Behind the times: the best retro watch designs

A new book shines a spotlight on the rare and eccentric designs from watchmaking’s most creative era

The Lip Secteur watch
The Lip Secteur watch was available in three case shapes - round, rectangular and square
(Image credit: Photography: Tyler Little)

The 1960s and 1970s were characterised by a surge in creativity for watchmakers, who experimented with avant-garde designs at a time when the quartz crisis threatened the industry.

‘There were the aesthetics of new forms, new displays, new technologies and everything in between,’ says Mitch Greenblatt, co-author of Retro Watches: The Modern Collectors Guide. ‘Many were likely prototypical and never produced in large numbers, hence the extreme rarity and relative obscurity.’

A retro watch

Elgin Golf Ball.

(Image credit: Tyler Little)

The new book, co-authored by Josh Sims, looks at the rare and unusual watches that defined three decades of watch design, when both new and more established watch brands played with rewriting traditional design codes.

‘Watches and their shapes were at their most adventurous during the 1960s and 1970s – mirroring the mid-century and the space-age with implied aerodynamics, intentional asymmetry, restrained minimalism and new technologies. A chronograph from this era often looked as cool as the cars they were intended to ride in,’ adds Greenblatt. ‘A rare new technology like LED (light emitting diodes) were inside stainless steel or solid gold casing and likely cost more than a Rolex of the era.’

A retro watch

Derby Swissonic.

(Image credit: Tyler Little)

Greenblatt and Sims celebrate everything from the more unusual design tweaks to the mechanical Swiss digital watches which spearheaded a new time-telling movement in the book. ‘I think if these watches are united in any way, design-wise, it’s in the willingness of the designers behind them to experiment,’ says Sims. ‘Comparatively, watch design today is so much safer – possibly because that’s what’s dictated by the dynamics of a market in which there are fewer brands than there were in the pre-quartz era.’

A zenith watch

Movado Zenith with wooden dial.

(Image credit: Tyler Little)


Retro Watches: The Modern Collector’s Guide, published by Thames & Hudson

Hannah Silver is the Art, Culture, Watches & Jewellery Editor of Wallpaper*. Since joining in 2019, she has overseen offbeat design trends and in-depth profiles, and written extensively across the worlds of culture and luxury. She enjoys meeting artists and designers, viewing exhibitions and conducting interviews on her frequent travels.