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Vintage Wristwatches For Sale From The 1960s
The 1960s were a very interesting time for the luxury Swiss watch industry. The previous decade had been one of enormous success. Production figures had been at an all time high with the quality of movements by Omega, Rolex, IWC, Zenith and Jaeger LeCoultre being of a standard that would have been impossible to achieve in the pre-war era due to the limitations of manufacturing technology at the time.
The first half of the 1960s was essentially a continuation of what we’d already seen in the 1950s. There was some polarisation of the market, with most of the major houses offering a selection of masculine, chunky sports models with a typically diving or aviation theme while also strongly catering for those with more classical tastes. Both steel and gold cased models were equally popular, with those in gold tending to be found less often today simply because, being significantly more costly when new, they were bought in the first instance in smaller quantities.
Dials, case shapes and hands were not noticeably different from those of the 1950s. However, when we open up the majority of watches manufactured in the second half of the 1960s, we can immediately see that the quality of finish present is cruder and less refined than it would have been even five years earlier. Fully automated production lines had been introduced on a widespread basis to the Swiss watch making houses with the consequence that in some instances, the creation of finished movements could be achieved with scarcely any touch of human hands.
It would be very misleading to suggest that there was a universal decline in quality at this time. This simply wasn’t so. The highest grade of Swiss makers, the products of which are the specialities of this website, kept a consistent standard of quality and retained the same degree of hand craftsmanship that they’d always done in the past. But it is important to appreciate that further down the price ladder, where movements by lesser Swiss makers made in the 1950s were often actually surprisingly well finished, they were now very plain and non-descript. When buying a watch built post-mid 1960s by a less well known maker, it is vital that close up photographs of its movement be studied in order that an accurate assessment as to the standard of finishing present can be made.
By 1969, after a decade of playing second fiddle to Omega in terms of market share, Rolex had finally achieved the pole position in the marketplace that it still occupies today. The outline shape of its waterproof Oyster models was unchanged from the previous decade, but the movements in these were continually and subtly upgraded to take advantage of any advances that had been made by Rolex engineers. Rolex quality at this time was impossible to fault, as was, in fairness, that of close competitors Omega, IWC, Longines, Jaeger LeCoultre and Breitling.
A very interesting chapter in wristwatch history took place in the late 1960s that is sometimes referred to by collectors as “the war of the frequencies”. It had always been known that, all else remaining unchanged, the faster the oscillation rate of a movement’s balance wheel, the more accurate that movement would be. The movements found in vintage watches from the 1920s through to the early 1960s typically ran at 18800 beats per hour, but developments in production processing and, more importantly, lubrication technology meant that by the mid-1960s, the top tier Swiss makers saw the potential to increase market share by offering faster running movements that had previously been thought possible. 28800 beats per hour was reached relatively early on in the race, with the apex being the creation of mechanisms that ran at a lightening fast 36600 beats per hour, a figure that is still remarkable even forty years later. Girard-Perregaux was the first to offer a 36600 movement but the other key players clambered to follow suit. The fast beat era reached its apex in 1967, when no less than nine different makers exhibited movements running at 36600 bph on their stands at the annual Basle show, and came to an end, overtaken by events, certainly by 1973 or ‘74. Ironically, what killed the concept of the fast beat movement wasn’t any inherent problem, but the fact that battery powered quartz movements, which were just around the corner at this point, would at a stroke render any such drive for extreme accuracy in a mechanical movement irrelevant. Even the cheapest quartz movement sold on the forecourt of the local garage would offer a level of precision timekeeping that the fastest mechanical movements couldn’t begin to hold a candle to. Looking at these fast beat watches today, they stand out as some of the most technically spectacular products that the Swiss horological industry has ever created. Reliable, fascinating from an engineering perspective and rare in worthwhile condition, they are important pieces that represent a unique and brief period in the evolution of the luxury wristwatch. We make a deliberate attempt to have several for sale on this website at all times, particularly those by Girard-Perregaux, Longines, Movado and Zenith, which stand out as being among the very best of their type.
We can’t conclude an article concerning the 1960s without at least a passing mention of what most people would regard as mankind’s most spectacular achievement to date, this being the Apollo moon landing of 1969. As many of the readers here will be well aware, Omega Speedmasters were worn on the wrist of the astronauts for this event after having been selected following a gruelling, literally destructive in some cases, selection process by NASA. The use of its watches was an enormous publicity boon for Omega and one that Rolex simply couldn’t compete with at the time.
After six decades of occupying an almost monopolistic position, the Swiss watch making industry ended the 1960s with an uncomfortable feeling that, quite correctly, ominous black clouds were amassing over its cosy, and very profitable, world. There had been electronic movements in the 1960s, some of which, like the very early Girard-Perregaux and Jaeger LeCoultre models, are extremely important historically and very sought after now, but these hadn’t yet made a major impression on the market. The next phase of development, the quartz movement, would literally revolutionise the industry and, as we’ll see in the following decade, leave every one of the traditional Swiss factories fighting for survival. The 1960s represent the calm before the storm and certainly, there were some superb watches built then that make very worthy inclusions in a serious collection today.