In 1957 you could buy a Rolex Submariner for $150. If you adjusted that for inflation, you’d find that comes out to about $1,290 today. A modern Submariner starts at $7,500. The fact is, most watches that were birthed during the ’50s and ’60s as tools for divers, pilots, racers, etc. (like the Submariner) have evolved due to what A Blog to Watch founder Ariel Adams refers to as “luxurification” — quality and price escalations that, somewhat ironically, saved the Swiss mechanical watch industry from an influx of cheaper, more accurate quartz watches during the ’70s and ’80s.
Today’s watches are made with better, more durable materials and levels of detailing and finishing have increased. Parts that were once stamped are now milled. Dials that were once printed are now made with applied, three-dimensional markers. Watches have, for the most part, grown in size, in some cases to accommodate new movements or simply to accommodate the tastes of their wearers. And that’s all to say nothing of the improvements in finishing and engineering made to the aforesaid movements inside.
That’s all to say, you can still buy iconic, mid-century tool watches brand new today — but, while the basic designs may remain, they aren’t quite the same. Which watch is better, between the old and new, is up to your tastes. While some may appreciate the durability and dimension of a new watch, there’s something to be said for the simplicity of the originals (not to mention, in many cases, the lower price tags).
So, to help you to decide, we’ve gathered vintage and modern versions of three icons — the Breitling Navitimer, the Omega Speedmaster Professional and the Rolex Submariner — and compared them side by side to see how much has actually changed.
Breitling’s Navitimer has been around for 64 years now, and, on the surface, little has changed between the 806 reference from 1970 and Breitling’s new Navitimer 01. The same reverse-panda color scheme, three-sub-dial layout and slide-rule bezel are still there. Little details like the triangle at twelve o’clock, the arrow at the tip of the seconds hand and font on the slide rule look almost identical, as well.
While the newer 01 takes a step up in case diameter from its forbear (43mm, with a 46mm variant, compared to 41mm), the big difference, visually, is the depth of the dial. While the hour markers and logo are printed onto the older Navitimer 806, on the new 01 they’re applied (bonus points for a logo in gold). The outer ring on the 01’s slide rule is more pronounced, taking on a concave shape, while the 806’s is flat. Of course, the 01’s overall thicker shape (a hefty 14.25mm) accommodates an in-house automatic, while the older Navitimer’s movement is a hand-wound Valjoux 7740.
Omega Speedmaster Professional
If you bemoan that “they don’t make ’em like they used to,” take comfort in the fact that the Omega Speedmaster Professional hasn’t changed since the late ’60s. Seriously: the new and vintage Speedmasters are identical, apart from small visual differences like the smaller bracelet links and bolder text on the vintage Speedmaster. Everything else — the Hesalite crystal, the 42mm case, the dial — is the same. And even though Omega is outfitting most of its lineup with its Co-Axial movements, both the 1980s and 2016 Speedmaster Professionals use Omega’s hand-winding caliber 861, first introduced into the watch in 1968.
In the words of Hodinkee founder Ben Clymer, the Speedmaster Professional is “the only watch that I can think of that is still produced the same way, with the same case proportions and dial design, with almost the same caliber that it was in the late 1960s.” It’s easy to assume this is a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The Speedmaster’s use during the 1969 Apollo 11 mission is one of the most famous stories in the watch industry. Changing the iconic timepiece that went to the moon and back isn’t in the interest of Omega or the folks who want to buy a piece of that history.
Rolex aficionados know that while the Submariner hasn’t changed drastically over the years, it’s the minutiae and quirks of various references that set the old and the new apart. By the time the reference 5513 (pictured) was launched in 1966, the Submariner had begun to take the basic shape of the version you can buy today — crown protectors were added, and the case size was bumped up from 37mm to 40mm. The 5513 also has a more minimal dial, with markers that are printed rather than applied. Yet while the basic shape and size are the same as today’s Submariner, the case is overall more lithe and shapely with rounded chamfered edges, while the crystal forms more of a dome than the modern watch.
Last year Jeremy Davis, the founder of Tempus Machina — a boutique watch brand that custom shapes modern Rolexes to look like vintage pieces — told me in an interview that Rolexes today don’t have the same shape and feel as vintage pieces because the process to make them has been optimized for both durability and efficiency. “Rolex as a brand had to move away from those things to mass produce watches that could stand up to the test of time and be accurate,” he said. “Rolex is about evolution.”