First off, we need definitions.
A replica is a watch that is impersonating another watch, by wearing the branding of the more expensive manufacture. An homage, then, is an unbranded or self-branded watch that may copy or pay tribute to someone else’s design, but does not pretend to be it by wearing a brand belonging to someone else. A replica tries to get as close as possible to the real thing, while an homage draws influence from one or several models to pay tribute to the best of that which inspires it.
Replica people fall into a few camps. I mention them because it’s important to understand that homages appeal to people for some of the same reasons. There are hobbyist watchmakers who
love obsess over the details of the watch they’re replicating, whether it’s the man who says,
“I’ve said it out loud I AM NOT A REP DEALER in the beginning. I AM A CRAZY SON OF A BITCH PURSUING THE PERFECT SUBMARINER! I want a perfect sub so bad it’s like I’m cloning my ex to preserve every bit that is best of her at 25. Yup, I’m that crazy in this!”
or the person who documents which case to buy, how to file the crown guards to get them to match the original, the person making dials in an apartment in Brooklyn, the man drilling lug holes in Texas, or a fellow in Germany engraving cases with the correct font between the lugs. These are people who pursue perfection for their own satisfaction, where anything out of place would bother them, even if no one else could spot the error. Why do these people bother? Partly for the challenge, and partly for the ability to enjoy something that is no longer available. They have no shame that it’s a project and a replica, and nor should they – they aren’t trying to deceive anyone, it’s about making a physical love letter to a thing that for all practical purposes doesn’t exist any longer. Many owners of replica watches also own genuine watches, too. For them, replicas are a good way to test drive a watch before spending thousands, with the prospect of losing 30% of the value if they need to resell it. This is about watch lovers coming together. Some cannot afford to play the gen game so this is a way to marvel at the designs up close and learn about watches. It’s important to remember that affordability is not the only factor.
Some of this is true for the homage buyer, too. The homage buyer probably can’t afford the absurd vintage prices at auctions for the things their homage pays tribute to, or they simply aren’t available at all. Within the world of homages, there are faithful homages that render almost all of the details correctly, excepting branding, and there are homages that pay tribute without being direct reimplementations. There are good homages, and bad ones. For example, I was not a fan of the recent Protos watch, which used the wrong hands, the Protos branding impeded my enjoyment of the dial, and on the whole, it didn’t go far enough to either meet or improve on the original, and at the price point, there are better implementations I enjoy more. The point of these watches is to do something that either makes the best of a vintage design available, or even takes it further than the original did.
I couldn’t discuss homages without talking about MKII. MKII is Bill Yao’s company. Years ago, Bill began by making dials and hands that could fit either an ETA 2824, or more popular at the time, Seiko SKX007/009 watches. Later on, he started having his own cases made, purchasing Elabore-grade ETA movements with the rotor signed MKII, and assembling them in Switzerland in accordance with the rules governing Swiss Made watch labeling. Some of the early examples of this were his Vantage (a 39mm envisioning of the Rolex 1016 Explorer, but upsized, with appropriate hand length, something Rolex got wrong with their 214270 39mm Explorers), and the LRRP watch, which appeared in a Milsub type, GMT, 1655 Explorer II style, and more.
Other early watches were his Blackwater. After this, he’s explored a few directions. He bought the vintage brand Tornek-Rayville and released a watch with that brand, and he’s released a number of limited edition homage watches (The Kingston (6538 gilt homage), Nassau (6538 homage), Key West (Pan Am GMT Master homage)) and other notables, such as the Fulcrum, the Greywater, Hawkinge, and his new project, the forthcoming Project 300, a Seamaster homage. Watch lovers give Bill’s watches the respect they deserve, because they’re so well-made. Bill’s lume is right up there with the best of them, from his very first watches to present. I owned the LRRP-GMT with the 1655-like dial, and I still feel small twinges of regret for letting it go.
We wrote about NTH’s homage watches recently, and discussed how, rather than being a straight replica with different branding, Chris “Doc” Vail had taken inspiration from several different watches, given them modern lume, “like a Rolex went to a rave and didn’t shower after,” one forum member wrote, and took on the technical challenge of making them thinner than Tudor and Rolex did with an automatic, while maintaining 300M water resistance. Again, the homage pays reverence to the watch it draws inspiration from, but goes further, as MKII and NTH do. I pre-ordered an NTH Näcken Modern after having had it in for review.
