The 1980s: A Selection Of Watches From My Collection That Define Generation X – Playlist Included
As a child of the ’80s, my preoccupation with timepieces from this decade comes from a Proustian desire to recapture my youth by collecting the watches I couldn’t afford at the time. As a student of design history, it’s also fun to revisit the postmodern aesthetic of the era. It was an era when eccentric and colorful Memphis-style furniture co-existed with edgy cyberpunk styles. And it was an era when the preppy pastels and popped collars of Ralph Lauren roamed the earth at the same time as the angular fashions of designers such as Thierry Mugler, Jean-Paul Gaultier, and Giorgio Armani.
The 1980s also saw the rise of the music video. Fashion played an outsized role in the presentation of these promotional productions. And fun, fashionable watches would play an important role in salvaging the post-quartz crisis watch industry. I think these seven pieces from my stash are emblematic of the era.
Must de Cartier Tank (1976)
Of course, design generations don’t follow a neat timeline. The reason I’m including this Cartier Le Must De Tank from the late ’70s is that it was the timepiece that helped set off a new wave of watchmaking.
In 1976, under the management of Robert Hocq and Alain Dominique Perrin, Cartier set out to create an accessibly priced line of accessories that would appeal to younger audiences. The result was Le Must de Cartier.
In the spirit of all things postmodern, the timepieces in this collection referenced the classic Cartier tank but played around with the tank’s codes, adding colorful lacquered dials and, in some cases, erasing the signature Roman numerals. These fun timepieces were cased in silver vermeil, which also made them quite affordable, starting at about $150. Originally, they housed mechanical movements but were later kitted out with quartz caliber (mine is a hand-wound movement).
While the Must de Cartier watches were an instant hit with their demographic, their popularity peaked with the chic set when the legendary Yvette Saint Laurent wore one in a famous portrait. And while Cartier canceled the collection, and the watches were slowly phased out at the turn of the 20th century, this timepiece helped the brand build a bridge not only between the disco and post-punk era, it also introduced the idea that luxury could loosen up a little.
SONG: David Bowie “Fashion”
Gucci 11/12.2 (1987)
While the Italian luxury house has produced watches since the 1970s, they became status symbols in the 1980s. Like all things Gucci, they were insanely desirable amongst the b-boys and club kids in New York. And with its rainbow of interchangeable bezels, one of its most popular models was the instantly recognizable 11/12.2.
Again, these timepieces were meant to appeal to a younger, hipper audience, so a decision was made to pair high-end materials like reptile straps with stainless steel. And the now-iconic cases and Gucci double G logo were a big part of the design. The 11/12.2 referenced Gucci’s jewelry-making codes to create a deceptively elegant bracelet watch. There are many variations on this theme: there are bangles and chains (mine has an iconic Gucci marina chain bracelet), but they all feature a round, clean white minimalist dial.
And then there were the endless combinations of colorful bezels — the classic being in Gucci green and red. While this collection is not currently in production, they show up in the secondary market quite frequently.
SONG: Grandmaster Flash “White Lines”
Swatch Yamaha Racer (1985)
Swatch was born out of direct reaction to the quartz crisis in which the Swiss watch industry battled the onslaught of inexpensive timepieces from Japan. ETA SA, a company led by Ernst Thomke, decided that if you can’t beat them, join them. So, at the behest of engineer Elmar Mock, the company invested in an injection-molding machine. Mock, and his colleague Jacque Muller, started work on a monobloc plastic prototype that could be produced economically. Swatch’s first collection, made up of twelve models, was introduced on March 1, 1983, in Zürich.
While Swatch represented a milestone in engineering, it was also a revolution in style. Designers Marlyse Schmid and Bernard Müller created the Swatch logo and shaped the final version of the casing, which featured four extra lugs to stabilize the strap mount, And this became one of the defining characteristics of most Swatches.
Technically, this was my dad’s watch. He bought it when it came out and made it his everyday watch. Those blue spots on the strap are from some long-ago home improvement project. This speaks to the durability of a timepiece that was originally viewed as a fun (some people in the ’80s wore two or three at a time) yet disposable accessory.
