I Love The 90s, Part I: Collecting An Era

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Baywatch, Fabio, Trolls, Porsche’s last air-cooled 911 (993); one of these things is not like the others. Certain artifacts of 1990s consumer culture have aged better than others, and the same can be said of 1990s watches.

While much of the 1990s luxury watch scene was a holdover from the 1980s (e.g., small watches, quartz watches, two-tone watches), the period also witnessed a final decisive break with the Swiss economic uncertainty and compromised products of the “Quartz Crisis” era. Many of the best luxury watches produced during the 90s are more than memorable; they’re entering an early phase of collectible status.

Omega’s James Bond Styling

If you grew up during the 1990s, your big-screen introduction to James Bond likely was 1995’s GoldenEye, and you completed your ad-hoc Mi6 training by fragging your buddies 500 times playing the game of the same name on Nintendo 64. And both of those 007 brand-vehicles prominently featured the jewel in Omega’s sports watch crown: its Seamaster Professional Diver 300M

Granted, 007 – forever Pierce Brosnan to the 90s generation – wore this watch in its quartz iteration (reference 2541.80.00) for his first outing as Bond. But the iconic look was common to all models, and the quartz detail is one noticed only in retrospect. Well, that and “Game of Thrones’” Sean Bean playing turncoat Agent 006; that’s right kids, Ned Stark was a Bond villain in the 1990s.

When Omega’s mechanical chronometer variant, the now legendary 2531.80.00, debuted in 1996, it became Bond’s standard issue for the balance of the Brosnan era. Marketing punch aside – and this was THE product placement that put Omega’s brand back in the race with Rolex – the “SMP 300” was a sensational watch.

Today, the SMP 300 of the 1990s clearly reflects the transitional trends sweeping the watch industry at the time.

Its steel case is compact and thin; its refined – almost sensual – crown guards frustrate access to the instrument. The elegant multi-link steel bracelet with alternating satin and polished highlights would look equally at home on a dress watch. While achingly beautiful, the skeleton hands seem to have been designed with femme fatale-style ballroom belles rather than diving bells in mind. Delicate blue waves embossed into the dial evoke “Yacht-Master” elegance more than the Submariner’s salt-caked gravitas. And the Omega’s 41mm case is proportioned to respect traditional 20th century utility-watch sizing dogmas.

But like Agent 007, Omega’s SMP 300 had a potent alter ego. The titular 300-meter depth rating was paired with a helium escape valve – then an unheard of standard feature on entry-level dive watches. The bomb-proof caliber 1109 and later 1120 automatic movements were based on the ETA 2892-A2, but Omega ordered them in C.O.S.C.-certified chronometer specification and mildly modified the calibers for Seamaster 300M duty. Each of the watches sold on the bracelet featured an extendable diving clasp that put the contemporary Rolex 16610 Submariner to shame; over two decades later, SMP 300 clasps from this era still impress.

Today, descendants of the original “Pierce Brosnan” Omega Seamaster Professional Diver 300M remain a mainstay of the Omega aquatic watch catalog. And like Bond, now in his 23rd year wearing Omega, the SMP 300’s broad appeal is matched only by its staying power. Emblematic of its enduring popularity, the reference 2531.80.00 continues to trade for the same $2,500-$3,000 U.S. that it cost new during the 1990s.

Rolex Daytona

As a rule, precious-metal Rolex watches with leather straps tend not to be Rolex-collector catnip, but the Rolex Daytona reference 16519 has the rare credentials to be the odd cat’s meow. Scarce, stealthy, and largely unacknowledged, the white gold “Zenith” Daytona is a rare chance for watch collectors to enter the ground floor of a future investment-grade Rolex.

In 1988, the modern Rolex Cosmograph Daytona was born. Automatic, 40mm, and chronometer-certified, the Daytona cast off its 25-year shackles of awkward proportions and marginal sales. Now a sensation, the Daytona packed a superstar movement to match; Zenith’s reborn El Primero in Rolex-specified caliber 4030 form. Long a retail back-marker, the Daytona found itself in pole position as waitlists stretched to years for certain variants.

But the white gold Rolex Daytona was late to the party; it bowed only in 1997, and the entire Zenith Daytona range was dead by 1999. To grasp the rarity of the 16519, first consider the simple math of the Zenith-era Daytona in general.

While Rolex sales amounted to hundreds of thousands of watches per year during the 1990s, Zenith’s total movement capacity stood between 30,000 and 50,000 during this period. Of those calibers, many were retained for Zenith’s own watches, some were supplied to client brands other than Rolex, and many – especially the caliber 680 Elite family – were not chronograph movements. That left a few thousand El Primero chronograph calibers to be shared among all versions of the Rolex Daytona: yellow gold, two-tone steel/gold, and steel; the remainders could be allocated to white gold Daytona production.

Other factors narrowed the scope of 16519 sales. Only three production years, a high initial price, and its then-undesirable white metal “stealth wealth” effect conspired to keep the 16519 rare. While white and rose gold are preferred in the second decade of the 21st century, yellow gold and two-tone reigned during the 1990s. A white-metal watch that looked like steel and carried a gold price was a tough sell to the prevailing dotcom-millionaire mindset. Even worse, most Rolex customers buying a sports watch preferred bracelets, and the 16519 was available exclusively on a strap.

