ou may have noticed: the industry is awash with icons, the latest to date being the Freak by Ulysse Nardin, winner of the GPHG (Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève) “Iconic” award. Enough to leave collectors and enthusiasts feeling somewhat overwhelmed.
Clearly the situation warrants perspective. Let’s take an example: the Omega Speedmaster.
I remember interviewing Michele Sofisti, the then boss of Omega, for the 40th anniversary of the Speedmaster’s launch, leading with the words “Forty years old and still going strong!”. The conversation revolved around the connection between the Speedmaster, NASA and the whole lunar experience. At the time, the brand was turning over around CHF 500 million and producing between 500,000 and 600,000 watches annually. As Michele Sofisti said: “Our two objectives are the quality of the product and the message delivered to the consumer.”
Twenty-five years later, on the eve of its 70th anniversary, the Speedmaster is as powerful as ever. What has changed are production volumes and turnover, both considerably greater, as well as the message. While the Moon landing is still at the heart of communication, the Speedmaster isn’t so reliant on this crutch. Whatever the version, the Speedmaster has acquired a different dimension to become one of the few genuine classics. A must-have for any watch enthusiast.
The example of the Speedmaster lays the groundwork for the subject of “icons”.
The global watch sector is, beyond any doubt, highly competitive with a multitude of brands – from the powerhouses with an image and production volumes to match right down to micro-brands – and a huge and diverse choice of products across the entire spectrum. However, closer scrutiny reveals that a large majority of the watches launching each year drum up very little interest. They have a limited lifespan, kicked into touch by the handful of models (and brands) that have cornered the top spots. Ten? Fifteen? Very few, that is for sure.
- Pascal Brandt’s article on the Speedmaster’s 40th anniversary, published in 1997 in Europa Star. A quarter of a century later, Brandt asks what is (and isn’t) an icon: a concept that has spread through the industry.
- ©Archives Europa Star
One word: icon
“Icon” is on everyone’s lips and in every press release. But while everyone claims to have their icon, a certain number of intangible parameters define the framework of what makes an icon: as the Speedmaster demonstrates.
An icon is a watch with an existence that can be measured in decades. Created in the twentieth century, the few true icons have come through the years without faltering, have retained their original design and substance, and are as much in demand now as ever (a fact testified, in a few well-known cases, by prices on the parallel and pre-owned markets).
Obviously, only a very few watches have achieved this status. Some (not all) have seen their popularity explode, bucking every contemporary design trend. Others, despite having several decades on the clock, are not considered to be icons. Longevity alone is not enough to reach this absolute summit.
Models, not brands
Another important point, alongside lifespan, is that icons are models, not brands. They are the handful of archetypes which have reached this envied and objectively recognised status to which planet watch aspires.
What sets these models apart? They are rooted in a specific moment in history or associated with a certain event, and this is reflected in a particular function or a design that instantly matched with that period. These models transcend trends and are positioned outside the industry’s often short-lived dynamics. An icon is impermeable to the changing whims of fashion, whether this means design, materials, colours or any other feature.
Worn on the Moon or for a polo match, inspired by First World War tanks, an allusion to a fictional submarine, the reference for divers or an evocation of a certain royal tree, these models ride a wave of uninterrupted success but do not exist in splendid isolation. Not all of them, at any rate.
Because it happens that an icon becomes a hyper-model which in certain cases – not all, obviously –, relegates the rest of the collection to the role of also-ran and labels the brand as a one-trick pony. It’s not an easy trap to get out of, when the product is better known than the brand, as some have found out, having milked the cult of the mono-product beyond any reasonable limit.
Attempts to loosen the vice by extending and promoting the range come up against the exaggerated and paradoxical weight of… the icon.
When watch fans (whatever their level of knowledge or number of years collecting) talk about icons, the name of the model will always come first, before the brand. “I really want a Speedmaster.” “There’s a seven-year wait for a Submariner/Daytona.” “The Nautilus has taken off on the parallel market.” “I’m waiting for them to bring back the Tank Américaine.” “I got the back of my Royal Oak engraved.” Etc. etc.
End of story? No. Beyond the smattering of proven icons, unanimously accepted as such, a small number of brands evidently misuse the term. Models launched within the past few years declare themselves icons but have yet to prove themselves in the long run. Previously absent from watch parlance, the icon is a fast-growing phenomenon and never more so than in recent years.
Who can blame them? The icon is tied in with the powerful neo-vintage trend that continues to rule watchmaking, except at those brands at the top of the tree, the majors whose name needs no mention. For many others, hammering home the icon message, riding the coattails of a distant past, can be the difference between “make” and “break”. Because a watch becomes an icon, by definition, over a long period of time without losing any of its desirability and therefore commercial appeal.
For those brands whose hour of glory is behind them, reactivating models introduced decades ago is simply an attempt to latch on to what is currently a lucrative trend and, in doing so, reprofile the brand or at least keep its head above water. Good luck with that…
Last of all, there are icons and icons. There are the tried and true; the ones we know will retain this status, but they are a tiny minority compared with all the others. Those that will never be icons no matter how long they have been around, and those which claim to be part of this elite before they have even reached their second birthday. Suffice to look at the hot-right-now pre-owned/second-hand market or the parallel/grey market, where just three to four models account for the lion’s share of sales.
For all the other contenders, rendezvous in a distant future.