I recently purchased an 80’s Citizen Quartz watch that looks like, as the seller says, “80% Datejust”. That is to say, with its fluted bezel, jubilee-style bracelet, and sunburst dial, it looks a lot like a Rolex Datejust, which starts at around $7,000. I’ve never owned a Rolex so can’t compare the quality, but I love this fine Japanese watch and its deep blue sunburst dial. Plus, I picked up my Citizen for less than $100.

Question: Is this a lazy imitator or an iterative stroke of genius?

This question is at the heart of nearly every article about “tribute watches,” a term I think needs to be revisited and, for the sake of the hobby, revamped. Or maybe just fell in the trash.

As Oren Hartov said, a tribute watch “pays homage, of course – in this case, recalling elements of a particular vintage watch but in a completely new model.” The watch could recall aspects of a famous design, for example the hands and case shape of a Rolex Submariner. Or, he writes, “it might fall more into the category of what some would call a ‘scam’ – largely a direct copycat. The shades of gray between these extremes are myriad.

Let’s talk about those shades of gray.

Fact: The vast majority of watches on the market today are iterative – they are inspired at least in part by the watches that came before them. We tend to talk about “homage” in relation to colors (a red and blue bezel is automatically considered a tribute to Rolex Pepsi), dial and bezel, case shape, etc. But the fact is that every watch that is around 40mm, is round, or has a steel case and bezel, or tells the time with two or three hands, or has a date window, or uses Arabic or Roman numerals, or is worn on a bracelet, is a tribute in that it is repeated on all watches that have come before it.

Fact: The vast majority of watches on the market today are iterative.

If people start wearing pocket watches again (I’m not advocating that, unless you really like pocket watches), for example, the question becomes: is all the news just homage?

This definition of “tribute” is certainly too broad. But if we narrow down that definition, that “grey area” about which watch is cool and which watch is fake becomes entirely subjective.

Take for example another watch I own and love: the new Timex Q GMT. It had red-black and blue-black bezel colors when released. Reddit watch fans quickly started calling them “Coke” and “Batman”, after the classic Rolex GMT styles; then people started calling the watch a Rolex GMT tribute.

Timex

rolex watch with red, blue and black dial

rolex

It was much more complicated than that, I found out when I got mine, the blue-black bezel version. “I evolved and refined the design, but I kept the design and flavor of the original watch, launched in the late 70s, pretty much intact,” Timex designer Giorgio Galli told me. The “original watch” in this case was not a Rolex GMT, but a vintage 1970s Timex that inspired the updated Q design.

“The hands, dial and bezel of this original design [in the ‘70s] was probably inspired by a strong trend at the time… of course there is an homage to Rolex in regards to the color scheme,” Galli wrote to me in an email. “But most importantly, it’s not a copy of the Rolex.”

“I’m not a big fan of ‘tribute’ in principle as a word, or as a design ethos or philosophy.”

“‘Tribute’ is a very fine line,” Galli continued. “Many times this word is used to justify an exact copy of a product with commercial value that is in fashion. I don’t think our Q is in this game.”

Galli wrote to me, “I’m not a big fan of ‘tribute’ in principle as a word, or as a design ethic or philosophy. But if it’s done in a way that prevents a watch from being an exact copy, then it might make sense.

Once I got the Timex Q GMT and wore it, it was very clear that it was not a copy of a Rolex design. The shape of the case and its lugless design had nothing to do with any Rolex; yes, it had Batman’s color scheme, but even that had its own nuances.

OK, so if “tribute” might be a lazy term used online for suspected copycat watches, who decides who can and can’t borrow inspiration and design from previous watches? And where can I write to tell them to shut up?

What’s the line between a new watch with familiar design cues and a rip-off?

Or, to be more principled, what’s the line between a new watch with familiar design cues and a rip-off?

Bill Yao at MkII specializes in “evolutionary design” of classic military-style watches. Surely it would fall into the “tribute” category, right?

Yao thinks things differently and has come up with his own set of “rules” that MkII follows when looking at an “evolution” of an old watch. They are the following:

  • You can’t pay homage to a design that’s less than 15 years old.
  • The functionality of the watch must be better, if not comparable, to the old watch.
  • Ideally, a tribute watch should add to the history of the reference design.
  • You have to learn something from the watch design process.
  • You must be respectful of intellectual property.

    I own a Hawkinge MkII which Yao openly admits was inspired by the Mk 11 watch designed by Jaeger-LeCoultre and IWC between the 1950s and 1980s. It looks a lot like a JLC or IWC watch in that respect. It’s also $600 and I can wear it while swimming without worrying about my mortgage. Yao’s latest, the Tornek-Rayville TR-660, “evolves” the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, and costs a fraction of the price.

    flat lay of a watch surrounded by camouflage and military equipment

    Courtesy

    blancpain watch 50 fathoms black

    Blancpain

    Verdict: It’s not a scam, and to call it a tribute, it sits alongside many watches that I think are a lot less cool. It’s his own watch. “In all humility, we don’t even consider ourselves part of this ‘space’ as it is currently defined,” Yao wrote to me.

    And what about watches that are blatant “scams”? Well, they can be lame, I agree. But it mostly comes down to not paying homage, rather than doing anything to the end.

    It kinda reminds me of stand-up comedy: you can say pretty much anything up there, as long as people think you’re funny.

    Hell, if you can give me a “tribute” of a Rolex Submariner that looks and feels just as good as the real thing, but costs a tenth of a price, I’ll pay you cash. And for the record, some brands in my opinion succeed, such as the recent American micro-brand Monta 2190 Sky Quest. Monta’s watches look a lot like Rolexes to me, and this one looked like the legendary Albino Rolex GMT Master (pretty much priceless because anyone who has one won’t sell) but only costs $2,190. I couldn’t get my hands on one, though – they sold out in 15 minutes.

    Rolex itself might be the most tribute mark there

    Let me interrupt you in passing, Rolex brothers: for the poor bastard who just has to have a Rolex, it’s the best thing in the world. For me, anyway, it’s more of an issue with the exclusivity/finance brothers’ wealth club that is high-end watches.

    In fact, I’m struck by the fact that Rolex itself might be the brand most worthy of homage. All they seem to do is update older classic watch designs; every element of every watch has been redone and redone. Rolex fans drool over the little changes to the Explorer; they look mostly exactly the same (or sometimes, a bit worse) to me.

    Let’s go back to my Citizen Datejust for a moment. Is it a tribute? Was it inspired by another watch? Does it pull one off? We better remember that “tribute” is only part of a watch’s story. It’s always a bit more complicated than the word suggests. Ugly ripoffs are one thing, but otherwise give me a watch that makes me smile and I don’t care.