Considering nostalgia: Watches tell more than time

Middle Century Modern watches, like the 2017 Timex Martin redux, remind us of both the past and of an imagined future.  Courtesy of Timex

In the age of accessories like the Apple Watch, CGI-fueled movie franchises à la Marvel, and technological realities such as ubiquitous streaming or 4K TVs, it’s rather bizarre that our cultural obsessions are so often backward-looking. More interesting is that our fondness for Mid-Century design has well surpassed the familiar 30- year rule that we associate with nostalgia. Moreover, these nostalgic phenomena seem to realize themselves as cultural fixations; that is to say that these aren’t cases of personal nostalgia, but rather constitute an ideal which permeates our cultural milieu. The persistence of the Mid-Century Modern indicates that, as a cultural ideal, the aesthetics and philosophy of Mid-Century Modern prove continually useful and potent. In other words, we haven’t found anything with which to satisfactorily replace the Mid-Century Modern as a conceptual and aesthetic archetype. 

Old news, perhaps, to watch aficionados and likely no news at all to most: The Mid-Century Modern trend has firmly planted its flag among the diverse field of contemporary wristwatch designs. Among oversized and over-complicated chronographs, divers and pilot’s watches, the subtle appeal of understatement continues to possess the hearts and minds of watch collectors and fashion-conscious consumers alike. In February of this year, New York-based men’s fashion boutique Todd Snyder announced their “Mid-Century” collaboration with iconic American watchmaker Timex. Mounted on Red Wing leather from Minnesota, the Mid-Century is stunning, and for fans of the style, it’s fortunately only one of several recent vintage-minded offerings from Synder and Timex. 

First and most notable of such nostalgic timepieces is the Timex Marlin reissue. Modeled after classic Timex watches from the 1960s, the reissue Marlin is as faithful a reproduction as one could want. The 2017 redux maintains the same size as the original: just 34mm in diameter, absolutely tiny by today’s market standards. It also has the same face design as the original Marlin, which Gear Patrol estimates is “hip/funky enough to have a certain timelessness” and is “a svelte and highly wearable watch,” (Gear Patrol, “The New Marlin Mesh is the Most Versatile Timex Marlin Yet,” 10.01.2018). 

This author agrees. So, seemingly, does the watch-buying public. The hand-wound mechanical Marlin reissue went out of stock not long after release, and was followed by several other throwbacks which were met with similar levels of enthusiasm. 

The second such nostalgia piece from Timex and Snyder is the Welton Bi-Metal. The Welton is sexy in its grandfatherliness. It offers in its retro-shiny, smiling brushed metal face the silent promise of lost wisdom. Part of the allure is that it’s foreign, yet familiar. 

The Welton takes its design from what was originally the Timex “Mercury,” keeping the ’50s exterior and swapping out the insides for something more modern and efficient—a battery-powered quartz movement in place of an outdated mechanical one. Yet Timex once again kept the 34mm diameter, prompting Maxim to call the vintage-inspired watches “the definition of cool, classy, and understated” (Maxim, “Todd Snyder & Timex Reissue Classic Mid-Century Watch Just in Time For Father’s Day,” 05.28.2019). 

The Todd Snyder Welton Bi-Metal’s sleek, retro design embodies grandfatherliness and sex appeal rolled into one package. 
Courtesy of Timex

Of course, no media-conscious writer can address the Mid-Century Modern phenomenon without nodding vigorously in the direction of AMC’s “Mad Men.” For those unfamiliar, “Mad Men” is half corporate/domestic period drama and half meticulously manufactured Mid-Century design porn. Indeed, most critics and commentators point to a rising interest in Mid-Century design during the show’s airing. But let’s be clear: “Mad Men” has been off the air for over four years. 

Though its most potent materialization finds itself dead and buried, the Mid-Century aesthetic not only continues to trot along rather merrily, but finds itself curled up, warm and dozing comfortably in our zeitgeist as a driving principle of design. 

Accessories and television aside, Mid-Century design principles dominate in the arena of architecture and interior design—so much so that in 2016, Fast Company called Mid-Century Modern the “Pumpkin Spice Latte of Design” (Fast Company, “How Midcentury Modern Became The Pumpkin Spice Latte Of Interior Design,” 10.04.2016). When considered in aggregate, it becomes clear that all of this nostalgia in design, media and fashion is an expression of some deeper phenomenon in our popular culture. Often one feels that we’re looking toward the past more than we are the future. Futurism was everywhere in the mid-20th century. In the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, we were excited about the modern because it was futuristic. What happened? 

In a nutshell, Mid-Century Modernity in the West is rooted in a sincere and hopeful futurism, a belief that new is better and a commitment to both technological innovation and the sleek, shiny and minimalist design it facilitates. It’s nostalgia for this very attitude that keeps the Mid-Century Modern around on our wrists, on our TVs and in our homes. This nostalgia manifests as a longing for such an uncomplicated enthusiasm for the future; we think that it is perhaps accessible through its most obvious and tactile artifacts. Our nostalgia for the Mid-Century Modern thus reveals the very void it seems to fill. 

The reality is that these watches still tug at our ingrained cultural ideas about “the future,” despite being half a century old. We still imagine them as sleek and futuristic, and moreover, they still satisfy our collective expectations of what it means to be “futuristic.” 

We’re attracted to them because they signal a time when the future seemed just around the riverbend, a time when it beckoned, close and exciting. Well, we’re here, yet we’re there too: We seem to be stuck between the mid-century’s expectations of the future and our own experience of its reality. 

What we lack now is a consistent ideation of the future. The future now seems uninterpretable. Or, at least, we haven’t invented a new cultural lens with which to interpret it. The “modern” future of the mid-20th century offered a fascicle interpretation of time’s progression—modernity was seen as something to aspire to, something to dive into head-first. As we complicate our understanding of “progress,” however, we find ourselves nostalgic for a time when our consideration of past and present was much more straightforward. 

This is all to say: The Timex Marlin remake is as gorgeous as, and even perhaps more gorgeous than, the original watch was some 50 years ago. Mechanical timepieces like the Marlin remind us of a time when we were sure about our future, when we saw ourselves as moving only on an upward trajectory, and when progress promised that the next best thing was always around the corner. 

Such artifacts of nostalgia are reassuring, even for people who weren’t alive when the originals came out. It’s partially because our cultural sense of what is “modern” hasn’t changed. But it’s also because the futuristic promise of the “modern” still hangs over us like a specter. 

Vintage-inspired watches, too, remind us of what our predecessors had hoped for us. The Mid-Century Modern aesthetic was about progress. It was about positive change. It presumed that we were going somewhere. Perhaps our cultural dyssynchrony, our nostalgia for the Mid-Century Modern, stems from our collective unease at having not yet arrived. 

In pondering these and other backward-looking cultural phenomena, thoughtful and curious readers are likely to come across the writings of Mark Fisher and Brian Dillon, both to whom this piece is very much indebted. 

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