Watches: why were so many desirable timepieces born in the Fifties?
Lots of today’s most desirable watches were born in the era of cars like the Mercedes 300SL. Here’s why
The Fifties was a bumper decade for the car industry. Tail fins proliferated in the US as aircon, power steering and electric windows went into production cars for the first time, while in Europe the Mercedes 300SL and Aston’s DB4 GT both beat the magic 150mph barrier. The leap forward in the watch industry was just as big.
There were some technological breakthroughs, like early electronic watches that laid the ground for the quartz revolution of the Seventies. And a load of earlier inventions were made mainstream, as anti-shock and anti-magnetic movements, along with chronographs and self-winding movements, became increasingly popular. But the main development was a flourish of post-war style. Increasing demand for luxury watches gave companies freedom to invest and expand their offering, and the Fifties saw the introduction of models that caught the public imagination so much that they are still made today.
Such releases included Rolex’s Explorer, Submariner and GMTMaster, Omega’s Seamaster and Speedmaster, along with Breitling’s Navitimer, Blancpain’s Fifty Fathoms and Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Memovox. What do they have in common? They are all Swiss. Watch factories elsewhere were repurposed to concentrate on the war effort, but neutral Switzerland kept supplying watches to anyone who would buy them, and by the Fifties its already dominant watch industry had left competitors in the dust.
One country that did a lot better than you might think was Japan. As hostilities switched to Korea and the brewing Cold War, Japan received ‘special procurement’ contracts from the US, that saw money flowing into the country in return for acting as a rear supply base to US forces. This was instrumental in Japan’s postwar boom and both car and watch companies benefitted – the hugely successful Toyota Crown and Nissan Bluebird were introduced in the Fifties, Citizen unveiled Japan’s first water resistant watch, setting it up for a future as a diving watch specialist, and Seiko shifted from making its own versions of watches from other countries and started on the path to becoming an independent watchmaker.
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