Wassup dudes — did you hear? The ‘90s are back! That is if you couldn’t tell by the onslaught of ’90s show revivals, present and upcoming, like (deep breath): Twin Peaks, The X-Files, Hey Arnold!, Animaniacs, Rocko’s Modern Life, Roseanne, Will & Grace, Gilmore Girls and Full House to name a few. Bomber jackets are big, and apparently, ‘90s soccer gear is stylish now. Crystal Pepsi and Zima, two of the decade’s most regrettable clear, carbonated liquids, are also back. Yeah, Zima of all things.
All this got me wondering, “Are there any really ’90s mechanical watches bound for a comeback?” The ‘90s were an interesting time (in a good way!) for high-end watchmakers who, emboldened with a new strategy, focused more on the luxury aspect of watchmaking. Panerai began selling watches to civilians, German watchmakers Nomos and A. Lange & Söhne popped up, and Omega became intertwined with 007. All ‘90s watches, for sure, but given they were mostly revivals of old designs — a trend we’re all too familiar with now — do they really qualify?
When I saw TAG Heuer’s newest edition of the Link at Baselworld, which was thoroughly revised for 2017, it struck me as the possible answer. Those links, for better or worse, are iconic. And there probably isn’t another watch in the brand’s lineup more emblematic of TAG Heuer’s resurgence during the ‘90s, after Heuer was rescued through a buyout by Luxembourgian holding company TAG the decade before.
The Link was the first watch to be fully designed under the new ownership and was launched in 1987 as the S/el (for “Sport/Elegance”). According to David Chalmers, the TAG Heuer expert behind Calibre 11, during a 20-year period TAG sold roughly two million of them. “That would have been a huge volume for the time,” he said. “This was an attempt to position it as the dive watch you could wear with a suit to the office. And it seems as though that positioning worked really well.”
“It also had quite a distinctive look at the time,” Chalmers continued, referring to the S/el’s irrefutable calling card: its bracelet. Made from a series of S-shaped links intertwined together and integrated into the watch case, it’s a design feature that stood out as much in the late ‘80s and ‘90s as it does today. “It probably almost became too much of a defining characteristic of the model because, as that bracelet came and went out of fashion, that’s all people thought of about that watch,” said Chalmers.
The bracelet was such a defining characteristic that the model name changed to “Link” in the early 2000s, even though the design began to evolve, with the S/el’s pebble-like bracelet links becoming flatter and sharper. “What happened was, it got flatter and flatter, and around 2010 it became more like a regular bracelet,” said Christoph Behling, designer of the 2017 iteration of the Link. “We took a bracelet that was very unique and it became more and more like a regular watch and less special.”
“It is one of the last distinct watch designs, I think…it’s definitely out there.”
But the new watch harkens back more to the original S/el of the ’80s and ’90s. Most notably, the links are more spaced out on the bracelet and feature beveled edges that more accurately mimic the rounded look of the earlier S/el. But both Chalmers and Behling are quick to point out that the Link and S/el’s unique bracelets were more than styling flourishes — they’re built to be comfortable. Having worn the Link for a week, I’d concur.
In spite of its comfort, can the “love it or hate” it aesthetic find love today among our continually growing affection for the era in which it was conceived and initially flourished? Behling and Chalmers both likened the Link to the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and Heuer Monaco, two other distinctly styled watches that didn’t resonate as much with buyers 10 to 15 years ago nearly as much as they do now. “I think with products there’s this kind of 30-year span where they get redistributed,” said Behling. “Take cars for example, where at first you love them, then you think, ‘Oh my god, that’s the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen,’ then after 30 years you wake up one morning and say, ‘Actually, the Porsche 928 is not so bad.'”
If society can come around again to the Porsche 928 and Zima, we should be able to come around on the Link and the S/el. And especially considering how modern watch design relies so heavily on watch designs pre-1980s, I don’t think any other mechanical timepiece could fulfill the role of a 1990s wristwear surrogate.
Behling seems to agree. “It is one of the last distinct watch designs, I think,” he said. “It’s definitely out there.”
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