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Why retro and vintage-inspired watches are making a comeback, says Su Jia Xian

Complication watches are taking a breather.

Starting in the mid noughties, watchmaking developed an obsession with technology. Not technology like the Apple watch, but mechanical complications – minute repeaters, tourbillons, perpetual calendars and so on.

The drive for complications progressed in two distinct dimensions. One was the traditional route, combining several complications to create a grand complication. Mostly produced by established names, such watches were fairly conventional in the sense that they were wristwatch versions of grand complications that often existed in pocket watches.

The second dimension was all about more exotic variants of existing complications such as the multi-axis tourbillon, or mechanisms dreamed up from scratch. This was what led to watches equipped with barometers priced at US$100,000 (S$138,000) or timepieces with tourbillons that did not tell the time – at all. But it also created a new branch of watchmaking best described as avant-garde, which nurtured watchmakers like MB&F and Urwerk. Love or hate their creations, such brands have made the industry landscape more interesting.

(RELATED: Mechanical clocks now a niche for decadent home decoration.)

But now, the complications trend is taking a breather, with the market demanding simpler timepieces, particularly with retro styling. The fact that the demand for high-end watches is slipping also makes simpler, and consequently cheaper, watches an easier sell.

Brands across the price spectrum are going all in with vintage-inspired timepieces. Some are old hands at it. Longines, for instance, has been making affordable reproductions of its vintage models for decades. Others are dipping their toes into the water for the first time. Jaeger-LeCoultre recently introduced “sector” dial watches, a look that is not significantly associated with the brand historically but is popular today.

Consumers should, however, consider vintage remakes carefully. They’re affordable, with a casual style that makes them fun to wear. But such reissues are often similar, since brands mine the same historical styles that are faddish now, like “sector” dials and 1950s dive watches.

One important criterion to bear in mind is the brand’s historical link to the particular design. It should be something the watchmaker did in the past, or preferably something the watchmaker did well. Tudor, for example, has a solid history with dive watches, and Tag Heuer the same with auto racing-inspired chronographs. Such brands stand on firmer philosophical foundations.

Read more of Su Jia Xian’s incisive commentary at his website, WatchesbySJX.com.