Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include a new buying guide with five exceptional homage watches.
Within the watch industry there exists a thriving category of timepieces that is wholly unoriginal, reviled by some yet beloved by many. This is the realm of the so-called “homage” watch. An homage watch is one that apes the look of a more famous existing timepiece — sometimes vintage, sometimes contemporary — but sells for a fraction of the price of its inspiration. Homage watches should not be confused with fakes or replicas. Their builders don’t try to pass them off as the real things, or (illegally) put the names of the originals on their dials. Rather, homage watches provide more affordable versions of timepieces that would otherwise be forever out of the majority of watch buyers’ price range. But while legions of fans gratefully purchase these ersatz Grail timepieces, homages also have their detractors — those who write them off as mere derivative copies that don’t deserve attention. Before we get into the debate, let’s look at a case study of one of the most successful homage watches in recent history.
MkII is a small (read, “one-man”) watch brand based in Pennsylvania that specializes exclusively in homage pieces. They’ve made homages to famous timepieces such as the Benrus dive watches used by Special Forces in the Vietnam War and the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, arguably history’s first purpose-built diving watch. Their watches are faithful in their dimensions and styling to the originals, but are fitted with modern ETA Swiss movements and sapphire crystals. Thanks to MkII, not only could a dive watch fanatic own a vintage Fifty Fathoms for one month’s salary instead of six, he could take it diving without fear of flooding an expensive piece of history.
There are plenty of other homages, from Steinhart’s take on the “MilSub” to the modified Seiko “Fifty Five Fathoms”, that ape the real things, and others that are more inspired by original designs, like the cushion-cased Panerai-like watches of Magrette or the Bremont-esque Trident of Christopher Ward, the latter of which is an homage to a modern watch rather than a vintage. Can these watch companies be faulted for selling such obviously unoriginal timepieces? After all, they’re not purporting to be the real things.
In fact, homage watches are not a new phenomenon. Look back as far as the 1940s and you find the Hamilton Otis, a more humble version of the Art Deco classic Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso. Not long after the Submariner came on the scene, other watches mimicked its iconic design, from bezel markings to Mercedes handset. Rolex even created a separate company, Tudor, to sell watches that resembled their Rolex counterparts in every way other than a logo and a lesser movement inside. If a company builds homages to its own watches, do we call them homages?
There are dozens of examples of companies that draw inspiration from great timepieces from their pasts, from the Heuer Carrera to the OMEGA Ploprof. Many brands that went belly-up during the quartz crisis of the 1970s have since resurfaced, some in name only, and laid claim to the heritage of their forebears — witness Aquadive and DOXA. Are homages only bad when done by a company other than the one who sold the original? Are the currently available timepieces of those brands homages or the real thing?
Browse eBay for vintage watches, most typically dive watches, and you’ll find many timepieces that look alike but have names of long forgotten brands. Many brands in the 1960s and ‘70s sourced their cases from a common source, an off-the-shelf design, and then dropped in a third-party movement with only a slight difference in dial. The CWC dive watch issued to British navy divers in the early ‘80s used the same case as a dive watch sold by Heuer and Chronosport in the same era. Who was an homage to whom? Does the inclusion of a design element such as “plongeur” or “Mercedes” hands make a watch an obvious homage? Where is the tipping point when a watch goes from similar to an homage, or even to an out-an-out ripoff?
There’s plenty of room in the watch world for everybody, from high-end brands setting the standards to small-time shops selling outsourced homages.
In fact, there are no clear answers. To one person, a military Submariner homage is a way to get the same look on his wrist where he would otherwise stand no chance given the six-figure price tag of the real thing. It is, he would say, doubtful that homage pieces detract from their inspirations’ value. Still, to another person the homage is a mere copy to be looked down upon with an attitude that, “if you can’t afford the real thing, too bad”. Some shouldn’t be allowed into a heretofore exclusive club.
Where do I come down on the matter? I personally have never owned an homage watch, nor do I plan to. For me, the story of a design and the brand’s history are intrinsically tied to a watch and are just as important as how it looks on my wrist. Still, I say “live and let live”, though that may not be a popular sentiment among others who write about the hallowed category of luxury timepieces. There’s plenty of room in the watch world for everybody, from high-end brands setting the standards to small-time shops selling outsourced homages. Of course, the exceptions to my inclusive attitude are fake watches, which are only exceeded in their scumminess by the people who buy them.
As long as it is all done ethically, with no purporting of originality, an homage watch should not be viewed as a threat to anyone, brand or collector. In fact, often an homage watch is a first step into watch collecting, a gateway piece that can lead someone to more discerning purchases, sometimes even of the “real thing”. To buy an homage is to have an appreciation for the great, sometimes iconic, timepieces the history of watchmaking has produced. At a time when mechanical watches are anachronistic and obsolete, and when there are a lot of people who can’t afford the luxury of buying a five- or six-figure watch, that is not a bad thing.
Additional Buying Guide by Andrew Connor
5 Other Great Homages
Affordable Alternatives to Historic Timepieces
Steinhart Ocean One Vintage Military
A very affordable alternative to the ultra-rare, six-figure Rolex MilSub Ref 5517. Steinhart’s Ocean One has the same overall shape and bezel of the original Submariner, and features a similar black dial with a “1” encased in a circle in place of the original MilSub’s iconic “T” (signifying the use of tritium illumination). Ticking inside the Steinhart’s vintage-inspired case is a Swiss-made ETA 2824 automatic movement, making this homage one hell of a steal at well under $400.
Magrette Dual Time
The Magrette Dual Time takes clear inspiration from the Panerai Radiomir, featuring the same “squircle” case design. But whereas the Radiomir invokes the spirit of the 1940s, with its intricately detailed crown, softer edges and Mid-century Modern typeface, the Magrette is distinctly modern, with sharper edges, a sportier font and an internal rotating bezel that can keep the time of a second timezone.
Perhaps one of the most brash timepieces out there, the Omega PloProf’s chunky, oddly proportioned case helped it survive extreme depths of up to 600 meters when it debuted in the early 1970s (the reissue doubled that figure). Ocean7 made their own deep diver, the LM-7, featuring a sandblasted titanium case inspired by the Omega, using a Swiss-made automatic movement that can keep time at depths up to 1,250 meters. If you’re into customization, the LM-7’s bezel can be removed and changed with ease, and Ocean7 will gladly sell you extra bezels to swap in and out.
Heralded as the first modern dive watch, the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms debuted a number of innovations for a dive watch, such as an automatic movement, a rotating outer bezel and water resistance up to 50 fathoms a year before the rivaling Rolex Submariner came to market. To celebrate the Fifty Fathoms’ legacy and make its iconic design (most notably that wide, dark rotating bezel) accessible to the masses, Helson created the Skindiver. A surgical stainless steel case and domed sapphire crystal protect its Miyota 9015 automatic movement up to 300 meters deep, and pairs beautifully with vintage-inspired markers and numerals.
Over 55 years ago, Rolex strapped a prototype, the Deep Sea Special, to the bathyscaphe Trieste, which made a 10,900-meter dive to the Mariana Trench. Incredibly, that watch was in perfect working order when the submersible surfaced. Inspired by that remarkable achievement, German brand Helberg has made its own super-deep diver, the CH1. Featuring a 316L stainless steel case and a massive spherical crystal that makes the watch 27.25mm thick, the CH1 has a claimed water resistance up to 6,000 meters.