SONG: Duran Duran “Rio”
Tissot RockWatch (1986)
The impact of Swatch made tremendous waves in the Swiss watch industry. For example, Tissot went from selling 919,200 timepieces in 1974 to just 14,140 in 1984. So Peter Kuntz, a sculptor and advisor for Tissot, proposed making cases from stone, and the brand turned to ETA’s Ernst Thomke, Jacques Muller, and Elmar Mock to help make the concept a reality.
Along with designer Robert Maslow, the company worked swiftly, officially launching this stone-cold timepiece three months later in March 1986. The first models were manufactured with granite from the Swiss cantons of Grisons, Ticino, and Valais. The space for the quartz movement and crystal was milled from both sides. The hands were painted red and yellow as a rip of the hat to hiking trail markers in the Swiss Alps. Finally, the leather straps attached to the backplate to prevent stress to the stone.
While four times the price of a Swatch, the RockWatch was still a success and credited with keeping Tissot above water. And by amplifying its Alpine connections, it also helped rebuild the image of Swiss watchmaking in general. Later models played around with different materials, straps, and color combinations, but the line began to lose its luster and was dropped in 2006. But with a renewed interest in 1980s design, it seems like the time to give the RockWatch its due.
SONG: Herbie Hancock “Rockit”
TAG Heuer Formula 1 (1986)
Another unforgettable watch from the 1980s was the pop-toned TAG Heuer Formula 1. Not only was this the first collection created after the merger of the venerable Swiss brand Heuer and the French company Techniques d'Avant-Garde, but it was also the first generation F1 watches to use an innovative case constructed of a stainless steel inner case coated with fiberglass. They also had more upscale finishes such as a sapphire dial and well-lumed day markers and hands.
For many of that generation, the F1 was their first investment watch. A gateway drug, if you will, to more serious collecting. And like a lot of these 1980s watches, they were objects you bought for yourself, as opposed to something you were presented with after graduation or upon retirement.
Designed by Eddy Burgener, the first series owed some of its aesthetic to Swatch. It came in a range of bright, primary colors and had eccentric touches. They were also ahead of the curve in that these sporty, quartz-powered pieces where gender-neutral. Like today, androgyny was a big thing in the 1980s. Smaller watches were also big back in the day, and the original F1s came in two sizes, 28mm and 34mm, with brightly colored cases matched to plastic straps that you could cut to size. I waited a long time to finally get my hands on an original 1986 model, and it inspired this song selection.
SONG: The Smiths “How Soon Is Now?”
Chanel Premiere (1987)
The storied house of Chanel introduced its first timepiece with the accurately named Première. At the time, lots of labels were producing licensed watches. For example, Calvin Klein and Guess had captured a significant percentage of sales with timepieces that had little more than a tangential connection to the collections seen on the runway.
But Chanel went in a different direction. Unlike Cartier, the Maison did not have a history in watch manufacture to draw upon. Instead, they doubled down on Madame Coco’s favorite codes. Thus, the shape of the case is modeled on the octagonal layout of the Place Vendôme, Chanel’s historic home; the faceted crystal recalls the glass stopper on a bottle of Chanel No.5 perfume; and, the leather-laced chain strap is an homage to the strap of the classic 2.55 handbag.
And even though Chanel has now branched into haute horology and exquisite high jewelry watches, the timeless Première is still part of the brand’s collection.
SONG: Les Rita Mitsouko “C’est Comme Ça”
Casio A159W (1987)
Finally, here is an example of the kind of digital watch that was destroying the Swiss watch industry at the time. Sure, the G-SHOCK, launched in 1983, has had a more enduring legacy, the stark, stainless steel style of the Casio Alarm Chrono was a huge hit in the cyberpunk scene.
Available in silver and gold-tone finishes, the A159W is still in production, marketed to hipsters as a vintage vibe object. You can get an example of this geek chic for about $22, making it the most accessible timepiece in my entire collection. Yet, whenever I post a wrist shot of this one on Instagram, I inevitably get a lot of DMs from friends asking if they can buy it because their original A159W was stolen. Friends! Thieves! There’s no need to resort to such desperate measures when you can get your own (with a slightly different face) online at casio.com.
SONG: Killing Joke “Eighties”
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