Op-Ed: Are ‘80s Watches Due For a Comeback?

Watch collecting trends are a fickle thing, aren’t they? Those of us who are well entrenched in the hobby tend to settle into our respective categories; we find a niche or style or ethos that suits our interests, and we generally remain within that orbit. That said, there are certain collectors who constantly pivot towards what is “popular” or having a moment. We all have that one friend who talked about how he would never be caught dead wearing a Vacheron Constantin Overseas only to see him with a blue dial 4500V on his wrist after it became the new hypeboy favorite.

I bring this up with one particular idea scratching at the back of my mind. While still a long stretch from mainstream, it seems somehow that the watches crafted in the years surrounding my birth (yes, back in the ‘80s) are starting to make the odd appearance both in auction catalogs, and in the social media feeds of a handful of noteworthy collectors.

By no means am I an expert in the vintage world, but I have been around long enough to sniff out a good trend. In part, I owe my instinct to none other than auctioneer extraordinaire Aurel Bacs — love him or hate him, Bacs is sharp as a tack when it comes to things like this. Some 7 or 8 years ago we had a lengthy chat about what can best be called the “next best thing” theory. A prime example would be the spike in vintage Heuer prices when Daytona’s got out of hand, or the aforementioned rise of the Overseas when Royal Oaks and the Nautilus hit unobtainable levels. There’s a threshold where the acquisition of a certain halo model becomes impossible at what the broader market would call a “reasonable” price. That number could be six figures, or it could be lower depending on the watch and its perceived market value. 

Price chart courtesy of Watch Pro

The point is, these price spikes leave a mass of buyers out in the cold, with a still very reasonably sized heap of cash in their pocket. Where does it go? Well, we’re collectors so it doesn’t go back towards something responsible. More often than not, we find something with similar characteristics and quality, that gets us close to the watch we originally wanted but can no longer afford.

It’s safe to say that the collector scene for watches from the ‘70s and earlier has exploded over the last decade, primarily in the past five years or so, to be fair. Remember the days of a $3,000 Heuer Autavia, or a $1,000 LeCoultre Memovox? Oh how times have changed!

All this to say, we aren’t entirely doomed. The energy and weirdness of ‘80s style has already started to influence some high profile runway shows that appeared throughout 2023, and watches aren’t far behind. What a lot of people forget is that while the watch industry was technically in crisis mode, there were still lovely mechanical watches being produced. Ignoring Rolex (because basically any era of Rolex has some semblance of desirability) there are lots of great options from the 1980’s. The Tudor Big Block series was produced throughout the decade, and while, yes, it has a Valjoux 7750 ticking away inside, there weren’t a ton of options out there and Tudor wasn’t going to be able to afford to contract Zenith the way Rolex did with the Daytona.

This was also the decade of curveballs, for lack of better terminology. It was the decade in which the “Nautillipse” — the Patek 3770, and the first “Nautilus Case” to receive a quartz movement — was introduced. It was the decade that saw the addition of a moonphase complication to the beloved Speedmaster. Perhaps even more interesting is that the ‘80s were the peak of the Kurt Klauss era at IWC. While his tenure stretched from the ‘50s all the way into the 2000’s, his push to bring mechanical watchmaking into the limelight in the ‘80s is wholly responsible for the strength of IWC today. It was 1985 when his modular perpetual calendar Da Vinci came to market, and let’s also not forget the wild 46mm dress watch he released in 1981, fitted with the manual wind IWC caliber 9521 pocket watch movement.

Long story short, while there are certainly some designs from the ‘80s that are best left forgotten (I’m looking at you shoulder pads…), once you scratch the surface there are plenty of interesting, odd, and historically significant watches that are worth chasing, should you be tired of the same old vintage hit-list.

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