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The weird but true story of how Timex watches became fashionable again

These are the Timex watches that made the brand stylish again

Overhead view of a Timex watch on a wrist.

When I was about 8 years old, my father decided that it was time for me to start wearing a watch. He bought me a digital Timex with a rubber strap, an ideal timepiece for an irresponsible young boy. It was waterproof and durable, and most importantly, it was cheap.

These were the defining characteristics of Timex watches for men in the 1990s. The once-prestigious American watchmaker had transitioned into a purveyor of dependable but disposable watches sold everywhere from department stores to drug stores. Their function was purely utilitarian, built to keep track of time in the most straightforward way possible. Many of their digital watches offered alarms, calendars, and other rudimentary “smart” features. This was an important niche that Timex occupied admirably, but it wasn’t always this way.

A timex marlin with a california dial.

Timex has always provided affordability and dependability, but for most of the brand’s long and esteemed history, it’s also provided style. From the 1920s until the quartz revolution of the 1980s, Timex sold eloquently designed and dependably built wristwatches that were affordable for the mass market. In fact, the company was an early innovator of the wristwatch when it designed one for American soldiers during World War I.

In the 1950s, it used advancements in metal alloys and bomb fuses made during the war to create more durable automatic watches that could be mass-produced cheaply. For most of the twentieth century, Timex sold more watches in America than any other company. 

Over the past decade, Timex has reclaimed its heritage as the American stylish watch brand of the people. Even with the enormous financial resources and market share that it already enjoyed, this was no easy accomplishment. About 15 years ago, as the watch market was exploding, Timex was an afterthought. The athletics market it was known for had been overtaken by smartwatches, and Timex’s quartz analog watches were viewed as bland plastic.

It took the support of a beloved fashion designer, the hiring of a prodigious watch designer, and some savvy and creative choices to make Timex a player in men’s style again. The story of how this played out can best be told from the perspective of the six Timex watches that lead the way.

History of the first Timex watch

The first official Timex watch that carried the brand name actually hit the market in 1950. However, the story behind its origins goes back even further, deeply rooted in American watchmaking history. Prior to the Timex name, the company behind it operated as the Waterbury Clock Company, established in 1854. It was known for producing affordable pocket watches, aiming to challenge the dominance of expensive European alternatives. This focus on accessibility and value would become a core principle carried over to the Timex brand.

A crucial innovation came during World War II with the development of Armalloy, a durable and inexpensive new alloy replacing traditionally used rubies in watch movements. This allowed Timex to produce reliable watches at even lower costs, paving the way for their official debut in 1950.

A Timex Ironman digital watch in black.

I am Ironman

Apple wasn’t the first company to put apps on a watch. Hamilton invented the digital watch, but Timex, Casio, and Seiko made them smart in the 1980s. They put calendars, alarms, calculators, date keeping, and other digital functions on the wrist for the first time. Timex took the functionality a step further in the 1990s when it released the Ironman line.

Partnering with the renowned triathlon competition gave Timex the respectability to corner the market on sports watches. They were waterproof, dirt proof, scratch and impact resistant, and they tracked your performance. The Ironman line became the best-selling sports watch of the 1990s and remains a favorite of runners, bikers, and swimmers to this day. 

A silver Timex Marlin watch with a black band

Todd and the Marlin

When Todd Snyder was creative director of J.Crew Men’s during the early 2000s, he chose Timex as the only watch brand to be sold alongside his designs. At this time, Timex offered a very limited range of vintage-inspired watches that fit the J.Crew aesthetic. Although they looked the part, they were all quartz and featured plastic parts, so they didn’t intrigue watch enthusiasts.

After Snyder went solo and started his eponymous brand in 2011, he continued his partnership with Timex. After a few years of selling vintage designs with quartz movements, watches that were specially curated by Snyder, Timex decided to fully revive its most iconic watch of the 1960s. Initially an exclusive for Todd Snyder in 2016, the Marlin line was built to the same size and look as the original line and even featured a hand-wound mechanical movement. This was Timex’s first step back into the world of mechanical watches. Since then, the company has expanded the Marlin line to feature a variety of face designs and case sizes, and it’s even added fully automatic movements

Timex Giorgio Galli

A new director

Veteran watch designer Giorgio Galli is the mind guiding Timex through its style rebuild. The Milan-based designer was creative director of Swatch Group in the 1990s, one of the largest watch companies in the world. Accordingly, he was highly experienced in designing watches that looked good and worked well while remaining affordable for mass-market production.

Galli began working with Timex in the early 2000s as a design consultant before taking over creative direction full time. His signature models stand out among Timex wristwatches as uniquely sleek and modern. The Giorgio Galli line also offers the highest level of quality when it comes to materials and production while selling for just under $500, placing watches in this line among the greatest bang for your buck anywhere in the watch world. 

A Timex M79 dive watch in blue and black.

Back in time

Galli’s influence goes far beyond his signature line. He has also created an ever-growing range of stylish and sturdy timepieces. He has cleverly drawn aesthetic inspiration from within Timex’s vast portfolio of 20th-century designs while following the micro-brand blueprint by outsourcing mechanical and automatic movements. As varied as the micro-brand watch community may seem, almost all these watches are powered by Japanese and Chinese movements.

Timex has been able to revive its automatic line without jacking up prices by relying on automatic movements from Miyota, a subsidiary of Citizen, and mechanical movements from Seagull. The dive-inspired M79 Automatic, first revived as part of the quartz-driven Q line, offers a retro submariner vibe for a fraction of the cost. 

A Timex chronograph watch in black with a steel band.

Q is for quartz

While it’s nice to see Timex getting back into the automatic game, it remains fundamentally a quartz watch company. The company was an innovator in the quartz movement during the 1980s, which is still what it does best. So it makes sense that the Q line of retro reissues has become Timex’s most popular line among watch enthusiasts. Its long-lasting partnership with Todd Snyder has proved to be a wellspring of inspiration for timeless designs.

The newest addition to the Q line, the Q Chronograph, tops every predecessor in universal beauty and rock-solid functionality. It clearly draws inspiration from chronograph classics like the Rolex Daytona and the Tag Heuer Autavia while featuring enough fundamentally Timex elements to make it its own.

A Timex chronograph watch in silver.

American fundamentals

We’re well over a decade past the point when men started caring about watches again. What started out as a fascination with vintage pieces for the few who could afford them has grown into an entire generation of men who want something on their wrists that they enjoy looking at and can depend on to always tell the right time. There are countless options out there for those who can afford to spend a thousand or several thousand dollars on men’s watches, but the pickings remain slim in the sub-$500 range.

Plenty of micro-brand startups try to scratch that itch, but Timex is the only heritage American brand offering high-quality, beautiful watches for the people. You could hardly be ashamed of mistaking the new Waterbury Dive Chronograph for a $4,000 Swiss automatic, and ultimately, isn’t that the point?

There are certainly a lot of guys out there who care as much about the guts of their watch as the look, and good for them if they can afford it, but most guys just want a watch that looks good and won’t crap out on them. Timex has certainly regained its role in pleasing that latter demographic. 

Editors' Recommendations

Brad Lanphear
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Brad spent a decade on the front lines of New York's fashion retail industry. He did time with Abercrombie & Fitch, Rugby…
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