Senior Specialist Eric Wind and watch writer Ben Newport-Foster discuss the appeal of these watches purpose-built for fishing, hunting and sailing, made from the late 1940s until the mid 1970s for the eminent New York department store
Walking into Abercrombie & Fitch in New York City in 1950 was an experience like no other. Instead of the perfumed, shirtless male members of staff for which it has become renowned in recent years, it was the mounted heads of big game that greeted you.
Founded in 1892, Abercrombie & Fitch proclaimed itself as ‘The Greatest Sporting Goods Store in the World’ and had the clientele and catalogue to prove it: Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart (flight jackets), John Steinbeck (cow horn), Teddy Roosevelt (snake-proof sleeping bag), Ernest Hemingway (slippers and hunting rifles), and countless others.
On the sixth floor, nestled between the bookstore and the golf school, was the watch department. There, Abercrombie & Fitch sold a line of watches made by Heuer in Switzerland specifically for the store, and adored by collectors. Why? Let's find out.
The 1940s and 1950s witnessed a proliferation of new watches designed for rigorous activities and sports. Abercrombie stocked watches from several companies, but there was one Swiss brand — Heuer — that developed a special and ongoing relationship with the outfitter, beginning in the late 1940s.
Heuer ruled the field of purpose-built sports watches from the 1940s to the 1970s. Its timepieces designed specifically for Abercrombie included the Solunar, Seafarer, Auto-Mark and Auto-Graph.
An old Abercrombie & Fitch slogan stated, ‘The A&F type does not care about the cost; he wants the finest quality.’ The watches made by Heuer for Abercrombie & Fitch lived up to that maxim and were produced with high attention to detail both in design and mechanics.
In the late Forties Abercrombie & Fitch asked Heuer to make a watch based on the Solunar Theory developed by John Alden Knight. Hypothesising that the movements of animals and fish are in part determined by the positions of the sun and the moon, Knight established solunar charts to indicate the best times of day and month for hunting and fishing.
It fell to a 15-year-old Jack Heuer — great-grandson of Heuer’s founder Edouard Heuer, and the legendary future CEO — to recruit his brilliant high-school physics teacher, Dr. Heinz Schilt, to create a new watch that could indicate the tides.
The Solunar would represent Jack Heuer’s first contribution to the family business, and to horology. A rotating subdial at 6 o'clock displayed the high and low tides, and could be easily set by a pusher at 4 o'clock. This complication was combined with a chronograph to create the Abercrombie & Fitch Seafarer, which is the most hotly desired vintage model made by Heuer for A&F.
No watch better illustrates the evolution of case and dial designs in Abercrombie & Fitch watches than the Seafarer.
Over the years, dials and hour markers changed, the design and colours of the tide indicator were altered, and an external bezel was added. The shapes and sizes of the case were also adjusted, ranging from the 38mm cases of early examples from around 1949 through to the early 1950s, to the slightly smaller 36mm versions of the late 1950s and 1960s, and the 40mm cases of the 1970s.
In all its incarnations, Abercrombie & Fitch Seafarer models made by Heuer fall into that sweet spot that many contemporary watch collectors feel is the best size range to wear.
The Solunar and Seafarer were watches designed for adventuring in mid-century summers, and their designs reflected this. The Solunar subdial was a vibrant kaleidoscope of blues and oranges, while the Seafarer was frequently accented with preppy blues and yellows.
Other sports watches of the era could be described as looking dour and serious compared to Abercrombie & Fitch’s colourful timepieces, which goes to show that even horologically important watches can have a playful element.
Vintage Abercrombie & Fitch watches are emblems of an American institution. They are mechanical memories of a time when quality and sporting goods, rather than T-shirts, jeans and branded hoodies, were its hallmark.
Abercrombie & Fitch watches have been delighting watch enthusiasts for over 70 years, from those who originally purchased their elegant Auto-Graphs or functional Seafarers from Abercrombie & Fitch in New York — and who come to us decades later to consign them for sale — to the collectors who smile each time they look at their wrist, and dream wistfully of a day’s sailing or fishing.