The topic of homages has always been divisive in the watch-loving community, and as in any partisanship, the positions are all the sharper, the more heartfelt the diatribe.
On one side are those who believe each watch should remain distinct, as the result of independent technical and stylistic research, and should be left untouched, without any reference, actual or alleged, from other manufacturers.
On the other hand, some believe that ideas are in the air and that it is therefore not only inevitable but necessary for these to be shared so that the industry, as a whole, makes them its own, grinds them down, and uses them to move forward.
And this is only from a formal point of view: if we go down into the more practical aspects of business, we are confronted with even different aspects. But first of all, we need clarity on what precisely a homage is since the meaning of this definition sometimes eludes some enthusiasts.
What is a homage, and what is a copy
A homage is a watch inspired by aesthetic canons similar to those of another timepiece produced by a certain Maison, which obviously predates the first one and probably represents an iconic model.
However, a homage differs in several aesthetic and technical details from the original model, primarily by bearing a different brand name on its dial, thus making it impossible to confuse them, even on superficial examination. This is the main reason why producing a homage is perfectly legal.
Copies, on the other hand, attempt to copy as faithfully as possible the main watch, imitating it aesthetically (and in the case of the most extreme copies, i.e., clones, also from a technical point of view) to make them in distinguishable from the original, including creating a dial bearing a fake logo.
The difference, on closer inspection, is all in this approach. Whereas a homage is not intended to confuse people, a copy is produced solely for that reason. And so, this ethically places the two cases on very different planes.
How to determine which one is the model?
Typically, determining who was the first model of a specific design is not particularly difficult: we just rely on a time criterion. For example, the Rolex GMT Master was the first GMT watch of that precise type created in the world in 1954. Its introduction then caused a long wave of other Maisons that paid homage to it, or rather, used similar stylistic canons in their GMT models.
It started to get more complicated with the Rolex Submariner and the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms. As many will know, these two models came out on exactly the same occasion in the same year and were, if not the same, strikingly similar. So, how to determine the principal model to refer to?
In this case, history took care of that: for reasons of diffusion (ah, marketing), the Rolex Submariner grew over the years to become, de facto, the reference model for a particular type of diver’s watch, relegating the equally noble Fifty Fathoms to the empyrean of the knowledge of a few.
And we close with a case where it is impossible to trace the history to single out one model. We are talking about the Flieger watches, produced just before WWII by different houses in Germany, following specifications dictated by their patron, in the case of these, the Luftwaffe.
And between Pilot’s watches and B-Uhrs, we have today a host of Flieger watches, of which the best known is the IWC Little Prince, itself an homage to a model developed earlier. But who was its first manufacturer among Lange, Laco, Stowa, IWC, Wempe, and others? We do not know.
The good reasons for a homage
Let’s face it: watchmaking is a beautiful but expensive passion. And certain particular watches are either very expensive, impossible to buy, or both at once. In the most classic case, despite recent price settlements, a Rolex Submariner is unlikely to fetch less than $10,000, representing a substantial sum for many.
Still, so many admire its qualities and design, which faithfully reproduces the original launched some 70 years ago. So, the choice is to save up to buy one after a few years (and we are typically talking about many years, so a major project) or to rely on a good homage that costs ten times less and is available immediately.
Mainly because most homages possess technical characteristics that are sometimes even superior to those of the model they refer to.
The best tributes, made by companies such as Davosa, Steinhart, and even former giants like Revue Thommen, mount very well-made calibres produced by the best houses on the market, such as ETA, Sellita, and Seiko, sometimes with COSC certification, and offer water resistance equal to or better.
In terms of materials and finishing, we are also on the same level: grade 5 titanium cases, AR-treated sapphire crystal, ceramic bezels, or other technical materials, carefully assembled and finished.
Besides the name on the dial, the real difference is the price you pay for them. Otherwise, the experience, from a technical and functional point of view, is precisely the same.
The first “homagist” has royal origins
Needless to deny: one of the most homage houses is the House of the Crown, and the Submariner, besides being the world’s best-known watch, is also the most homaged and imitated timepiece in the world. But historically, all Swiss houses had different lines within their production, and often, other brands.
Rolex itself deposited many different brands that it then used especially early in its history, or then sold to others, as happened, for example, with Wintex (yes, it was a Rolex brand). But there is one brand that the Geneva-based Maison, on the other hand, has held on to tightly: Tudor.
Tudor has always been considered Rolex’s “little sister”: the two brands shared designs, materials, and often, components, but Tudor mounted ready-made movements produced by outside houses (so-called ebauche) while Rolex, after its beginnings when it relied on Aegler’s calibers, mounted manufacture movements.
And as far as price was concerned, Tudor offered Rolex quality and a major brand at a lower price than Rolex itself. This was a win-win positioning: in this way, Rolex could also extend its offerings to a more affordable segment, and watch enthusiasts could buy good watches with very similar designs to Rolex watches even without having to open a mortgage. As Rolex continues to tweak prices upward, the gap between the two brands widens and, thus, affects more and more people.
In short: the first homage manufacturer was Rolex itself. And so one is a bit surprised when one hears heavy statements about design originality that must be protected.
We do not think the debate between the two opposing sides can be reduced and defined in an article since this has not happened in decades. From our point of view, which is certainly more practical, we think the homage phenomenon has its validity and dignity.
It is said that imitation is the sincerest form of admiration, and this must be true if we believe the proverbs: but from our point of view, we know that the creation of homage often represents the first step for so many modern Maisons, which then began to follow their path once they had clearly defined what it was.
We do not believe that originality at all costs is necessary. Quite the contrary: the study of the productions of past geniuses – and we are talking about Genta and Breguet – is undoubtedly an essential element in building this immense cathedral of commitment and technique that is the art of watchmaking. And the world of homage, in its various forms, is a pillar of it.
Franz Rivoira is a notable horology expert and journalist, quite famous for his activity on Quora. He has cooperated with several websites dedicated to luxury and horology, among which his latest is MicroBrand Watch World, a magazine dedicated to the phenomenon of microbrands. He is the author of several e-books about horology (The Watch Manual).