The sincerest form of flattery?
On Homage Watches
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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.
Where is the tipping point when a watch goes from similar to an homage, or even to an out-an-out ripoff?
MkII’s Kingston was intended to be an extremely faithful homage to one of the most coveted versions of the most copied dive watch ever: the Rolex Submariner. Early Submariners had large crowns, gold-printed dial markings, cases that lacked crown guards and were worn on steel bracelets with rivet-secured links. Sean Connery wore this watch in the earliest James Bond movie, Dr. No, and thus this early reference became known as the “James Bond Submariner.” Collectors adore fine examples of these watches and pay dearly for them. Some have sold for as high as $90,000, not exactly in the price budget of the average working stiff.
If “homage” means a demonstration of “respect or reverence paid or rendered”, then the Kingston is the perfect embodiment. From the gold-printed dial with “aged” luminescent paint, to the exact case dimensions, even to the riveted bracelet, this watch is a spitting image of Connery’s wristwear. Even the name, “Kingston”, recalls the Jamaican setting for that first 007 movie adventure. The Kingston sold for less than $2,000, thanks to its common ETA movement, outsourced case and less than iconic status. Still, it sold out before it even hit the market, with some pre-orders placed over a year before watches were delivered. So successful was the limited edition Kingston that a slightly de-tuned version, the Nassau, was released for general sale.
Steinhart “Ocean Vintage Military”
Precista PRS-30 Bronze
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?
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.