Welcome to “Watches You Should Know,” a new bi-weekly (the once-every-two-weeks kind) column highlighting little-known watches new and old that have interesting stories or have had a surprising impact on the industry.
For a certain segment of the population, hearing the words “Abercrombie & Fitch” may produce a few unpleasant thoughts. Dimly lit stores. Black-and-white photos of abs. That particularly frustrating guy from high school. You know the one. Unless you’re deeply indoctrinated into the world of vintage watches, a timepiece worth many thousands of dollars probably won’t enter your headspace when someone mentions the brand’s name. But sure enough, the words “Abercrombie & Fitch Co.” adorn one of the most grail-worthy chronographs of all time.
Like a number of legacy companies, Abercrombie & Fitch has been through a number of reinventions throughout its history. When it was founded in 1892, it initially sold high-end outdoor gear and apparel. Its Midtown Manhattan location in the early-to-mid 20th century was a massive, 12-floor gear mecca and one of the most impressive retailers of its time. Among its illustrious clientele were folks like Teddy Rosevelt, Amelia Earhart and Ernest Hemmingway, who could buy everything from snake-proof sleeping bags to guns and flight jackets within its walls.
Abercrombie & Fitch also offered watches from a few renowned Swiss watchmakers, but in the 1940s, Heuer began making timepieces signed with the brand’s name. Heuer was already producing some of the most compelling tool watches of the era, but its partnership with Abercrombie & Fitch brought some incredible exclusives to the mix. Among the first was the Solunar, a watch developed for hunters, fisherman and sailors. (At six o’clock, the watch featured a sub-dial that read off the times for high and low tide. A pusher at nine o’clock allowed the wearer to reset the complication for their current location.)
According to his autobiography The Times of My Life, the creation of the complication was legendary company CEO Jack Heuer’s first contribution to “the family business” when he was just 15 years old. But according to Analog/Shift, the Solunar didn’t prove to be a particularly high seller, with only 1,000 pieces made before discontinuation. Its complication lived on in the Seafarer, the watch many collectors consider the crème de la crème of the A&F Heuers.
The Seafarer debuted in the early 1950s and took the form a three-register chronograph with the tide display taking the place of the watch’s running seconds function, using a slightly modified Valjoux chronograph movement. Several Seafarer models would be produced over the next couple of decades, with case sizes and designs that reflected the evolution of the watch during these years. But all of them kept a similar and brightly-colored dial design. The initial Seafarers had decidedly simple, Carrera-like cases, while later versions with rotating bezels were introduced based on the designs of chunkier Heuer chronographs like the Autavia.
The Seafarer went out of production in the mid-1970s, and while it’s not clear how many were made and sold (and on top of that, how many survived actual use in the outdoors), they aren’t exactly a common sight on the vintage market. What we can say for certain is that when they do crop up, they command truly bonkers prices. As of this post, Menta Watches was offering this early Seafarer reference at a $22,000 price point. Last year, Christie’s sold an this example with a tropical dial for an astounding $60,000.
The Seafarer’s demise in the 1970s is almost poetically parallel to that of Abercrombie & Fitch, which went bankrupt in 1977. The complex mechanical watch was an expensive relic compared to the increasingly accessible quartz watch, and Abercrombie & Fitch’s high-end offerings faltered in an increasingly cost-conscious marketplace. And while the current iteration of A&F places an emphasis on inclusion and good value, there are still misty-eyed nostalgists who, not unreasonably, place both the watch and the original outfitter on pedestals as lost icons of a bygone era of exploration, adventure and style.