To Homage or Not To Homage?
Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain posed a similar question to the art world in 1917: What is art? What makes the question so similar to the title of this entry is that no answer is right and everyone’s opinion is just as valid as the next, despite how vastly the opinions may differ.
While the topic of homage watches has been exhausted time and time again within the watch-enthusiast community, no definitive answers have ever been cemented. What constitutes an homage? Are homages “bad”? What is the point in owning an homage when you can just get the real thing? Those who are new to microbrands may be completely unaware of what exactly an homage is, what the big debate is about, and whether or not they should care. The important thing to note however, is that this phenomenon is not limited to microbrands. A large range of brands from the small microbrand startup to the large multinational corporation have put out homages.
As both a musician and the owner of a watch brand, something that has always confused me was why watch homages are so controversial, while contrafacts, covers of popular songs, and sampling were embraced in the music industry. Charlie Parker, one of the pioneers of bebop jazz, built his compositions on top of pre-existing chord progressions. “Ornithology,” borrowed the chords from “How High the Moon,” and “Donna Lee” uses the chords from “Back Home in Indiana,”. And virtually every pop song written since 2005 uses the same four chords.
YouTube sensation, Boyce Avenue, has made millions of dollars off of covering pop songs. They are well known for taking modern, sometimes bass-heavy, pop songs and turning them into calming acoustic music.
DJs frequently use samples of pre-existing music to create brand new pieces of music, and they are legally allowed to do so.
Likewise, Netflix has proven with Stranger Things that you can pay homage to something while still creating something completely original and equally as interesting. The Lord of the Rings paid homage to The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars was influenced by Triumph of the Will, and Pulp Fiction borrowed from Psycho. There is also a phenomenon called “twin movies,” in which two movies share the same story line, but feature different actors.
Yet, despite the acceptance of homaging in the arts, watch enthusiasts still tend to be very divided on the subject.
Audemar Piguet Strikes Back
One topic that frequently comes up is with regards to the copyrighting of watch designs and the legal issues surrounding homages. The only noteworthy case in recent history of a watch manufacturer winning a court case due to trade dress infringement is Audemar Piguet’s 2014 case, in which the company was awarded $9.8 million USD. The leading argument in the case was that the Royal Oak, AP’s flagship product, is clearly defined and recognized in the market by its octagonal bezel, secured with exposed screws.
What makes the Royal Oak’s hexagonal bezel so much more characteristic of the watch than Rolex’s Mercedes hands, Omega’s twisted lugs, or Seven Friday’s well...everything? There is a common assumption that altering a couple of features is enough to circumvent legal hurdles, but in the eyes of the law, overall impression seems to weigh much heavier. Therefore, a reasonable deduction from this case is that in order for a watch to use an octagonal bezel, its overall design must deviate from the Royal Oak enough to make a reasonably different impression. It is worth noting that for the most part, watches cannot be protected by copyright law anyway, simply due to the fact that its constituent parts are functional in nature, rather than just aesthetic.
The One Homage to Rule Them All
The Rolex Submariner is often held in regard among watch collectors as one of the most important watches ever made and is noted by its characteristic Mercedes hands, a triangle marker at 12 o’clock, rectangle markers at 3, 6, and 9 o’clock, and circle markers at the rest. The cyclops magnified date window is often attributed to the Rolex Submariner as well. Due to the Submariner’s ubiquity and desirability, it has become one of the most homaged watches of all time, and it can be said that the term “sub” now refers to a “breed” of watch rather than Rolex's Submariner itself.
In 2016, Chris Vail, better known as Docvail and owner of NTH Watches, put out a line of watches which he dubbed “subs”. They were all sporting different names such as Oberon, Näcken, Barracuda, or Santa Fe, and likewise, featured different dials, handsets, and colorways. In fact, the only thing that tied them together as one collection was the case. On top of that, they don’t look anything like any specific Submariner reference. Perhaps what makes them subs is the general similarity that they share with the Submariner: the proportions, indices, and the handsets (although it should be noted that certain NTH models featured snowflake hands and square indices, as made famous by the Tudor Submariner and later, the Tudor Black Bay and Pelagos).
