For the first half of the 20th century, a wristwatch was, for most people, if not quite a once-in-a-lifetime purchase, then certainly one that was made only rarely and after careful thought. A wristwatch was an expensive commodity that was expected to last some considerable time. That’s one reason why watch manufacturers tended to be conservative about the outward appearance of their products. If customers were going have to live with their watch for a long time, then there was no point in modishness. Understatement goes hand in hand with longevity in design terms.
In 1965, the British company Accurist changed all that. Accurist had been in business since the 1940s commissioning modest, mid-market watches from Swiss manufacturers. Then Richard Loftus, son of the company’s owners, woke up one morning and decided there no reason why a watch shouldn’t be a fashion item – worn to match the owner’s mood and inexpensive enough to be discarded once the design had dated. Between 1965 and 1970, he came up with a range of funky watches in unconventional shapes and day-glo colours. Not only that, he designed wristwatches and straps in sizes so massive that they looked positively freakish by comparison with the standard idea of what a wristwatch should look like. He also put watches on belt buckles and rings, and re-styled the pocket watch for the Swinging Sixties. This range of radical new timepieces, he called Old England. There is a great mid-sixties clip of an rather unexpectedly un-hip Richard Loftus talking about his creations here .
Old England watches were worn by the hippest and most fashionable figures in Swinging London, including Twiggy and the Beatles. Famously indeed, the Beatles stocked the brand at the Apple boutique and commissioned Richard Loftus to design a special Apple watch for them to give as gifts to favoured acquaintances. I own a brilliant example, still in its original box, which was given as a prize in a competition (I hope a dancing competition) at the Ritz Ballroom in Manchester in 1967.
It is hard to recapture now, just how startling Old England watches were when they first appeared. I still remember being amazed by the sight of them as a small boy when I saw them on the wrists of the sixth form girls at my new secondary school. Their huge size seemed completely outlandish (the watches that is, not the sixth form girls) yet they looked groovy and glamorous.
Mind you, all this cheap hipness was achieved entirely at the cost of the watch’s core functionality. Accurist made them work by using the very very cheapest, single-jewel, pin palette movements. When Old England watches turn up now, they are invariably unreliable and prone to stopping. They could not have been accurate timekeepers even when new . The cases are made from light, cheap base metal. They are easily broken. Surviving examples are best regarded as a piece of fashion history to be worn occasionally for a bit of fun. My own favourite design is the “Flower Power” with the psychedelic lettering and the little yellow flowers on the tips of the hands. See below. Fab.