The Grumpy Collector: We didn’t start the fire: When is a watch vintage, classic, retro, or antique?

Billy Joel told us time is relentless in his song “Two Thousand Years” (on the much maligned but I think endearing album, River of Dreams). Who am I to disagree with the bard from the Bronx? As I turned 40 last year, it’s gotten me thinking about time, how we define things, and much more broadly than just the tiny sliver we all occupy.

In collecting circles for other hobbies, there are firm demarcations that help create proverbial bookends to eras. Some of these are delineated by advances in technology. Think of Porsche. I can’t think of a more timeless or classic car than the 911. But ask any collector and the line in the sand of how all things are measured in the Porsche-universe is when they introduced the fifth generation of the 911 in 1997, the type 996. It sported the first water-cooled engine. Most considered it heresy or sacrilege at the time, heck many still do! The era of air-cooled engines was over. In turn, collectors typically fall into one of two camps, the earlier air-cooled (let’s say “vintage” for lack of a better word) 911’s, and the later more technology and performance oriented water-cooled Porsches. Today, there are clubs and events that cater to both. The world can be divided nicely into yin and yang, light or dark, or black and white.

In the world of high fidelity (hi-fi) and audiophiles, and those concerned with the reproduction of sound at it’s best, there are really three generally accepted eras, analog which includes the heyday of vinyl records, along with then the much suckier yet far more portable media of the 8-track and cassette tape. Then came the digital era of the compact disc ushered in by Sony in 1982. In this digital era we also enjoyed our music via MiniDisc, DVD-Audio, and Super Audio CD (SACD). Now we are in the streaming era, which I define as beginning somewhere around the launch of the iPod in 2001 and the founding of the various streaming platforms like Pandora in 2005, SoundCloud in 2007, and Spotify in 2008.

So what can German sports cars, turntables, and Napster teach us about vintage watches? And when we say a watch is an antique, retro, classic, or vintage, what do we really mean? To find an appropriate song by Billy Joel to describe this situation we unfortunately have to turn to, “Shades of Grey”. The common definition of an antique is anything 100 years or older. By this definition only the very first wristwatches made around the turn of the 1900’s could be considered antique. This is probably for the best since no watch collector wants to have their collection of wristwatches considered antiques for fear of having to replace their wardrobe with tweed jackets, corduroy pants, and horn rimmed glasses. Antique clocks = cool, antique watches = the jury is still undecided.

Retro is an interesting term, since something new is considered retro if inspired by the past. The word literally is a prefix used to infer going backwards. Who doesn’t love a retrograde minute or date hand on a watch. If you don’t know what I mean, do a quick search for “Longines Retrograde” and feast your eyes. So what this really all means is, if you see a cool 1970’s Zenith El Primero, calling it retro would be wrong, but calling the new model made today inspired by the old one as retro is correct.

Classic I like to think of as a term that is timeless (did I just write a pun?), where there isn’t a set passing of time required. A great definition is anything can be considered a classic when serving as a standard of excellence. But others also throw into the definition, something is classic when judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind. Whose standard and who is doing the judging is what sows doubt immediately. To me a classic is something we collectively know is good without having to think about it. A Rolex Daytona is classic. A Linn Sondek LP12 turntable is classic. And Billy Joel’s song, “Piano Man” is a classic. So are the terms instant classic or modern classic an oxymoron? I don’t think so if something can universally be championed as a classic without much dissent when originally released. Take the Pontiac Aztek crossover by General Motors. It became a classic turd of a car almost immediately. In the watch world, the example that stands out in my mind was when the A. Lange Söhne Lange 1 was released. A classic accepted universally among watch enthusiasts almost immediately.

So how does then vintage come into play? We toss around words without thinking much about the actual meaning or context. Vintage is a loaded term and means very different things to different people and also changes its meaning depending on the context. Some like the clear rule of anything older than 50 years and younger than 100 years (pre-antique so to speak). Personally, I think this is a horrible definition. For instance, a vintage of wine describes a specific year of production. It could be last year or 30 years ago or 100 years ago. And some vintages are much more regarded than others (I’ve always been a huge fan of 1982 vintage port, but that’s another story). Vintage cars are usually regarded as those made around 1919 to 1930, pre the “classic car” era. In hi-fi, vintage typically refers to tube equipment and speakers from the 1960’s and 70’s. Context changes everything when using the word vintage.

But nowhere else does the term vintage wear so many different hats and definitions than in the world of watches. Much like cars and hi-fi, the history of the collectible helps us put a definition on it, albeit still a loose one. Applying a one size fits all mentality to a term like vintage for watches doesn’t take into account the watch collecting community taste and preferences, macro industry trends, and technology advancements into account.

So the best place to start is reviewing some key dates in the history of watches, your mileage may vary in what dates you consider important, but these are a few of mine:

  • 1931 – Rolex introduces the first self-winding mechanism with a perpetual rotor, the category of “dress watch” grows.
  • 1953 – Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reach the summit of Everest wearing Rolex watches and Rolex introduces the Explorer. The Rolex Submariner is also introduced. The “tool watch” is born.
  • 1970 – Pulsar introduces the first LED display watch, Seiko is already firmly making quartz watches. The quartz crisis or revolution (take your pick) begins.
  • 1983 – Swatch is founded, making collecting watches cool again for a new generation.
  • 1995 – TimeZone.com is founded. First watch collector website forum is started.
  • 1999 – WatchTime magazine publishes its first issue. Watch information continues to shift to more consumer vs industry driven.
  • 2008 – Hodinkee.com is founded.
  • 2012 – Pebble is the largest kickstarter funded project and first mainstream smart watch.

So with this new knowledge I declare the following:

  • Antique watches – those made before 1931
  • Classic watches – those made between 1931 and 1953
  • Vintage watches – those made between 1953 and 1982
  • Modern watches – those made after 1983 to present

To end where we started with Billy Joel’s song “Two Thousand Years”, perhaps in that amount of time we will have these definitions clearer. Until then, I hope this helps add some discourse to the discussion and I can’t think of anything more fitting than ending with a few words from his song:

This is our moment
Here at the crossroads of time
We hope our children carry our dreams down the line
They are the vintage

What kind of life will they live?
Is this a curse or a blessing that we give?


Note: Thoughts, opinions, “facts”, and overall outlook on life are those of The Grumpy Collector and not necessarily of WATCHA staff, readers, or generally most sane people. Have a gripe you’d like to share or have profiled by The Grumpy Collector? Contact the grump himself, Troy, at: thegrumpycollector@watchwatcha.com.  You can also find him festering on Instagram @TheGrumpyCollector)

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