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Back to the Future: The Issue with Heritage Watch Re-Issues

by Jonathan Ho on April 3, 2017

There’s safety and comfort in utilising human fondness for nostalgia, and J.J. Abrams, director of the latest trilogy of Star Wars movies knew this all too well. Over the course of The Force Awakens, from how it opened with a plucky droid making his escape on a desert planet bringing information vital to survival of the Rebellion Resistance (initially received by this author as hat-tip to viewers who grew up with the original franchise) to later scene for scene re-creations of George Lucas’s original genre-breaking sci-fi trilogy like the all too familiar long shot of desert scavenger Luke’s Rey’s speeder crossing the hazy sands, things started to go from saccharine to repulsively diabetic. With the recent Baselworld 1957 2017, many brands are risking the same dangerous gambit which Abrams pulled; The issue with Heritage Watch Re-issues is very much analogous to what the movie industry faces today (given that The Mummy has been remade, The Matrix is in the process of being remade, let’s not even talk about Ghostbusters): at what point does the act of incessant mining of familiar archive territory tip from sweet to ridiculous?

Back to the Future: The Issue with Heritage Watch Re-Issues

“I suppose it all boils down to money and profit. Companies are in the business to make money, and knowing that remakes, reissues, or whatever they are called, are guaranteed to make them money is reason enough.” – Watch Collector Dantan, on the phenomenon

First, allow us to preface – tapping on and re-treading familiar territory isn’t itself a potential minefield. With Rogue One, Gareth Edwards showed us the possibility of a post-Abrams Star Wars universe which was familiar yet original. Sure, there a few ham-handed cameos (e.g. what the heck where R2 and C3P0 doing on Yavin when they are supposed to be on Leia’s ship; creepily plastic CGI Leia, etc) but mostly, the movie was well-received, especially when it spent the last 30 seconds correcting a franchise-dooming flaw in their main villain – to wit, it’s analogous to when watchmaking brands either don’t go far enough when it comes to a heritage watch re-issue or it goes too far.

Issue 1 with Heritage Watch Re-Issues – Mirroring and Mimicry can become a crutch

When it comes to The Force Awakens, Abrams’ choice to “mirror” or “story tell in homage” began to grate on the nerves of many critics once the initial warmth of nostalgia wore off. By the time Rebel Resistance starfighters were making their way to mount a nigh impossible attack on the Death Star Starkiller base while a daring group of protagonist saboteurs laboured to bring the shields down, the movie started to teeter on the line of respectful homage and into satirical parody. One could almost be forgiven to wait for the immortal line, “That’s no planet, it’s a Starkiller.”; thus therein lies the first issue with heritage watch re-issues, watchmakers are dealing with a decidedly limited form of emotional currency depending on amount of emotional resonance generated from legendary watches of a bygone era. Nevertheless, there’s still some assurance that these re-issues will still titillate and excite a generation of watch collectors who perhaps missed their chance of acquiring a legend or unwilling to put down exorbitant premiums for a pre-owned, questionably maintained, potentially franken vintage watch for an aesthetically respectful heritage watch re-issue but for how long? In time, this crutch becomes double edged, because one never really knows how much emotional currency is left before it runs out and collectors start to wonder if a brand has lost or is in the process of losing the cutting edge design and innovation which featured once so strongly in a brand’s history and heritage.

A masterclass in how heritage inspiration works

For Baselworld 2017, Patek Philippe is proving to be one of the few adept masters of the heritage watch re-issue. The Patek Philippe Ref. 5320G Perpetual Calendar looks a little different from perpetual calendar references you’ve grown accustomed to, it’s because the new Patek Philippe Ref. 5320G Perpetual Calendar is thoroughly inspired by a myriad of elements from vintage Patek Perpetual Calendars from the 1940s and 50s, the sort sought after by collectors’ watches that rarely show up at auctions even.

Patek Philippe, 5320G

When it comes to the new Patek Philippe Ref. 5320G Perpetual Calendar, perhaps it’s easier to start with the similarities – the layout is reminiscent of the Ref. 2497, so are the windows for day and month and moonphase aperture with date but beyond that – the new Patek Philippe Ref. 5320G is like a watch geek’s fertile ground for easter egg hunting. Eagle eyed fans will spot the luminous syringe hands inspired by the ultra rare Patek Philippe steel perpetual calendar ref. 1591 and the ref. 1463.

