The Funky, Forgotten Swiss Watches of the ’60s

When Rihanna announced her pregnancy in late January via a photo shoot with beau A$AP Rocky, she displayed her baby bump under a vintage Chanel silk coat and an ornate jewel-studded cross—an outfit rife with meaning if you’re looking for it. But even more intriguing was her choice of watch. She didn’t wear one of the Rolex Day-Dates in her collection, or her rose gold Patek Philippe Nautilus. No, instead she wore a relatively unknown creation from deep in the Crown’s archives: a vintage Rolex King Midas.

Launched in 1962, the King Midas embodied the retro-futuristic design spirit of its times: It was a brutalist masterpiece, an articulated manacle of 18-karat gold that looked like it could be a prop for the dystopian sci-fi epic Rollerball. Sadly for the King Midas, Rolex introduced the Cosmograph Daytona one year later, which would prove to be one of the brand’s most important and iconic models. Today, the Daytona just about defines the watch market. Along with many other steel sport watches, the Daytona has become so popular among a new generation of well-heeled collectors that they are now nearly impossible to buy at retail, and are stratospherically expensive on the secondary market. There’s not much oxygen left for weirder watches like the King Midas, the original reference of which Rolex discontinued in the ’70s. But for people who wish to get deep into the pleasures of watchmaking and who (much like Rihanna) are keen connoisseurs of uniquely stylish objects, the King Midas represents the coolest thing in collecting right now: a deep-cut masterpiece from Swiss watchmaking’s wildest design era.

One can perhaps appreciate why the King Midas didn’t exactly catch fire with the masses. At the time of its release, the Midas was the most expensive model produced by Rolex and the heaviest production gold watch in the world. But boy, does it have character: The design was inspired by the architecture of the ancient world, and the funky box it came in resembles a cinerary urn. In a rarity for Rolex, the initial run of 1,000 models were numbered. Still, despite a relatively small production life cycle, today the many iterations of the King Midas can be found for between $5,000 and $25,000.

If the Midas is a bit rollerball, then the Omega Flightmaster is pure Star Wars. Introduced in 1969, the same year Omega’s Speedmaster famously flew to the moon, the Flightmaster was designed for pilots. Hence its massive dial, which, for legibility purposes, stretches across a Swedish steel case the size of a hen’s egg. Mechanically, it is a tour de force of multi-time-zone chronography, with seven hands (one shaped like a jet plane), three subdials, three crowns, two pushers, and an inner rotating bezel. It looks like it could have been ripped out of the instrument panel of the Concorde, for which Omega supplied clocks. Even though production was discontinued in the late ’70s, it is thought that a total of around 37,500 pieces were made across four series. Models can now be found for about $5,000—collect them all!

The Patek Philippe Golden Ellipse family offers even more depth for someone looking for a rare, interesting, and relatively affordable find. Launched in 1968, the Golden Ellipse, inspired by the divine proportion utilized in Renaissance art and architecture, is neither an oval nor a rectangle. Upon release, it was hailed for its unorthodox shape and gorgeous blue-gold dial, a rarity at the time. Though it would later be overshadowed by its cousin the Nautilus, the Ellipse became, essentially, a brand within a brand, spawning spin-off ranges of key rings, cuff links, money clips, cigarette lighters, and even zodiacal pendants. By the late ’70s there were 65 different models of the watch alone, meaning there is more than a sufficient variety for the aficionado who wants to assemble a meaningful and satisfying collection across one iconic and unorthodox design. In other words: There’s a Golden Ellipse for almost any budget.

This rich vein of underappreciated watchmaking might soon be mined. After Rihanna’s announcement, online interest in the King Midas spiked. But even if you’re too late to claim one of these cult-y timepieces, don’t worry—there are plenty more out-there designs just waiting to be rediscovered.

A version of this story originally appeared in the April 2022 issue with the title “The Funky, Forgotten Swiss Watches of the ’60s.”

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