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We Just Found the Perfect Gift for Watch and Design Lovers

Funky midcentury watch design can be bizarre and captivating, and it's beautifully presented in this hardcover book.

retro watches book review
Zen Love

Retro Watches, $20.22

Sometimes a watch grabs your attention because of its quiet dignity and mechanical elegance. Other times, a watch's design simply blows your mind. It's the latter type — the design-focused timepiece — that's the subject of the 2020 book Retro Watches: The Modern Collector's Guide by Josh Sims and Mitch Greenblatt, a horological safari through the late 1950s, '60s and into the 1970s. For $20 or so, you just found the perfect gift for the watch or design lover in your life.

Retro Watches comprises over 100 watches from Mitch Greenblatt's own personal collection. Greenblatt not only collects the quirkiest vintage watches he can find, but he's the creator of the website watches.com (formerly Watchismo) that sells affordable modern watches with unique designs, mostly from independent brands. He also started his own appropriately avant-garde watch brand, Xeric. Taken together, there's no ambiguity about his approach to horology as a pursuit that should be fun and exciting more than stuck in conservatism.

While Greenblatt has been collecting such watches for over 20 years, there's probably never been a time that's more receptive to the experimental designs of yesteryear than the present. The watch industry of 2020 is firmly in the grip of vintage and rerelease fever, drawing from the '60s and '70s in particular, but Greenblatt helps show that there's even more depth and breadth to the era than is represented by modern reissues. Yeah — watchmakers got more than a little far-out back then.

retro watches book review
Zen Love

You might open Retro Watches to find, say, a Pierre Balmain watch (page 62-63) shaped like a dome with an off-center dial that's angled to face the wearer. It looks like what George Jetson might wear. There are indeed even funkier examples than this, but you'd be mistaken to assume that the book's focus is merely the weird. The book catalogs curiosities and specimens that would be unthinkable today and paints a nuanced picture of the mentality it took to conceive and produce these avant-garde products.

Take the Hamilton Electric Victor watch (page 72) that's pictured on the book's cover: Featuring an art deco dial with a radial pattern, its asymmetric square case juts out to the right and its crown extends from the corner. At the same time, it retains classic cues in its hands and indices. Released in 1957, it was one of the first electric watches at a time when mechanical (spring-powered) watches weren't the luxury novelties they are today, but rather, necessary and ubiquitous items. It was the technology of the future, and its design (by Richard Arbib) was intended to represent its transformative nature and distinguish it from existing watches.

It was a time of prosperity, optimism, social change and technological leaps, and mini-essays in the book like "Space Age Design," "The Retro Aesthetic" and "Mechanical vs. Quartz" remind us that these watches existed in the context of the space race and movements like neo-art deco. These essays nicely break up the individual watches which are themselves the real subject of the Retro Watches.

retro watches book review
Zen Love

The featured timepieces are presented individually in eye-popping glory from several different angles (photographed by Tyler Little). Each is accompanied by text and a few basic facts: Year of Release, Movement, Relative Value and Notable Feature. Since putting a numeric value on vintage watches can be tricky, and these values change, "Relative Value" uses a system of three stars.

For example: The Lucerne 'D' Jump Hour with its asymmetric D-shaped case and mechanical jump-hour movement has a relative value of one star. On the other hand, the strange Rolex Midas designed by Gerarld Genta is valued at three stars. Each entry is meant to be enjoyed visually with just enough information to add context and substance but also be digestible.

Reading Retro Watches cover-to-cover, in sequence, would be foolhardy: this is the type of book that rewards you for opening it at random. The entries are arranged alphabetically, after all, and not chronologically or according to any other grouping or theme, so each exists to be discovered and appreciated in and of itself. Even if you've flipped through its pages many times, there's still a chance that you'll idly pick it up one day to find something totally new, fascinating and possibly insane.

A hardcover book like Retro Watches: The Modern Collector's Guide is itself a kind of throwback pleasure. Like other coffee table books, it's a refreshing way to consume media away from screens and is a pleasant way to complement a living space. It doesn't matter if you don't want to wear some of these funky designs or think they're "ugly": just stand back and let them astound you.

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