Watches from the 1960s are among the most desirable, and feature many iconic models that most watch collectors will recognize immediately. During the 1960s, major watch brands like Zenith began competing to craft the first automatic chronograph wristwatch.
Heuer and Breitling collaborated with support from Hamilton, Buren, and Dubois-Depraz, while Japanese watchmakers like Seiko were pretty much on their own.
The fierce competition between international watch brands during this decade led to incredible advancements in watch technology, which is why there are so many collectible watches from this era.
In this article, we will take an in-depth look at some of the most ingenious vintage watches from the 1960s from brands like Seiko, Zenith, Enicar, Heuer and Rolex.
Interested in earlier vintage watches?
Check out the most famous vintage watches of the 1950s!
Seiko Watches – Internal Competition, Global Success
The Seiko brand came into being in 1881, and has some major firsts to its name. These include the first mass-produced automatic chronograph as well as the world’s first quartz watch.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Seiko is the unusual business model the company adopted in 1959. That year, the company split into two subsidiaries. The better known is Suwa Seikosha, and the lesser known is Daini Seikosha.
The reason for the split was that Seiko believed that competition was a driving motivator for success. And what better way to promote competition and ensure it reaped the rewards than to compete against itself?
So, Suwa Seikosha and Daini Seikosha went to work to beat each other. The results were some astonishing innovations from both subsidiaries.
Grand Seiko, The Birth of Greatness
The first Grand Seiko was introduced in 1960 by a small team of Seiko’s most experienced and skilled watchmakers. The Grand Seiko contained the manually wound caliber 3180 which brought accuracy, legibility and durability to the market. From its very beginnings, Grand Seiko was a world class brand. It is a 18,000bph, 25 jewel movement, and it was chronometer certified.
The 3180 was designed to compete with Swiss watchmakers, and it was able to outperform many of the top Swiss models of the 1960s. Although around 36,000 were produced, there were a range of dial and case material variations created during the production run that ended in 1964. You may still find one of these for sale at specialized dealers or even on the bay.
Seiko 6139, The First Mass-Produced Automatic Chronograph in the World
Much of the competition mentioned between Seiko, Zenith and the Heuer and Breitling group during the 60s was focused on creating the first automatic chronograph.
It was most probably Seiko that managed to beat its competitors in the beginning of year 1969 with the introduction of the 6139. The story of the first automatic chronograph is well-documented; I recommend reading this recent article by Stephen from GrailWatch.
This watch featured a vertical clutch and column wheel, a quickset time display, a 30-minute counter, no continuous seconds, and a hefty 40mm steel case.
There were many case and dial variations within the 6139 line, which you can check in this detailed guide. The most famous watch here is probably the yellow dial 6139-600X, usually referred to as the “Pogue” by collectors. Even though the 1974 Skylab Mission’s official watch was the Omega Speedmaster, NASA astronaut Col. William Pogue opted to wear a Seiko 6139 to the station and gave his name to this model. There are quite a few of these for sale at any given time, but beware of frankens.
Zenith was launched by Georges Favre-Jacot in 1865 in Le Locle, Switzerland. The company quickly gained popularity as the manufacturer of some of the most precise timepieces in the 19th century. Over the years, Zenith won many competitions achieving and creating world-class pocket watches, onboard instruments, and wristwatches.
After the First World War, the watch brand began developing and producing wristwatches that included complications like alarms and chronographs. Zenith introduced an automatic chronograph movement in 1969, after a seven year-journey development process.
Zenith El Primero
In 1969, Zenith announced the launch of the first fully integrated, high-frequency, automatic chronograph movement, code-named 3019 PHC, at a press conference held on January the 10th. This movement’s name was changed to “El Primero”, which means “the first” in Spanish. Funnily, Zenith was the last of the trio to deliver its automatic chronograph to customers.
The Zenith El Primero, operating at a high frequency of 36,000 vibrations per hour, turned out to be the longest-produced automatic chronograph movement. While Seiko 6139 is long discontinued, updated versions of the El Primero are still being produced. Vintage El Primero’s in good condition do not come up often and can be quite expensive.
Despite not being a name as big as, say, Rolex, Enicar was among the premier watchmakers in the world during its heyday. The history of the Enicar brand dates back to 1913. The founders of the company were Ariste Racine and wife Emma Blatt. So, you’d think the company would be called “Racine,” alas there was already a trademark on the name. But perhaps you notice that if you spell Racine backwards, you get “Enicar.”
The company became famous both for high-quality watches and for publicity stunts. For example, they sponsored mountaineers who were trying to summit Mount Everest in the 50s, and used “Sherpa” for branding for some of their watches.
You can explore the rich history of the Enicar brand in detail in this guide. While we share a number of iconic watches with you in that guide, below, we would like to introduce you to the Enicar Sherpa Guide 600.
Enicar Sherpa Guide 600
One beautiful watch featuring impressive functionality from Enicar in the 60s is the Enicar Sherpa Guide 600. It is very stylish with a black watch face, contrasting white 24-hour rotating inner bezel, and the outer cities ring in black. The red second hand and black and red checkered 24-hour hand really stand out against the black backdrop.
You’ll notice the size of this watch stands out as well. It measures 40mm, which during that era made it a very large timepiece.
Those who are interested in collecting these watches may find them listed for anywhere between about $1,500 and $3,000 as of the time of this writing.
Uhrenmanufaktur Heuer AG was established in Switzerland by Edouard Heuer in 1860. The brand rose to prominence starting in the 1910s. Throughout the 20th century, Heuer’s reputation grew for creating innovative chronographs and dashboard timers.
