940s to the conception of Rock and Roll with The Doors, Cream, The Who and The Rollingstones; We also saw an evolution in car design from large billowy tradition post war cars like the Jaguar x120 to sexy, sleek streamline machines of the 1960s like the Lamborghini Miura and the Porsche 911. This rapid progression and rethinking also affected watch design where the industry went from very conservative small case dress watches with single colour dials, yellow gold cases and leather straps to steel diving watches, racing watches with multi-coloured dials and chronograph watches with automatic movements.



A great example of 1950s conservative design. 34mm steel case, off white dial, minimalistic battons and hands (Source: Ebay)


In contrast, this is an example if a more colourful dial and contemporary case shape. This Breitling Breitling Top Time from the early 70s demonstrate my point excellently, if I don't say so myself. (Source: Breitling.com)


Prior to the 1950s, for the most part, watch making had made its priority utilitarian tools for war. Once the war effort had ended watch makers could begin to get the creative juices flowing again. However, the initial uptake was slow as many watch makers had to rebuild after prioritizing simple, steel, time telling devices. As a result, the 50s designs were very typical of monochromatic dials and indices albeit with slightly more extravagant case shapes and materials. However, the progression in the 60s was dramatic.


First, you had large case, chunkier steel diving watches on an all steel bracelet. Blancpains initial design of the Fifty-Fathoms was immortalized by Rolex’s adaptation and soon enough these big steel diving watches were worn by everyone from profession divers to James Bond.


Then, you had colour. Colour was brought into the world of watch making. Panda dial chronographs for Rolex and Heuer was a revolution breathing a more sporty and striking vibe into a previously conservative a dressy piece of jewelry. This was continued by the likes of Breitling with their colourful Top-Times. All in all there was a shift to the colourful and away from the conservative. This coupled with the race for technical innovation that saw automatic chronograph watches at the end of the 60s meant that the difference between a 1969 Heuer Monaco and your standard 1950s Heuer watch was stark. The former being a bigger, bolder and far more technically advanced beast.



The original piece on the left is the Heuer Autavia form the late 60s with a contrasting dial. This Panda Dial, as it later became known, was revolutionary in watch design and a stark comparison from the watch design of earlier pieces from the same brand.


When you compare this evolution to that that we saw in the first two decades on the 21st century, it’s hard to think of any major landmarks and pick up on any characteristics that would differentiate a 2019 watch from a 1999 watch. Watches have definitely gotten bigger but by the turn of the century Breitling and IWC were already making 42mm+ diameter watches. In 1999 the market was already a mix of quartz and high end chronometer movements. One could point out that the last 5 years has seen a big drive towards companies making their movements in-house but that is not as exciting as Heuer making a tri-coloured square watch with an automatic chronograph movement in it is it? One could argue for the rise in popularity of very high end watches made from bright and novel materials such as Richard Mille and a number of crazy AP Royal oaks and Omega speedmasters made of ceramic however Richard Mille released their first line in the late 90s so that point is null and void also. In fact the only argument you can really make is how the use of novel materials has become much more prevalent to the point where most major brands have some manufactured pieces made of ceramic or some new patented material like Everose or Sedna Gold. However, this use of materials doesnt represent a stark evolution in design that makes one piece recognisably from closer to 2019 or 1999.


Calum Moore

Co-Founder and Editor

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