I recently purchased a Citizen Quartz watch from the ‘80s that looks, as the seller put it, “80% Datejust.” That is, with its fluted bezel, jubilee-style bracelet, and sunburst dial, it looks very much like a Rolex Datejust, which starts in the vicinity of $7,000. I’ve never owned a Rolex, so I can’t compare quality, but I love this thin Japanese watch and its deep blue sunburst dial. Plus, I snagged my Citizen for less than $100.
Question: is it a lazy copycat, or an iterative stroke of brilliance?
This question is at the core of pretty much every article about “homage watches,” a term that I think needs to be revisited and, for the good of the hobby, retooled. Or maybe just dropped in the bin.
As Oren Hartov put it, an homage watch “pays homage, of course — in this case, by recalling elements of a particular vintage timepiece but in a completely new model.” The watch might recall aspects of a famous design, say, the hands and case shape of a Rolex Submariner. Or, he writes, “it might fall more into the category of what some would term a ‘ripoff’ — largely a direct copy. The shades of gray between these extremes are myriad.”
Let’s talk about those shades of gray.
Fact: The vast majority of the watches on the market today are iterative — they’re inspired at least in some part by watches that came before them. We tend to talk about “homage” in relation to colors (a red and blue bezel is automatically deemed a Rolex Pepsi homage), dial and bezel, case shape, and the like. But the fact of the matter is, every watch that’s somewhere near 40mm, round, or has a steel case and bezel, or that tells time using two or three hands, or that has a date window, or uses Arabic or Roman numerals, or is worn on a bracelet, is an homage in that it iterates on all watches that’ve come before it.
If people start wearing pocketwatches again (I’m not advocating for this, unless you really fuckin' like pocketwatches), for example, the question becomes: are all new ones just homages?
This definition of “homage” is certainly too broad. But if we narrow that definition, this “gray area” about what watch is cool and what watch is a knockoff becomes entirely subjective.
Take for instance another watch I own and love: the new Timex Q GMT. It had red-black and blue-black bezel color schemes when it was released. Reddit watch fans quickly started calling them the “Coke” and “Batman,” after the classic Rolex GMT styles; then people started calling the watch a Rolex GMT homage.
It was much more complicated than that, I found out when I got mine, the blue-black bezel version. “I evolved and refined the design, but I pretty much kept intact the design and flavor of the original watch, launched in the late ‘70s,” Giorgio Galli, the Timex’s designer, told me. “The original watch” in this case was not a Rolex GMT, but a vintage Timex from the 1970s that inspired the updated Q design.
“The hands, dial, and bezel from that original design [in the ‘70s] probably took inspiration from a strong trend at the time… of course there is an homage to Rolex when it comes to the color scheme,” Galli wrote me in an email. “But most importantly, it is not a copy of the Rolex.”
“‘Homage’ is a very fine line,” Galli continued. “Many times this word is used to justify an exact copy of a commercially valuable product that is trending. I do not think our Q is part of that game.”
Galli wrote me, “I am not a big fan of ‘homage’ in principle as a word, or as a design ethic or philosophy. But if it is done in a way that keeps a watch from being an exact copy, then it could make sense.”
Once I got the Timex Q GMT and wore it, it was very clear that this was not some copy of a Rolex design. The case shape and its lugless design was nothing like any Rolex; yes, it had the Batman color scheme, but even that was shades of its own.
OK, so if “homage” can be a lazy term used online to denote watches that are suspected of copycatting, who gets to decide who can and can’t borrow inspiration and design from previous watches? And where can I write to tell them to shut up?
Or, to be more principled, what's the line between a new watch with familiar design cues and a ripoff?
Bill Yao over at MkII specializes in “evolutionary design” of classic military-style watches. Surely he would fit into the “homage” category, no?
Yao thinks of things differently, and has come up with his own set of “rules” that MkII follows when looking into an “evolution” of an old watch. They are as follows:
- You can’t homage a design that is less than 15 years old.
- The functionality of the watch must be better, if not comparable, to the old watch.
- Ideally an homage watch should add to the story of the reference design.
- You must learn something from the design process of the watch.
- You have to be respectful of intellectual property.
I own a MkII Hawkinge that Yao openly admits was inspired by the Mk 11 watch designed by Jaeger-LeCoultre and IWC between the 1950s and 1980s. It does look a lot like a JLC or IWC watch in those ways. It’s also $600 and I can wear it swimming without fearing for my mortgage. Yao’s latest, the Tornek-Rayville TR-660, "evolves" the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, and costs a fraction of the price.
Verdict: This is not a ripoff, and to call it an homage buckets it alongside plenty of watches that I think are far less cool. It is its own watch. “In all humility, we don't even see ourselves as even part of that ‘space’ as it is currently defined,” Yao wrote me.
And as for watches that are blatant “rip-offs”? Well, they can be lame, I agree. But this mostly comes down more to not pulling off the homage, rather than doing anything right down to a tee.
This reminds me a little bit about standup comedy: you can say just about anything up there, as long as people think you’re funny.
Hell, if you can make me an “homage” of a Rolex Submariner that looks and feels as good as the real thing, but costs a tenth of a price, I’ll pay you cold hard cash. And for the record, some brands in my opinion are getting there, like American microbrand Monta’s recent 2190 SkyQuest. Monta’s watches look and feel a lot like Rolexes to me, and this one looked just like the legendary Albino Rolex GMT Master (pretty much priceless because anyone who has one won’t sell) but only cost $2,190. I couldn’t get my hands on one, though — they sold out in 15 minutes.
Let me cut you off at the pass, Rolex bros: For the poor sap who just must have a Rolex, they’re the best thing in the world. To me, anyway, this is more a problem with the exclusivity/finance bros wealth club that is high-end watches.
In fact, it strikes me that Rolex itself might be the most homage brand out there. All they seem to do is update old classic watch designs; every single element on every single watch has been done and done again. Rolex fans drool over the tiny changes to the Explorer; they mostly look exactly the same to me (or sometimes, a little worse).
So let’s go back to my Citizen Datejust for a moment. Is it an homage? Was it inspired by another watch? Does it rip one off? We’d do best to remember that “homage” is only one part of a watch’s story. It’s always a bit more complicated than the word implies. Ugly ripoffs are one thing — but, otherwise, give me a watch that makes me smile and I don’t care.