What made Star Wars: A New Hope insanely successful was that Lucas borrowed his muse from a myriad of charming elements from other genres – the mysticism and bushido code of samurai, dogfights of world war 2, the story of a hero’s journey. What Gareth Edwards does is a little more highwire because while Lucas borrowed from movies in no way related to Star Wars to create a never-before-seen masterpiece that was still rooted in familiarity, Gareth Edwards made Rogue One with full awareness and the historical inertia of the Star Wars franchise and still pulled off an original movie. In this instance, the Ref. 5320G is analogous to Rogue One. That said, we have also seen how dangerous this maneuver can be as well.

Issue 2 with Heritage Watch Re-Issues: Sometimes, the danger is that your market is not completely familiar with every vintage reference in your repertoire

Jewellery brands often fall into this trap – when you’re talking about decades or centuries of craft – consumer memories are notoriously short, to that end, there’s often accusations of Cartier copying Bulgari or Bulgari copying Cartier when it comes to [insert animal motif] or [innovation] when there are tomes of vintage archives showing sketches of common if originally conceived designs.

 

During the last 2 years, some of our favourite brands have been satirised by unfiltered industry commentator ShameOnWrist and while we will not offer any commentary as to the controversies raised by the watches and the watchmakers themselves, it is readily apparent from the responses of the market that there is indeed some disconnect at times between what is genuinely in a brand’s heritage (as in the case of Patek’s Calatrava Pilot) and what’s not, leading to a whole avenue of potential misunderstanding and satire. At the heart of this matter is that consumers risk nothing in critique of a new novelty while the brand bears all the risk of conceptualisation and production.

“Bentley is a subsidiary of VW and Rolls of BMW. They both make wonderful vehicles but we need to dispense with the romantic visions we have of them being these independent shops who do remarkable things the big guys can’t/won’t do and thus produce superior product. The marginal improvement you get in materials, finish, performance, etc in a $400k rolls vs the BMW 7 series/Benz S-Class, Audi 8, etc is not nearly worth the $250-300k price difference. The prestige though, is incomparable.” – j_s_de_talleyrand, watch collector, making a full-throated defence of Patek’s Calatrava Pilot

 

Issue 3 with Heritage Watch Re-Issues: You force consumers to choose between innovation and provenance but also potentially cede ground in terms of mindshare and brand perception

Some collectors liken this to a watch lover’s “Sophie’s Choice” – where you have to weigh the sum of the history behind a particular watch with the novelty and groundbreaking innovation of something entirely new. Back in the good old days, this wasn’t much of conundrum, sure, you’d have similar critics much as in the day when the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak first debuted to mixed reception but at least watches like the Nautilus, Royal Oak and Submariner sat in an environment of similarly new-ish watches of the period as well.

In an economic environment like the one today, fraught with uncertainty, how is a collector supposed to choose between something like the Heritage Black Bay Chronograph versus the heritage watch re-issue Heuer Autavia? While the new Autavia is an absolutely wonderful chronograph with vintage good looks and a grand history to boot, without its heritage as a racing instrument, it becomes an arguably less compelling timepiece. On the other hand, the new Black Bay Chronograph offers a technically interesting if collaborative COSC-certified column wheel chronograph with vertical clutch without the allure of nostalgia at a compelling price point. In raw economic terms, will consumers reward Tudor’s risk and vote with their wallets? Or will they take to the safe haven and comfort of the familiar Autavia? And the comments with regard to the Heritage Black Bay Chronograph are telling as well, there is a sizeable group of collectors who would have prefered that a new Tudor Heritage Chronograph similar in execution to the beloved Monte Carlo was re-issued.

Would you have preferred a Tudor Monte Carlo re-issue over a Black Bay Chronograph?

 

Would you choose the Heritage Black Bay Chronograph over the Heuer Autavia?

 

 

In covering this Baselworld 2017, I am often reminded by Anton Ego, the journalist-critic from the movie Ratatouille. Consumers (who wield critical power by way of wallet) and watch-journalists (who wield critical power by way of pen) share parallels to Mr. Ego: “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the *new*. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.”

That said, I’m really not looking forward to Star Wars Episode 8: The Force Strikes Back The Last Jedi.

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