Commemorative Watches: Artifacts for the Wrist

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If you’re a watch collector you know that what goes on your wrist isn’t always just about telling the time. There are a number of factors to consider such as fashion (will it match your outfit?), functionality (chances of rain versus going on a deep dive?), or meaning (what’s the significance or occasion?). While the fashion and function or “tool” watches flood the market, the idea of the commemorative watch has managed to dig up a corner of its own. And though it may be no foreign practice to assign a watch a significant emotional value, watch makers are vying to determine what the public deems significant and how to capitalize on it.

That’s where commemorative watches come in. See, the challenge of selling “significance” is that a watchmaker can’t sell you a family heirloom. So what they do is cater to personal interests. Whether it’s your favorite sports team, super hero, historical event, or dare I say it–pop star, there is a watch for you.

When I started researching the commemorative offerings on the market, I began to see an extreme variation in execution. Some approaches were very subtle, with only a demarcation on the case back. Two examples of this are the new Omega Olympic Collection London 2012 Seamaster and the Jorg Gray President Barack Obama Commemorative Edition JG6500. As you can see below, the only markings to signify commemoration are engraved on the case backs of both watches.

An equally popular method of commemoration to the engraving is the use of thematic design elements such as color, pictures, and branding. One example of this is the IWC Big Pilot’s Watch Muhammad Ali Edition Reference 5004. This particular model incorporates the famous red, black, and white colors often worn by the legendary Ali in the ring in addition to an engraving on the case back.

Taking the thematic design approach to a whole other level is the Hublot King Power Miami Heat Chronograph watch. Recently released to commemorate their 2012 NBA Championship season, Hublot went beyond just case decoration by altering the mechanics of the watch. Sporting a 48mm case, a 48hour power reserve, and special movement modification/dial notation to mark the 48 minutes of a regulation professional basketball game, Hublot shows that just colors and logos aren’t enough when paying tribute. That being said, a team logo on the dial and graphic on the sapphire case back appear, in addition to accents inspired by nets and backboards on the casing.

A final example in the thematic design approach is the Romain Jerome Space Invaders watch. The watchmaker signed a deal with TAITO Corporation to produce officially licensed pieces that sell for the price of many, many Atari systems.  There are two variations of the watch, but both sport a 46mm PVD case with an RJ001-A automatic movement on a black rubber strap.  Production was limited to just 78 pieces for each model as a nod to the year Space Invaders was released–1978.

If you’re familiar with Romain Jerome then you’ll know that they are a great segue into the next approach. As if a commemorative inscription or thematic design weren’t enough, Romain Jerome, among others, is going so far as to incorporate material from the actual item, place, or event being commemorated into the build of the watch. They run a whole line of timepieces with special “DNA.” Examples of the company’s work are listed below with a break down of what can be found in each of their models:


Titanic DNA:
Features rust from the cruise liner’s body itself that has been stabilized to prevent further corrosion as well as coal that has undergone an oxidation process to allow it to serve as a decorative on the dial.

Moon DNAFeatures moon dust, fragments from the Apollo XI space shuttle, space suit fibers, and “Moon Silver.”

Eyjafjallajokull DNA: Features authentic rock and ash from the Icelandic Eyjafjallajokull volcano eruption of 2010.

Liberty DNA: Features actual pieces of metal taken from the Statue of Liberty

Romain Jerome isn’t alone in this growing market though. Renowned British watchmaker Bremont has a few timepieces that employ the same method of “commemoration.” Two models that come to mind are the P-51 and the Victory. From the Bremont site, they list the Limited Edition P-51 as “a chronograph chronometer built with original parts from the famous 1944 Mustang WWII aircraft P-51K-10 (serial number 44-12016). This Pacific war veteran which was also known as ‘Fragile but Agile’, was piloted by Lt. Bert Lee Jr, who was credited with two confirmed victories during the war.”

The Victory, recently named by Forbes as the coolest watch of 2012, is a collaboration between The National Museum of the Royal Navy (Portsmouth) and the watchmaker that uses wood and hand engraved copper from the oldest still commissioned British war ship, the H.M.S. Victory. The crisp design of the dial and the numerals fit perfectly in addition to a beautifully decorated case and movement as seen below.

What I like about Bremont’s approach in both of these models is how their designers toe the line with subtle commemoration–a secret of sorts on just how special the piece is that’s on your wrist. Between the elegantly detailed movements featuring the propeller and engraved copper rotors in each model and the thematic case design, they hit the mark of balance between commemorative versus all around handsome timepiece.

You can see from each of the watches included in this review that there are many approaches to how a watchmaker pays tribute. For them it’s never going to be as clear-cut as, “your grandfather wore this during the war,” so the challenge for is to decide what the public considers significant and how to present it as a product. Whether it’s an engraving, color theme, movement modification, or the more extreme approach of using pieces from the moon or a battleship, manufacturers recognize there is a demand for placing more than just an instrument of time on customers’ wrists.

As the market for commemorative watches continues to grow, I wonder where we, as consumers, draw the line. There’s a time and place for commemoration, but do we really want companies going around chipping away at historical monuments so that a few people can have it around their wrists? Or would we be better served with a thematic design approach or engraving to signify our interests? I’m curious to hear what you have to say, so leave it in the comments below.

By Tom Caruso

Zach is the Co-Founder and Executive Editor of Worn & Wound. Before diving headfirst into the world of watches, he spent his days as a product and graphic designer. Zach views watches as the perfect synergy of 2D and 3D design: the place where form, function, fashion and mechanical wonderment come together.
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