The NTH subs made us seriously question what an homage is and is not. There are definitely homages that more closely resemble pre-existing Submariner references, and if you are reading this article, odds are you are already aware of them. However, what Chris did was design a watch from the ground up that channels the spirit of a Submariner but definitely cannot be mistaken for one. They are built on the same foundation but are completely different watches. What Charlie Parker did for "How High The Moon," Chris Vail did for various Rolex Submariner references (although when asked for comment, Chris thought it was more akin to what Colonel Sanders did for fried chicken).
A Royale with Cheese
Everyone has differing opinions on what an homage watch is, and that comes as no surprise due to the fact that the very definition of “homage” is a purely subjective one. Merriam-Webster defines homage as “something that shows respect or attests to the worth or influence of another” and similarly, the Cambridge Dictionary defines homage as “an expression of great respect and honor.” Putting those definitions into the context of watches, what exactly is showing respect and honor to a watch? Is it borrowing a few design elements to acknowledge inspiration and influence? Or is it closely replicating a design and only changing the logo to avoid trademark confusion and legal hurdles? People will argue one way or the other, but ultimately, there are no definitive answers. What is definitive, however, are the distinct perspectives found in these homage discussions. Based on years of combing through comments from forums and social media as well as the feedback we’ve received, we have observed two major perspectives of what an homage watch is: the close homage and the relative homage.
This is the type of watch most people think of when they hear “homage.” The close homage is created to look as close as possible to its inspiration piece. These are perhaps the most commonly found homage watches, as well as the most controversial. Often times the most perceivable difference between the close homage and the inspiration piece is the logo on the dial, and other times the difference may be something like a slight change in proportions or color. No matter what, a close homage very clearly mimics the look of a pre-existing watch, leaving as little amount of doubt as possible to the consumer about what it is paying homage to.
In our opinion, some close homages include the Borealis Estoril, Steinhart Ocean Vintage Military, Evant Tropic, Helson Skindiver, Manchester Watch Works 62MAS, Crepas Tornado, Mk II watches.
This is the type of watch that gets you the general “look” of a particular watch(es), but will not fool anyone if the logo is obscured. The relative homage shares some key design features with a pre-existing watch(es), but has a combination of distinguishing characteristics that makes it stand uniquely on its own. This watch may feature an entirely different case, hands, indices, bezel, and colorway than its inspiration, but a link between the two watches is still relatively apparent. Many popular microbrand watches seem to fall under the relative homage category, and for good reason: they combine familiar design features with novel ones to create something new and fun.
In our opinion, some relative homages include the NTH Subs, Halios Puck II, Tactico Anko, Helm Vanuatu
These two types of homages are simply reflections of the common beliefs that have been permeating throughout the watch community over the years. You may agree or disagree on where the line is drawn between an homage or non-homage, but ultimately, it is all subjective.
Does creating an homage watch display a lack of creatively and artistic flare? Absolutely not. In some ways, it takes even more creativity to be able to change enough of a design to make it your own, yet keep enough of it to appeal to the mass market. In this previous blog post, we explained how as a microbrand, we lack the vast amounts of data that larger corporations have. Without that data, all we can do is look at what designs sell well and try to channel the same look and feel in our designs.
This argument has gone on for years and yet, we continue to be vehemently divided on the subject. This debate is one that has no end and the homage watch will never have a single accepted definition. But maybe it is better that way. Perhaps it will teach us to be more like those who love and cherish art and learn to appreciate things for what they are, homage or not. After all, designing a watch is an art, and a great artist once said: “good artists copy; great artists steal”.
Wesley Kwok is the co-founder/operator at Nodus Watches. He is an entrepreneur by day, watch-geek by night, and a musician in the spaces in between. When he is not working or playing guitar, he can be found seeking out the best craft beer in California, perfecting his brioche bun recipe, or keeping up to date on the latest tech trends.