The vintage watch market has been heating up for close to a decade now, with prices for popular models surging reaching new heights. However, there’s still a number of hidden treasures to be discovered. In this article, we’re taking a look at the 1950s, a decade that birthed many great vintage watches. We’ve selected three lesser-known models for your consideration.
Hidden Treasures: Vintage Watches from the 1950s
When it comes to vintage watches, the 1960s and 1970s are often referred to as the golden era of watch design. But to really understand and appreciate the development of modern mechanical watches, you have to look back further to the 1950s – a decade marked by a relentless focus on improving the quality and precision of mechanical watch movements. The seeds for this development had already been sown in the previous decade, when the extensive use of wristwatches in World War II sparked the need for improved accuracy and reliability. That said, the brands’ ability to really explore this was somewhat limited by wartime restrictions. As the new decade dawned and advances were made in machine tools, companies were able to manufacture components more precisely than ever before.
It didn’t take a genius to see the commercial potential of this developing trend. All the major Swiss houses began focusing their production efforts on manufacturing extremely accurate chronometer-rated models. Contemporaneous advertising also helped fuel public interest, proclaiming the results achieved by a particular model in chronometer tests and independent accuracy trials. The accompanying text provided further information on the latest technological developments. This is a far cry from most watch advertising we see today, which generally features a brand ambassador (usually a celebrity), wearing the latest model and little else.
Of course, back then, watch brands didn’t really use celebrity ambassadors – at least not in the way we think of them now. While there were movie stars and famous musicians in the 1950s, the real heroes of this era (as far as watchmaking was concerned) were the explorers, scientists, and innovators achieving epic feats and shaping the world around them. Arguably the most famous example of this is the 1953 British Mount Everest expedition. On May 29, 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay successfully reached the summit of the world’s highest peak for the first time in history.
Rolex sponsored the expedition and gave each member an Oyster Perpetual to wear during the trek. Apparently, the idea was to return the watches to Rolex afterward for extensive testing so they could understand how the movement reacted to the extreme conditions. Hillary supposedly left his at base camp – for reasons unknown. Instead, he wore his own personal English-made Smiths De Luxe. Norgay, however, was wearing his Oyster Perpetual when they reached the top. In the end, it didn’t really matter. Rolex is one of the best marketeers in the world, which is why everyone’s heard of the Rolex Explorer and nobody has heard of Smiths other than hardcore collectors and enthusiasts. That’s not a bad thing, mind you. It just means you can pick up really great vintage Smiths watches for not much money.
That conveniently leads me to my next point: A number of highly-collectible vintage watches trace their origins to the 1950s. During this decade, Rolex introduced the Explorer, the Submariner, the GMT-Master, and the Milgauss. Breitling debuted the Navitimer, Blancpain the Fifty Fathoms, and Omega the Seamaster, the Speedmaster, the Railmaster, and the Constellation – and that’s just to name a few. But – and here’s the point I want to make – there’s a number of lesser-known examples from what were also exceptional brands at the time that offer great value for money, compelling history, and genuinely cool designs. The reality is, however, that many of these brands succumbed to the crushing pressure of the quartz crisis in the 1970s. As a result, they were either sold off to larger brands or disappeared completely.
Here are three examples with very cool backstories. Due to the inherently shorter lifespans of these brands, finding good examples requires some patience. Although they were generally mass produced, there are not that many in circulation, relatively speaking. Keep in mind that, while these models have their origins in the 1950s, you can also find interesting evolutions of them from later decades.
Enicar Seapearl 600
Founded in 1914 in La Chaux de Fonds, Switzerland, Enicar soon became popular and widely distributed in Eastern markets like Russia and China. The unusual name comes from the brand’s founder, Ariste Racine (Enicar is Racine’s last name spelled backward). After WWII, Enicar began producing its own movements in house, with a strong focus on making reliable yet affordable tool watches. It was around this time – the 1950s and 1960s – that Enicar really hit its stride. As was popular at the time, the manufacturer had its first movement certified as a chronometer by the Neuchâtel Observatory in 1954.