The 1960s were arguably when the company reached its height of popularity. During that time, a lot of race car drivers took to using their chronographs.
But Heuer watches weren’t confined to the racetracks. They even made it out to space. Famously, John Glenn brought along one of the company’s stopwatches as a backup in 1962 onboard the Mercury Atlas 6. He used it, too. It was the first Swiss watch to venture beyond earth’s atmosphere.
TAG Group took over the company in 1985 by buying a majority stake. Ever since, it has been known as TAG Heuer. Nonetheless, it actually changed hands again in 1999, when it was purchased by LVMH, a luxury goods giant from France.
Heuer Autavia Series
Let’s take a look at the Heuer Autavia series. The name “Autavia” is a portmanteau of “automotive” and “aviation.”
Initially, the name referred to dashboard timers from the company between 1933 and 1957. As the name indicates, these were used by drivers of automobiles as well as aircraft pilots.
But from 1962 onwards, “Autavia” referred to a line of chronographs consisting of 85 models in all. Heuer would produce them throughout the 60s and 70s, continuing through 1985.
- First generation Autavia watches: Initially, Autavia watches were introduced with 38mm steel cases. The dials were black, the sub-dials were white, and lume helped the hour markers stand out. Metal hour-markers and steel hands showed up starting in 1966, and the size of the sub-dials decreased. Movements in early Autavia watches included the Valjoux 72- 3 register manual-wind Chronograph (2446), Valjoux 92- 2 register manual-wind Chronograph (3646), and Valjoux 724- GMT version of Valjoux 72 (2446).
- Second generation Autavia watches: Moving into the late 60s, we saw a snap-back compression case show up in 1968. The lug design changed, becoming blockier. The bezel got bigger too. Movements that showed up during this generation included the Valjoux 72- as per First Gen. (2446), Valjoux 7730- 2 register (7763), Valjoux 7732- 2 register + date (7863), and Valjoux 724- as per First Gen. (2446). This generation comprised just a couple of years.
- Third generation Autavia watches: Generally speaking, this refers to all subsequent vintage Autavia models. There were four sub-series within this generation: 1163, 11630, 11063, and 11X.603. Going forward, Autavia watches were characterized by integrated lugs and the inclusion of the Chronomatic movement.
Heuer actually reissued eight Autavia models beginning in 2003. There is a very complete reference guide over at Calbire11 that every serious collector of Heuer Autavia watches must read.
You can also find a modern “Autavia Isograph,” which is not a chronograph, simply a three-hand watch introduced in 2019.
Ask any layperson to name one luxury watch brand, and chances are really good they will answer “Rolex.”
While the name “Rolex” is synonymous with luxury watches, one name you perhaps don’t know as well is “Wilsdorf and Davis.”
That was the name of the company at its inception. It might also surprise you that it was first based in London before transferring to Geneva at the end of the first World War.
Perhaps the reason why so many people are familiar with Rolex even outside the world of vintage watch collectors is the fact that Rolex has produced some extremely expensive timepieces.
Speaking of which, let’s examine the Rolex “Paul Newman” Daytona.
Rolex “Paul Newman” Daytona
Here is a watch you are probably familiar with. But before describing the Rolex “Paul Newman” Daytona, it makes sense to give a bit of background on the Daytona wristwatches.
As you might guess from the name, the Rolex Daytona is a watch for racecar drivers. The series has been around since 1963, with the first generation being manufactured through the 60s, 70s, and most of the 80s. 1988 saw the introduction of the second generation, while the third came into production starting in 2000.
Beginning in 1965, Rolex started making “Paul Newman” Daytona watches. These were exactly the same as other Daytona watches, except that they featured different dials. Sometimes, you will hear these referred to by their original name, “exotic dials.”
The reference numbers for Daytona watches include 6239, 6241, 6265, 6263, and others. You can find Paul Newman versions and non-Paul Newman versions.
Joanne Woodward gifted her husband Paul Newman a Rolex Daytona with an exotic dial, which he later gave in turn in 1984 to his daughter’s boyfriend.
Ironically, the exotic dials were not originally popular. Indeed, the company only managed to move one watch with an exotic dial off its shelves for every 20 or so regular ones.
But eventually, people started spotting the exotic dial on the watch that Paul Newman was wearing, and that was when demand for the exotic dials surged.
That was also when the people began referring to the exotic dials as “Paul Newman” dials, and a trend was born.
In 2017, that famous watch that belonged to Paul Newman went up for auction, selling for $17.8 million. At the time of the sale, it was a record.
So, what constitutes a Paul Newman “exotic” dial for a Daytona Rolex? The sub-dials feature crosshairs. If you look at the 9 o’clock sub-dial on a regular Daytona, you’ll read 20, 40, 60. But if you look at that same sub-dial on a Paul Newman version, you will read 15, 30, 45, 60.
The sub-dials stand out with their high contrast to the dial color, which is true of both the regular and exotic dials. But the exotic dials also feature a color contrast between the dial and the outer minute track. Instead of line markers, there are block markers.
A Revolution for Watchmaking
The 1960s was a revolutionary time for watchmaking and the advent of the automatic chronograph would continue to drive innovation in the 1970s.
Watchmakers started a race to develop the first self-winding chronograph, and several projects, such as the El Primero from Zenith, the Seiko 6139, and the Calibre 11 would all build the base for further innovation.
Although great things happened in the 1960s, watchmakers would soon be challenged by the most substantial existential crisis in the history of the industry – quartz movements.
Regardless of the challenges they would face in the coming two decades, the 1960s stand out at a high point for mechanical watches, and a time when Japanese wristwatches entered the global markets with a bang.