IWC Schaffhausen, Reference 5101

IWC Schaffhausen, Reference 5101

Nostalgia for a Golden Age of Elegance

New York Times, March 23, 2011

GENEVA — To celebrate the reintroduction of its Portofino collection of classic, gentlemanly wristwatches, the Swiss brand IWC Schaffhausen welcomed 900 guests in late January to a warehouse adjacent to the airport here.

An elaborate set transformed the space into a sun-drenched piazza on the Italian Riviera, complete with red gingham-covered tables; food stations, groaning under the weight of antipasto platters; and bow-tied waiters pushing carts of gelato.

Although the Portofino line made its debut in 1984, when the mechanical watch industry was still rising from the ashes of the quartz crisis of the previous decade, the gala, much like the watches it feted, recalled the halcyon days of the 1950s.

As a crowning touch, IWC had arranged last May for the photographer Peter Lindbergh to shoot 13 A-list celebrities — including the actors Cate Blanchett, Kevin Spacey and Matthew Fox; the soccer player Zinédine Zidane; the model Elle Macpherson; and the film director Marc Forster — on the set of a fictional film production in the picturesque harbor town of Portofino, Italy.

The resulting black-and-white photographs, positioned at the entrance to the gala, depicted the cast living la dolce vita in period costumes that could have been lifted straight from the set of the TV show “Mad Men,” which is set in the early 1960s — all part of the brand’s meticulous effort to evoke “the classic simplicity of that time,” said Gianfranco D’Attis, president of IWC North America.

IWC is not alone in its nostalgia for the postwar exuberance of the mid-20th century. In recent months, numerous brands have introduced models that directly trace their lineage to watches created during the 1950s and early 1960s.

“It was the golden era of modern watchmaking — the decade that changed everything,” said Benjamin Clymer, executive editor of Hodinkee.com, a blog for watch enthusiasts.

Indeed, no other period has cast a longer shadow on contemporary designers. Take the new Historiques Arondes 1954 timepiece in 18-karat pink gold by Vacheron Constantin, for example. Introduced at the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, a high-end watch show that provided the occasion for the IWC party in Geneva, the rectangular model, distinguished by a curved case, embodies the refined aesthetics associated with the period.

“They were just discovering the jet era,” said Christian Selmoni, Vacheron Constantin’s artistic director. “It was the apex of something elegant.”

Prestige watch manufacturers across Switzerland appear to have gotten the memo. In Geneva, Parmigiani Fleurier introduced the Tonda 1950, an extra-flat self-winding watch in 18-karat rose gold, while Panerai name-checked the decade with its Luminor Marina 1950 3 Days, an automatic watch rendered in 21st-century brown synthetic ceramic.

While the classic strokes of midcentury design have influenced marketers from all walks of life, nowhere is that era’s lasting impact more obvious than in the sports watch category. Many notable sports styles created then, like the Rolex 1953 Submariner, the first diving watch, which was water resistant to 100 meters, or 330 feet, and the Omega Speedmaster, a modern classic introduced in 1957, remain in production today. “A lot of the models that appeared in the ’50s still look very contemporary,” said Jean Paul Girardin, vice president of Breitling, which has produced its Navitimer chronograph since 1952. “We cannot say that about watches from the 1970s or 1940s.”

Apart from a few concessions to modernity — larger diameters, chief among them — the timeless round watch of the 1950s is the basis for several noteworthy introductions slated for the Baselworld luxury watch fair opening this week in Switzerland.

Breitling, for one, is heavily promoting its new Transocean Chronograph, a limited edition pilot’s watch that pays homage to a model first marketed in 1958.

“The name is a tribute to the Boeing 707 and the DC-8, the airplanes that regularly started to cross the Atlantic on commercial flights,” Mr. Girardin said.

Omega’s big push this year is behind the Ladymatic collection of mechanical timepieces for women, introduced at an event in Beijing in October. The line has its roots in a 1955 collection, “when the whole concept of making ladies mechanical watches” had its heyday, according to Stephen Urquhart, the president of Omega.