The Manchester Watch Works Iconik 2 watch, which Patrick wrote about a few months back, resonated with me for all the right reasons. I always wanted an MKII Vantage, but they’re almost impossible to find. The Vantage was a 1016 homage in 39mm, where Iconik 2 is a honeycomb-sandwich-dialed tribute to the the Rolex 6350, the first Explorer. Again, it ticked all the boxes: screw down crown, 200M water resistance, and, to be different than the original, a sandwich dial. I bought this one, too.
And homages aren’t only about being affordable, or at least somewhat affordable (a MKII Kingston will set you back 2000-3000 USD at time of writing). If you want a modern homage built using only Rolex parts, there’s a watch brand who can fill this need. Tempus Machina “was created to explore the the possibilities of combining the best design elements of historic Rolex models with contemporary materials of today.” To do this, they aren’t just taking contemporary materials made in China, or using an ETA or Sellita movement. No, sir. Not on this Earth, not in this lifetime.
Tempus Machina wants to preserve the quintessentially Rolex nature of their tributes to past Rolex models, and they take a unique approach to do so. It starts with buying a brand new Rolex 114060 Oyster Perpetual Submariner, which Rolex themselves call “the archetype of the diver’s watch”. Tempus then disassemble the watch into it’s component pieces, putting the movement aside, and begin to work; the dial is stripped, polished, plated in 18k gold, and then repainted, to form the ultimate gilt dial. The crystal is replaced with a custom, high domed, anti-reflective sapphire. The lugs are reprofiled to be thinner, beveled, and drilled with lug holes. The crown, cerachrom bezel insert, and 3130 calibre are left untouched for a model that pays homage to the pointed crown guards 5512 model with 3-6-9 dial. For their other watch, they do almost the same operations, but because the other pays homage to the 6538 big crown James Bond watch, the bezel is recut from the chamfered sawteeth into a classic coin edge profile, and the cerachrom insert gets a porcelain enameled red triangle at the 12 position, along with a vintage 8mm Brevet crown. To get one of these beauties, which can be called the most Rolex-homage ever, requires about 25,000 USD, and 6-8 months of patience for delivery, along with a 50% deposit up front. It’s madness, but the best kind of madness; it’s the fever-dream that causes someone to chase absolute perfection to the very end, building the Rolex that Rolex doesn’t make anymore, but used to, using entirely Rolex parts, crystal not withstanding. Sure, it violates core principles of purists who believe anything that’s been altered after it leaves the factory is to be disdained, nay, destroyed as a Frankenwatch never meant to be born of this world, but goddamn, my friends, it’s hard to not appreciate the will, spirit, focus, and skill required to convert a modern Rolex into their perfect dream watch, an old Rolex. This, my droogs, is my brand of moon-barking lunacy.
And this wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Urwerk and Bremont. One of the members of the replica forums spent a few years of his life making the case, crystal, dial, hands, and mechanisms to make an Urwerk replica powered by a Seiko movement. Urwerk, to their credit, were impressed and complimentary of the maker, rather than lawerly and dismissive. At a Bremont event in Los Angeles I attended a few where Nick of Bremont was present, a fan had made a 3D printed Bremont watch head, to scale, with a crystal. How better to try on and get a sense of what the size feels like on the wrist? Encouraging this kind of fandom is precisely what watch brands should be doing. Obviously, it’s not the same as encouraging micro-brands producing lower cost watches that share some family resemblence, but if you want watch wearers to buy expensive watches, you need a roadmap to help move people from inexpensive watches to expensive ones, and to move people that don’t wear a watch at all to an inexpensive one. As John Biggs says, every Swiss brand is for sale, and under threat from non-watch-wearers and smartwatch sales, which despite being pooh-poohed in the media are more than Swiss manufactures sell in a year. (Apple Watch sold 6 Billion USD in sales for 2015, Rolex did 4.5 Billion.)
If you can understand why this seemed like a good idea at the time, you can start to see why the microbrands are doing it, too, but doing it within their means, and the means of their consumers. Not everyone, you see, can afford to pony up 25 large for a Tempus Machina watch that started life as a 7000 dollar watch, that is impersonating a watch that sold for about a two hundred bucks when new. It’s all about having and wearing the thing that resonates, that makes you feel good to own and wear. To all the nay-sayers in the watch-wearing world who call homages fakes, and their makers and owners as frauds, I say screw you, you’re a bad human being for throwing excrement around at people likely more knowledgable about their watches and the history of the models they draw from than you. And that’s where I leave this: the first rule of watch buying is, wear the watch you love. The second is, insulting the watch someone else loves, and the person, makes you the bad human being, and there are enough bad humans in the world; no need to mint more.