Rarity is revenge in the watch collectors’ marketplace. Unloved models – the original “exotic dial/Paul Newman” Daytonas are a prime example – become coveted commodities in time.

Moreover, the model presents the kind of dial permutations that Rolex collectors crave. Although introduced during 1997 – U-series as Rolex serial numbers go – the second model year, A-series, witnessed the phase-out of tritium luminescence for luminova paint. As a result, a handful of 16519 A-series examples exist with final-run tritium dials. These are a hot ticket for prescient Rolex buyers. Other examples of rare 16519 dials exist: accelerating values already apply to the exquisite mother of pearl, salmon, and sodalite dials.

In many ways, the Rolex Daytona 16519 was the wrong watch for its time and the perfect watch for these times. It’s scarce in an era of over-production. The Balkanized production run appeals to contemporary collector passion for permutations and rare exceptions. And modern watch buyers’ preference for the inconspicuous luxury of white gold is an excellent match for what the 16519 offers. For watch collectors, the time to buy this Rolex Daytona is now… before the secret is out.

Zenith’s 90’s Throwback

The Zenith Rainbow Flyback of the 1990s was a prodigious throwback. A traditional mechanical chronograph – dating back to 1969(!) – in a modern military-issued wristwatch seems like a fable. True, it was an anachronism even in the 1990s, but it happened. This is the one Zenith El Primero to own if you are going to buy just one.

Following a decade-long production interregnum and miraculous survival best chronicled elsewhere on the web, the Zenith El Primero chronograph caliber resumed production during the mid-1980s. As one of the few traditional automatic chronographs still available, the once obsolete and unsalable mechanism found no shortage of suitors; Rolex was the crown prince among them, but many firms bought Zenith’s flagship movement during this era.

By the early 1990s, the French aeronautical armed forces – perhaps having finally killed their mid-century Type XXs – put out a call for a new standard-issue chronograph. Incredibly, and well into the era of Casio’s G-Shock and Timex’s Ironman, the contract went to Zenith of Le Locle, Switzerland. The winner? A flyback variant of the well-known El Primero movement housed in a watch based on the mid-1990s “Rainbow” sports watch line.

The Rainbow Flyback was a full-featured military watch. Its automatic caliber sported Zenith’s first in-house flyback-reset/restart complication for timing fast paced aeronautical maneuvers. The bezel was fully-calibrated through 60 units like an old Rolex “milsub” or Omega Seamaster MOD, and the dial bore a rare real-world application of the telemeter scale invented to gauge the distance of ordnance impacts on targets.

In an age when nostalgia-driven military style watches were beginning to reach the civilian luxury market, the Zenith remained on the front lines; its use continued into the 21st century during the early French NATO collaboration against Afghanistan.

Of the two mechanically identical models, one was crafted in standard black with white calibrations (reference 02.0470.405), and the other was built with a vivid combination of colored bezel, dial and hands. The latter model, reference 02.0480.405/24, is the rock star of the two. Its combination of “milspec” genesis tale and sensational aesthetic has captured the imaginations of luxury watch collectors.

Fortunately for children of the 1990s and vintage watch buyers of the present day, the Rainbow Flyback has yet to capture the attention of speculators and auction house hype. The watches remain accessibly priced between $4,000 and $6,000 U.S. dollars. Premiums should be paid for watches with original boxes and documents as well as excellent cosmetic condition; certain dial, case, and bezel components have become scarce. Pay special attention to the bezel; its luminescent “pearl” often disappears due to rough handling, and replacement requires an entirely new bezel from Zenith.

Both Rainbow Flyback models could have be delivered on bracelet, strap, or a combination of the two, so the best buy on pre-owned markets is the watch that includes the intact bracelet option. At that point, a Zenith factory strap can be purchased economically to complete the set. Naturally, examples with documented military ownership and service history are in a class by themselves and must be evaluated on an individual basis.

Now Leaving The 1990s

Eighteen years after Y2K brought down the curtain on the era of Pets.com, self-aware slasher flicks, and eleven European sovereign-state currencies, luxury watches from this era are beginning to look like vintage opportunities. True, these watches tend to be discussed as “used” or “pre-owned” in contemporary collector lingo, but every vintage watch begins life as a used watch. Don’t let semantics cloud one’s better judgement when buying watches.

Down the road, it is likely that those who came of age in this era will feel the same emotional attachment to the Omega Seamasters and Rolex Daytonas of the 1990s as current seasoned watch collectors feel towards 1970s COMEX Sea-Dwellers and 1960s Heuer Carreras. And latter-day watch nerds may not wait until their 40s, 50s, and 60s to become involved in buying vintage watches. This may be the first generation to have seen substantial advertising for luxury watches on TV from an early age, and it is a plugged-in generation that has been reading about watches online since “Timezone.com” was a bulletin board maintained by computer programmers from Singapore.

What is clear even today is that desirable watches from the 1990s exist, have been identified by their respective online collector communities, and rising demand is only a matter of time. Remember when those air-cooled Porsche 993s were cheap used cars, and you didn’t pull the trigger? Don’t make that mistake twice.