The watch industry is inexorably connected to its past. After all, the complications we take for granted today were at one stage the cornerstones of horological innovation.
Perhaps that explains the continued interest in vintage-inspired and heritage timepieces – the stories that link today with yesterday. In any case, the incessant march of vintage watches across the stands of every major watchmaker is impossible to ignore – old school is very much the new school, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
But not all watches inspired by a heritage design are created equal. Delving into a brand’s archives or adding a rustique patina to a watch doesn’t always result in a successful timepiece.
The models that get it right may be inspired by a unique solution to a problem (the Carl F Bucherer Heritage Bicompax Annual, for example) or it may be a lighthearted take on a vintage watch that, in fact, never really existed (Tudor Black Bay P01).
Meet the contenders for the Heritage Watch of the Year below...
Breitling Navitimer Ref. 806 1959 Re-Edition
Breitling is Navitimer, Navitimer is Breitling: the definitive pilot’s watch has soared above the competition since it was unveiled to the world in 1952.
Its slide rule, basically a mechanical calculator, put the tool in tool watch thanks to its ability to work out speed and distance, currency and temperature conversions with a few turns of the bezel.
Add to the mix chronograph functionality and, needless to say, it became a mainstay of air force and commercial pilots from the UK to the Middle East.
Not just a vintage throwback but almost a carbon copy of the original
The highly collectible first Navitimer edition was the reference 806. Powered by a manual chronograph movement with column-wheel mechanism, mint condition models fetch a pretty penny at auctions whenever they appear. For mere mortals, rather than veteran collectors, they’re nothing more than a pipe dream. Or at least they were.
For 2019, Breitling has treated us to a re-edition of a 1959 Ref.806 model – not just a vintage throwback but almost a carbon copy of the original – and we’ve got to be honest we’re absolutely thrilled.
The watch brand has dusted off the old blueprints and finely combed the specs sheet to ensure practically every detail remains true to the original, to the point of OCD-levels of particularity. The beaded bezel, for example, features the same number of beads (94, thanks for asking) as the models produced exactly 60 years ago. Other design cues like the fonts, plexiglass crystal and the double-wing logo of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) are equally perfectly reserved.
The only difference you’ll find in this re-edition isn’t visible on the dial, but powering the watch within. The calibre B09 is a hand-wound chronometer-certified chronograph with a 70-hour power reserve. Why manually wound? This watch predates the advent of the automatic chronograph by ten years – it just wouldn’t sit right featuring the more modern style of calibre. You don’t get much more heritage than that.
For more info, breitling.com
Carl F Bucherer Heritage BiCompax Annual
The trouble with tool watches is that they’re not always as useful as they first seem. Slide rules are ingenious, but we’ve got iPhones and Google now, and dive watches are only helpful if you actually dive as opposed to keeping your watch on while you’re washing the dishes.
That’s why we’re such big fans of the Heritage Bi-Compax Annual – combining the highly practical chronograph and annual calendar complications in one charmingly vintage package.
In spite of their individual popularity, this is actually quite an unusual duo of functions, but you wouldn’t think so to look at the well-proportioned dial with big date window, 30-minute totaliser and seconds counter. Carl F Bucherer says it has drawn on the stylings of its 1950s and 60s watches to create the heritage aesthetic.
It represents significant value for a complication that doesn’t get the appreciation it deserves
The stylised Arabic numbers, the simple tachymetre scale and the syringe-style hands, it really is a great-looking timepiece, especially the panda-dialed steel version in that shimmering brushed silver.
The annual calendar is perhaps the surprise element here.
At a cost of £5,500 in steel, it represents significant value for a complication that doesn’t get the appreciation it deserves in the lower price point.
Seemingly kept in the shadows by the much-loved perpetual calendar, the only difference between the two functions is you need to manually set the annual calendar once a year (annual calendars do not recognise that February only has 28 days or 29 in a leap year).
For this much watch on offer, we’re more than happy to tweak our watch once a year.
For more info, carl-f-bucherer.com
Glashütte Original SeaQ
In the last decade or so, Glashütte Original has built a strong reputation for consistently producing elegant, traditional timepieces with immaculately made movements, but this wasn’t always the brand’s USP.
