Neo Vintage Gruens: Part 1

Gruen watches as staple fashion accessory

I’m not sure where I’m going with this post, but I have to go there. Since my blog is about watches in lower price end of the watch world I need to delve into that era of the 1990s-early 2000s when Fossil was king and there was a great wide world of cheap (mostly Chinese-made, I think) quartz watches thriving as fashion accessories as much or more than as time keeping tools.

As in all my posts, I use terms such as fashion watch to describe a type of watch that is inexpensive usually and uses design vernacular of more expensive well-known watch brand designs. It is a nebulous term. In and of itself, a watch like this exists to deliver the “feeling” of a type of watch without matching the technical specifications (build quality) of that type of watch. For example, a 30m WR quartz watch that looks like a 200m WR automatic diver—$130 instead of $3000. Commonly characterized as a fashion accessory rather than a high-grade tool. Specifications and quality (value) of fashion watches may vary greatly and they may stand on their own design merits and functions. They tell time. They may be unique original designs. They may be highly collectible. I could also distinguish fashion from utility to separate lower-cost utilitarian watches that many might not consider fashion items! In the end, anything can be “in fashion”.

Bezel projections and wave dial

The period could have started as the early as the mid 1980s until now. We could still be in it in 2023, but its hard to tell with the cost of living and inflation effecting all products? Also, the up-scaling of all products means fewer low caliber options. I haven’t really looked at many lowest-price new watches other than Timex lately. Also, manufacturing technology and materials have improved. Most of my purchases are pre-owned, and many rescue operations, so paying MSRP is rare for me.

Anytime one tries to survey history and put things into neat little time frames, you realize that historical periods overlap fashion periods from before and after. So, its hard to pin down years without some serious research. Speaking of dating things, like, watches; It can be hard to date watches without catalogs or opening them up to get movement data. Especially cheap watches that don’t give a lot of information on case backs.

I have only been headlong into watches since the Pandemic of 2020 gave me time to read. Before that I was slowly building up to it. Prior to the 2020 I had been starting to collect various Timex reissues and Archive models. Earlier, through the 80s and 90s I bought a few quartz watches and of course a couple of early G-Shocks while in the Army and still had a 70s Seiko in the back of a drawer. My old Fossils and Swatches are long gone. Remember the great Fossil tins of the 90s?

As I said in the opening paragraph, I don’t know where I am going with this except that you will be dragged along with me as I try to understand the inexpensive watch world in the 1980-1990s. I think this is going to take at least another post. I was a design student in the 1980s, so watches interested me as design objects but I didn’t really have money to spend on watches. I was more interested in Fossil and Swatch than Tag Heuer or Seiko. I had no idea of Rolex, AP, or anything in the luxury world. I do still have some watches I got in the 80s that I want to write about.

We all know that the watch industry has exploded in the last 20 years with mechanical and luxury watches into something that not many would have foreseen in 1999? I am just learning about all the heritage mechanical watch brands that disappeared with the advent of quartz movements and how they are recently being reborn. These 80s-90s are a genre of watch that carries a name from a different kind of watch heritage?

What I am also learning about, even though information can be scarce, is all the mechanical watch manufacturers that went away in the 70s and 80s and were bought, and sold several times. Their brand names ending up on cheap fashion quartz watches in malls across America. I’m thinking of brands like Elgin, Benrus, Nivada Grenchen, and Gruen. Some of the quality is so low it’s almost criminal? They are practically disposable. The 80s and 90s were the years where manufacturing moved out of the US to other countries where labor costs were much lower. There is a huge amount of watches out there with the Gruen mark in a wide and crazy array of styles.

I will be back writing about this era in future because I need to cover the similar watches with private label branding made by Fossil, Timex, M.Z. Berger, Quintel and others.

The thing is, I lived though these times without ever realizing what the industry was going through. I was not following the watch industry like I was cars, apparel, office furniture and graphics. It is only now that I am looking at watches from 30 years ago and trying to figure out their stories.

Estate sales have brought me into contact with 80s and 90s watches. The “garbage” watches that don’t make the cut for vintage resellers. My wife pulled me into the estate sale world starting about 25 years ago. Here is where I find (an ever shrinking pot) watches from this era. It you think about it, lots of the things for offer at estate sales in recent years were new in the 80s and 90s. Alas, with every other person in America now reselling online as a side job, more items are found online than at the source; the estate sale house. It’s getting hard to find any original owner watches at estate sales.

So here I am, with a hand full of quartz Gruens whose date of manufacture I can only guess. One still carries the Precision line name. Most are diver-styled because that’s what attracts me most. They have names like Steel , Embassy and Sport. These are not the Precision automatics of the 1950s Gruen. These are the cheap quartz of the M.Z. Berger era of the mid-90s (I think). I do have a vintage Gruen manual wind dress watch from the early 1960s, but that will have to be covered in another post.

Small works for me in grey with a touch of gold

They use Japanese movements, but I cannot tell you which ones. Water resistance spans from 3 ATM to 10 ATM. Instead of using meters as a standard water resistance scale, they use ATM and feet. I’m not sure if this is for American retailing or to bamboozle customers? More upscale watches of the time like Tag Heuer and Bulova would have a minimum 100m level WR as a standard for sport/dive watches. Some of these Gruens will indicate 100ft instead!

