The 1960s was an interesting era for mechanical watchmaking, punctuated by several significant events that would have a major impact on the industry for years to come. Most of the decade was spent consolidating and improving on models introduced in the 1950s, a period of great innovation, particularly with regard to tool watches – think diving watches, pilot watches, etc. You can read more about some hidden treasures from that period in this article. The focus on refinement is why many people refer to the 1960s as a golden era of watch design. That’s not to say there weren’t several new and notable models also introduced during this period; there certainly were, and we will be discussing them shortly.
Rolex opened the decade by strapping a specially-designed Rolex Oyster prototype to the hull of Professor Auguste Piccard’s “Trieste” bathyscaphe, hitching a ride 35,800 feet (10,916 m) down into the Mariana Trench. This successful, record-setting test paved the way for the eventual launch of the Rolex Sea-Dweller, which made its debut in 1967. Two years later, in 1969, an Omega Speedmaster accompanied Neil Armstrong as he took his historic first steps on the Moon. This would give birth to a whole new legacy (and countless model variations).
That same year saw concurrent launches of the first self-winding wrist chronographs. These included models from Heuer (the Monaco), Breitling (Chrono-Matic), Zenith (El Primero), and Seiko (the 6139). This was arguably one of the most important developments in modern watchmaking history. Incredibly, it was soon followed by another major development – one that would ultimately cripple the industry for the next decade. In the last week of 1969, on December 25, Seiko unveiled the Astron, the world’s first quartz watch. This was a major win for the Japanese watchmaker, who had spent most of the decade in fierce competition with a consortium of top Swiss brands – including Patek Philippe, Piaget, and Omega – to develop the first quartz wristwatch. The Swiss version, the Beta 21, made its debut the following year at the Basel Fair, but that’s a story for another day.
As you can see, there was a lot happening in the 1960s. However, away from the spotlight and the major stories and releases everyone knows about, there was also a number of cool timepieces that made their debuts in this decade. Some were completely new, while others were variations of existing models. Interestingly, some of the latter category are now considered more desirable (and collectible) than the original models they evolved from. Let’s take a look at a few examples.
Jaeger-LeCoultre Memovox Polaris 1968 Edition
Jaeger-LeCoultre introduced the Memovox series in the early 1950s. Ask any collector worth their salt to name the one they would love to own, however, and the answer will likely be the 1968 Memovox Polaris. Unveiled in 1965, the Polaris series built on the success of the 1959 Memovox Deep Sea, the first diving watch with a mechanical alarm (itself a very cool and collectible watch). The Memovox Polaris introduced a patented triple case back to optimize underwater sound transmission, and most collectors seem to agree that it took JLC a few years to get this then-new technology just right – hence the obsession with the 1968 edition. Reportedly, only 1,714 of these watches were ever made, making them even more sought after. In 2018, 50 years after the launch of the original, Jaeger-LeCoultre used the 1968 edition of the Memovox Polaris as inspiration for its new Polaris collection.
Glashütte Original Spezimatic
Another lesser-known icon of the 1960s is the Glashütte Original Spezimatic. During the Soviet occupation of East Germany after World War II, all remaining watch companies in Glashütte were nationalized into the state-owned VEB Glashütter Uhrenbetriebe. Without access to outside suppliers in West Germany and Switzerland, the members of VEB were forced to develop and manufacture everything in-house, including relatively basic components such as jewel bearings and balance springs. This was a time-consuming process, which meant the rate of development lagged behind the West. As such, the Spezimatic represented a major milestone as it housed the Glashütter Uhrenbetriebe’s first automatic movement, the GUB 74. Measuring just 4.4 mm high, it allowed for a slim case profile and was considered a robust and reliable timekeeper ideally suited for daily use. There was also a version with a date, the GUB 75. Glashütte Original has since revived these models in its Sixties collection, embodying the retro style popular at the time.
Grand Seiko “Diashock”
Japanese watch manufacturer Seiko turned the mechanical watchmaking world on its head at the end of the 1960s with the introduction of the first quartz wristwatch, but that only represented the capstone of what had already been a very busy and successful decade. It all started with the unveiling of the first Grand Seikotimepiece, which launched exclusively for the Japanese market in 1960. This was a bold move by Seiko, putting them in direct competition with Swiss luxury watch brands. Quality, finishing, and precision: The watch had everything it needed to be elevated to a whole new level. The central three-hand time display with baton markers for the hours was typical of the era – a time when people wanted one watch they could wear for all occasions. Just above 6 o’clock, the words “Diashock, 24 jewels” are inscribed on the dial, referencing the manufacturer’s proprietary shock absorption system. Fast forward 60 years, and Grand Seiko has become an entire brand unto itself, coveted by watch lovers everywhere. Unsurprisingly, the company has since done several popular re-issues of the very first Grand Seiko model.
Another company very active in the 1950s and 1960s was Favre-Leuba. A small, family-owned business – like many Swiss watch brands at the time – the company had earned a reputation for its robust and rugged tool watches. In 1963, Favre-Leuba unveiled the Bivouac, the world’s first mechanical wristwatch with an aneroid barometer for measuring altitude and air pressure. This enabled professional climbers to not only determine their current altitude but also get a pre-emptive indication of changing weather conditions, critical information when you’re on the side of a mountain and deciding whether to continue on or take shelter. Today, this super cool model lives on in the Favre-Leuba collection as the Bivouac 9000, the first watch capable of measuring altitude anywhere on the planet.
These are just four examples of some of the lesser-known “hidden treasures” of the 1960s, a decade marked by consolidation and innovation. While many famous legends were also born during this period, such as the Heuer Carrera chronograph and the Omega Seamaster 300, for whatever reason, other 1960s vintage watches don’t always get the recognition and respect they deserve. This is likely in part due to the fact that many of the small, family-owned brands/companies that created them ceased to exist in the decade that followed – casualties of the quartz crisis. Likewise, a number of the timepieces introduced during this period were evolutions of existing models or ideas, but in my opinion, that doesn’t make them any less interesting or significant in the overall landscape of modern watchmaking. If you’re willing to do the research and look hard, you can find some really cool hidden gems worthy of your attention – and oftentimes for less money than you might expect.