There are some brands that seem so perfectly modern, it can sometimes come as a great surprise when you discover they’ve recently made an homage piece. I remember a few years ago, when I was first started writing about watches at Theo & Harris, we came across an amazing 1950s-era racing chronograph with beautiful copper hands and a fantastically intricate dial. It had these incredibly sturdy pushers, measured maybe just over 36 mm, and had a lightly scuffed case full of character that seemed designed to fit beneath a jacket cuff. The brand that made this watch, surprisingly, was Invicta. And while I certainly have no qualms with that brand, it’s fair to say that its watches are not usually known for their history or subtlety.
So, when I came across the Oris Big Crown 1917 during Baselworld this year, I must say I was quite surprised — not as surprised as upon finding that vintage Invicta, of course, but surprised nonetheless. I’ve been familiar with the brand’s now-famous Diver Sixty-Five — a watch modeled after a vintage 1965 Oris dive watch — and I’ve read about the original Big Crown, which draws its influences from the company’s late-1930s aviation pieces. That was about my range of expertise on Oris’s history — until just recently, when Oris researchers, while digging through the brand’s archives, discovered an early pocketwatch-converted 1917 pilots’ wristwatch (pictured above). Surprisingly — to the researchers as well as myself, apparently — Oris produced this piece more than twenty years prior to what company records had previously indicated. Luckily for us, we live in an age in which someone at Oris saw this 100-year-old piece and thought, “Let’s make this watch again,” and thus, in 2017, we now have the Oris Big Crown 1917.
This modern homage, like many pieces that draw their inspiration from the early 20th century (think Zenith Pilot Type 20 or Patek Philippe Calatrava Pilot Travel Time), takes many of the aesthetic elements of a pocketwatch-converted piece, and transforms them through modern manufacturing to something modern that still honors its past. With its steel 40-mm diameter; thin, wire-inspired lugs; and large onion crown that gives it its “Big Crown” moniker, the watch clearly set out to channel the round, curved complexion from the early history of wristwatches. On its dial you’ll find both intricacy and simplicity. At first glance, the well-balanced elements of its railroad track outer minute ring, vintage-inspired “Old Radium” filled Arabic numerals and cathedral hands, and stepped silver case appear rather modest. But on further inspection you’ll remember the rarity of these elements being in combination with one another, and you’ll notice the slightly blued steel of the hands and the uncommon grainy texture of the dial. It actually took me a little while to realize that the “Oris” logo on the dial is vintage-style instead of modern; another testament to how well-balanced the entire dial has been designed.
Powering the piece is the Oris Caliber 732 (a converted Selitta SW 200-1), capable of a 38-hour power reserve, and boasting an unusual 2 o’clock pin-lever mechanism. This feature allows the wearer to hold down the pin and then turn the crown to adjust the time, as compared to having to pull out the crown to do the same. I’m not sure how functionally useful the mechanism is, but it’s a feature that was seen on the original model from 1917, so a historically interesting element at the very the least. Finally, the caseback features another vintage logo, this time engraved, dubbed the “Poinçon de Maître,” which was once the personal stamp of quality used by the brand. The watch will be limited to (appropriately) 1,917 pieces, and will be priced around $2,400.
In comparison to its 1917 ancestor, there are not many differences of note. It truly appears that someone at Oris found the historical piece, gave it to engineers, and said “Make this watch.” Outside of luxurious updates like the grainy texture of the dial, the engraved caseback, and the overall refinement that comes from 100 years of improvements in manufacturing, the only real changes are in the integrated (as opposed to welded-on) wire lugs, and the automatic (as opposed to hand-wound) movement. And while some might take issue with these changes, the fact this vintage watch was not known to exist prior to a few months ago will likely hold back some of the critiques. In the end, what’s most fascinating is that the vintage piece was even found, and that the brand had enough market know-how and the resources to quickly convert it into a marketable new watch. I can only hope next time Oris going through its records that if finds a Type XX chronograph and releases that one next.