Most collectors are particular interest in the Enicar Seapearl 600, and for good reason. Like a number of other tool-watch focused brands at the time, Enicar wanted to get its products into the hands (and onto the wrists) of explorers and adventurers. In May 1956, Enicar provided Seapearl watches to the Albert Eggler-led Swiss expedition to climb Mt. Lhotse and Mt. Everest in the Himalayas. Following this successful expedition, Enicar began referring to Seapearl models as the “Everest watch” or the “Sherpa” in their advertisements.
The biggest coup for the brand and model – and one of the reasons why collectors love it today – came in 1958/59 when the US Navy’s Experimental Diving Unit (EDU) included it in official testing alongside the Rolex Submariner 6538 and Blancpain Fifty Fathoms MIL-SPEC 1. The Seapearl 600 was already in (non-issue) use by many Navy divers at the time due to its relatively low cost and high performance. In fact, according to the 1959 Navy EDU “Evaluation Report 1-59,” the Enicar outperformed the Rolex!
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Nivada Grenchen Antarctic
Founded in the 19th century, Nivada was another brand to rise to prominence following World War II. Again, the company’s focus was the production of high-quality and extremely robust tool watches for explorers. Perhaps the greatest marketing decision Nivada ever made was to produce a watch specifically to accompany Admiral Byrd and the US Navy on their 1957 expedition to Antarctica. The mission codename? Operation Deep Freeze. This was part of a larger initiative called the International Geophysical Year (IGY), set in place by a group of about forty countries, including the US, Soviet Union, and most of Europe in 1957/58. With the shared goal of advancing scientific exploration, these countries worked together to explore the Earth’s poles, climb the tallest mountains, and advance space exploration.
Given brands’ strong desire to be associated with science, adventure, and exploration, it’s not surprising that several wanted to be involved with the IGY. The Antarctic model created by Nivada Grenchen was water-resistant, anti-magnetic, and renowned for being able to withstand just about anything the extreme conditions of Antarctica could throw at it. That’s not bad for a model that looks more like a dress watch than a hardcore tool watch. Upon its successful return, Nivada Grenchen touted the Antarctic’s exploits heavily in its advertising material, resulting in the watch becoming immensely popular.
Nivada wasn’t the only watch manufacturer involved with the IGY, of course. Most famously, Jaeger-LeCoultre sent its Geophysic Chronometer with the USS Nautilus nuclear submarine on its journey under the North Pole in 1958. That watch was reissued by the brand a few years ago and remains immensely popular with collectors and enthusiasts alike.
These days, the name Universal Genève is pretty well known, at least in vintage watch collecting circles. This is in large part thanks to Hodinkee’s Ben Clymer, who wrote extensively about the brand’s Compax models when he was first starting out. While those models now trade at sometimes eye-watering prices, it’s still possible to get a great example from this collection designed by Gérald Genta. Simply turn your attention to the Polerouter, formally known as the Polarouter, which was the inaugural model designed by then 23-year-old (and relatively unknown) Genta in 1954.
As SAS’s (Scandanavian Airlines Systems) official supplier of watches, Universal Genéve was commissioned to create a watch to commemorate the airline’s direct polar flights from New York/Los Angeles to Europe. This was a major achievement, as no commercial airline had ever flown over the North Pole. To make it possible, SAS had to develop an entirely new navigation system to overcome the extreme magnetic fields at the Poles. There was also the issue of magnetic interference on timekeeping, including on the watches worn by pilots.
Universal Genève already had a reputation for their work with anti-magnetic timepieces. What they needed was a design that would suitably mark this momentous occasion – and that’s exactly what Genta gave them. The 34.5-mm round case featured bombé lugs and a dateless dial with a textured inner index ring. What really made the Polerouter popular, however, was when Universal Genève introduced its new 215 micro-rotor movement – among the first of its kind – in 1955. With lots of variations to choose from, the Polerouter is a great and remarkable affordable option from this storied brand.