In the 1950s and 60s, when under the control of the German Democratic Republic as Glashütte Uhren Betrieb, the watch manufacture focussed its production on accessible utilitarian pieces made for action rather than ornamentation – a part of the brand’s history it intends to celebrate in the new Spezialist collection.
The SeaQ is the first watch introduced as part of this throwback, and it successfully caught our judge’s attention in a marketplace that has its fair share of vintage dive watches.
This piece is among our favourites released this year
Inspired by the Spezimatic Type RP TS 200 sports diver, it features a galvanic black dial with sunray finish and old-radium Super-LumiNova for that old-school touch.
The large Arabic numerals and hour indexes, and oversized hands are very indicative of the dive watches of the era, while the 39.5mm vas with integrated lugs is also a style we’re seeing come back to the fore in recent years as part of heritage pieces.
There’s an in-house developed automatic winding Calibre 39-11 movement with a 40-hours power reserve under the hood and a perfectly practical 200m water resistance. Whether you’re a keen diver or a fan of water-bound watches, this piece is among our favourites released this year.
For more info, glashuette-original.com
IWC Pilot's Watch Automatic Spitfire
IWC first designed a watch for aviation in 1936, but it wasn’t until the 1948 release of the Mark 11 that the wheels for the modern pilot’s watch were set into motion.
Early navigation pieces used by the RAF were quite accurate, but couldn’t withstand the more extreme elements – the Mark 11 was the answer to this problem.
Resilient to high and low temperatures, protected against magnetic fields to 70,000A/m, and with a high-contrast dial with luminescent indices, it was the perfect tool in the skies.
Fast forward to 2019 and a new semi-independent line of IWC pilot’s watches pays homage to this iconic watch. In comparison to the Mark XVIII and Big Pilot models, these watches are smaller and much closer to the aesthetics of the heritage pieces, with the Broad Arrow demarcation proudly displayed at 12 o’clock.
The Spitfire Automatic is the watch that has flown straight into our shortlist. Its stripped back design – not too dissimilar in look and feel to the old Spitfire cockpit gauges – and very capable in-house calibre 32110, which powers the watch for an impressive 72 hours at a high-beat 4Hz frequency, make for one of the best current examples of the pilot’s watch category.
For more info, iwc.com
Tudor Black Bay P01
For our money, Tudor are the undisputed kings of the daily watch. They’re tough, great looking and feature watchmaking far beyond their price point.
They’ve thrown us a bit of a curveball this year, but after some on-wrist testing we’ve come to the conclusion this piece is another hit, albeit without quite the same broad appeal as some of the other members of the Black Bay collection.
The P01 is what might best be described as a ‘unicorn watch’ - a watch that never existed beyond a filed patent in 1968 and the odd closely guarded prototype as part of the funky-named Commando program.
In the 1960s, Tudor’s R&D department was toying around with ways to mitigate the opportunity to accidentally knock or turn the bezel on its dive watches while in use; one nudge unnoticed could lead to a watery grave.
This piece feels like a great bit of fun
The research culminated in a mechanism set between the lugs that could clamp down on the bezel to lock it in place. To adjust it, you simply disengaged the clamp and you were free to move the bi-directional bezel however you saw fit.
For whatever reason, whether it be its complexity or simply the fact the likelihood of knocking the bezel catastrophically was too low, Tudor scrapped the idea and went on to produce some of the best dive watches on the market today. More than 50 years after that patent was first signed, however, the Commando project has come to life in the form of the P01 heritage piece.
The dial itself shares much of the same features of its Black Bay siblings - snowflake hands, circular indices and the red lettering of the water resistance - as well as the same very reliable MT5612 movement. But it’s all about that locking bezel system: flip the ‘claw’ of the mechanism at 12 o’clock and the bezel is free for you to move it, to lock it down simply push the claw back in place. It’s as simple and satisfying to use as it is slightly unnecessary altogether.
Still, we love this unique piece of Tudor history. Heritage pieces these days tend to be quite serious creations all designed to be as faithful to the original as possible (we’re looking at you, Breitling), but this piece feels like a great bit of fun that will no doubt draw in dive watch lovers and Black Bay fans alike.
For more info, tudorwatch.com