Looking back at previous decades is one of the most fun things to do. It’s a great opportunity to revisit and rediscover those moments that came to define an era. In this series, we will be focusing on watchmaking by the decade. This time, we’re heading back to the 1990s – an era that redefined mechanical watchmaking in the aftermath of the quartz crisis and laid the groundwork for watchmaking as we know it today. So, without further ado, let’s dive into the era also known as the “The Good Decade” and explore some of its defining watchmaking moments.
As we entered the 1990s, the quartz movement had a stranglehold on the watch industry. But there was a glimmer of hope on the horizon because mechanical watch sales were slowly on the rise. In the mid to late 1980s, a number of brands like Rolex, Patek Philippe, and IWC decided to maintain their focus on mechanical watch production. At the same time, some other brands – such as Blancpain and Ulysse Nardin – were acquired by third parties and resurrected to become part of the mechanical watchmaking elite.
A Growing Interest in Vintage Watches
These brands’ loyalty to mechanical technology was supplemented by a growing interest in vintage chronographs like the Rolex Daytona and Breitling Navitimer among collectors. This renewed fascination began in the late 1980s in Italy. Italians are a stylish people, and the specific interest in vintage chronographs was in part due to the renewed popularity of aviator fashion. A nice vintage chronograph was the perfect companion for leather bomber jackets and aviator sunglasses. The trend quickly spread all over the world, and in the early 1990s, many came to appreciate the Daytona for the mechanical watchmaking icon it is.
The Comeback of German Watchmaking
After the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification of East and West Germany, German watchmaking made an incredible comeback. Five brands quickly reestablished Glashütte as the heart of German watchmaking. A. Lange & Söhne, Glashütte Original, Union Glashütte, Mühle Glashütte, and NOMOS Glashütte would spark a renewed interest in German watchmaking. The most prestigious of the five is A. Lange & Söhne, who introduced the legendary Lange 1 back in 1994. Today, this model is widely regarded as one of the most iconic watches and serves as the poster child for a revived German watch industry.
The 90s were also the decade that big movie stars introduced luxury watches to the public, especially oversized wristwatches. Sylvester Stallone stumbled upon a Panerai boutique in Florence, Italy while the filming Daylight in 1995. He decided to buy a Panerai watch, which you can see him wearing in the film, and also ordered another 200 pieces to give away to friends and people who worked on the movie. This would trigger Panerai’s global rise in popularity.
One person who received a Panerai from Stallone was none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger. However, Schwarzenegger could often be spotted wearing a different watch at this time: The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore. This model premiered in 1993 and was marketed as the Royal Oak for a younger audience. It was massive in both diameter and thickness – a perfect fit for someone like Schwarzenegger, who helped popularize this timepiece by wearing it so often.
The James Bond and Omega Partnership
For something a little more refined, we turn to the James Bond movie franchise and its very successful partnership with Omega. In 1995, Pierce Brosnan made his debut as the new James Bond in GoldenEye. In the movie, 007 dons a quartz Omega Seamaster 300M. He would eventually switch to the mechanical Omega Seamaster 300M Professional Chronometer in subsequent films. Today, this timepiece is known as the “Bond watch” and considered a modern classic.
Watches and Music
During the 1990s, we also saw the meteoric rise of hip hop, which also contributed to an increased interest in luxury watches. Flashy watches were the final touch to any respectable rap or hip-hop artist’s outfit. One of the first brands to rise to prominence on the wrists of successful rappers was Jacob & Co. However, many rappers soon started referencing other brands like Rolex, Audemars Piguet, and Franck Muller. The relationship between watches and hip hop has only strengthened with time and multiple companies have teamed up with rappers on numerous occasions.
The Era of Grand Complications
In the 90s, many traditional brands chose to show off their unrivaled watchmaking prowess by producing highly complicated mechanical timepieces. The craze was triggered by the release of the Patek Philippe Calibre 89 pocket watch in 1989. Patek created this timepiece in celebration of the company’s 150th anniversary.
After that, the floodgates were open as other brands followed suit with their own now-iconic masterpieces. For example, IWC presented their first wrist-ready “Grand Complication” at Baselworld 1990. In 1992, Blancpain released their 1735 Grande Complication. That same year, Ulysse Nardin unveiled the Tellurium Johannes Kepler. All these high-end releases showed that watchmaking was not only alive but also thriving.
However, for me, the grand prize goes to the IWC Il Destriero Scafusia from 1993. This model had a limited run of 125 pieces in honor of IWC’s 125th anniversary. The final timepieces rolled off the production line in 1999, around the time my interest in watches took flight. I was amazed by the Il Destriero Scafusia. Not only had IWC crafted an incredibly complicated watch, but they had also managed to make it look incredible.
The Il Destriero Scafusia was one of the most talked-about watches of its era. It defines everything I love about watches and the state of the industry in the 1990s: a growing love for incredible craftsmanship and amazing design that reminds us of how great mechanical watchmaking truly is. The 1990s were the decade during which mechanical watchmaking returned to its rightful place in the spotlight, and that spotlight has only grown brighter ever since.