During this era of inexpensive quartz fashion accessory watches, I also see evidence of common components being spread across several brands? To keep costs down, movements, cases, and other components were purchased from specialty manufacturers around the world then each brand added design details to dials, straps bracelets and bezels to give unique looks.

There was also a lot of copying of design details from more upscale watch brands/designs. Now, I’m not saying there was any more of it going on then as then there is now, but its kind of fun to guess who was copying whom? For the last 45 years lower-end watch brands have been copying iconic luxury brand watch language without too many feathers being ruffled. Fashion, in essence, is the borrowing of previous design symbols and reusing them under new symbology. In our class conscious society, we usually know what is the real thing and what is a knock-off. A mainstream diver of the time, Tag Heuer, that was copied by the likes of Bulova then again by Gruen and others.

It reminds me of my days in the soccer shoe industry where a brand had a $200 shoe, then a $100 shoe and finally a $50 shoe that all feature similar design language, all within the same brand. Auto makers do it, too. if you can’t afford the top of the line, you get something that looks like it.

In Gruen’s case, I don’t know how many levels of quality were available in this era, but I assume a 100m WR watch cost more than a 30m WR and that they were sold at different mall retailers? The thing is with watches of this quality of manufacture, condition is important. They don’t hold up well under heavy use, if you know what I mean? The finishes/plating, bracelets and sometimes movements/crowns get thrashed and there is no coming back. Movements may be able to be sourced, but other components cannot be repaired. Water resistance is probably gone too due to aging seals/gaskets that may not be replaceable.

Pale gold dial

Let’s start with this two-tone gold Precision dress watch. It attempts to look very much like a Rolex President day/date. As I scan over eBay, I see many variations on this theme from Gruen in size, finish, day or date configuration. The gold dial, fluted bezel, arched day at the 12 o’clock position, the cyclops date magnifier and a jubilee styled bracelet are all cues to it’s inspiration. The railroad track around the dial perimeter has tiny roman numerals at each applied hour marker. It has a screw on stainless steel back. Interestingly there are no model/part/style numbers of any kind on the back?! It does say Gruen since 1874. I’ve seen a similar one marked with 230-805.144. The integrated jubilee style bracelet is two-tone, with 5-piece links. The bezel is gold as is the crown. Case size is 35mm and bezel is approx. 36.5mm. Lug spacing looks like 20mm. Lug to lug length is 41mm. It is a day/date movement, possibly a Miyota?

Only 41mm lug to lug
Two-tone fun
No model number help here

This is not really the type of watch I would normally wear, even if it was a Rolex. I don’t wear dress(y) watches much. That said, it is a good looking watch overall, and is in good condition. The surfaces are not scratched and gold finish not worn off in places as happens to many watches in this price range. There is a small nick on the edge of the crystal. I do like the pale gold dial, arched date and the two-tone 90s feel. I don’t like cyclops date magnifiers or the bezel much. I have also seen images of a blue dial version. Most of all I don’t like that it is supposed to look like a Rolex. I think I got it because it was less than $15 and I was interested in learning about what Gruen’s recent history was about. I don’t know the year it was made, but I’m putting it at mid-90s.

90s vibe?

This next Gruen Steel diver-styled specimen is more my style. The back shows GU1038/138 as a style number. It has a brushed stainless case, the rotating bezel a blasted flat silver with polished grip projections. The only marks on the bezel are Arabic numerals at the 10 min intervals. The dial is navy blue with the center sector over-printed with a wave pattern. The minute track is finely printed and fades to the back. Hours markers are polished circles filled with a luninant material. 12, 9, and 6 get a polished triangle under the lume dot. A day/date window is at 3 o’olock with a polished border. The hour and minute hands are bold baton style and polished with luminant fill. The hour hand seems a bit short for the dial size? The Minute hand’s pointer tip just touches the hour dots. The lollipop second sweep sports a lume dot slightly smaller than the hour dots.

More steel, more polish

I think its clear the 1990s Omega Seamaster Professional is the inspiration behind this design? The overall round shape and the way the the crown guards project out as part of the case and a few dial aspects are like the Omega. It also has Tag Heuer Aquaracer looks? Again, The Gruens copied the Tag Heuers that copied the Omegas and Rolexes.

This could be an early 2000s model? I’m still looking for catalog data. The Steel line, appears to have all stainless steel versus the base metal alloy parts of some of the Sport line models. They are only 5atm to the Sport 10 atm in WR , but the build and finish is superior. (Speaking of WR, I think I’m seeing some fogging on this guy…). Without the crown guards, the case size is 39mm. Just about perfect for me. I’m not sure what strap came on this, but I put a nice rubber quick release on it that cost probably twice what I paid for the watch!

Base metal alloy case and bezel in all its glory

This third model has a look I just love. It is a Sport model. What I call the “90s Tag Heuer Look”. An overall diver vernacular with projected crown guard, silver rounded rotating bezel with the “dots”. Diver dot hour markers and a cool sunburst metallic grey dial. the hands had hour dots have a luminant feel. The hands and the hour marked borders are gold finish. It reminds me of the Tag Heuer 2000/4000 series all-silver look? it gets away from the straight-up tool watch/submariner look into a more dressy style. Not a stainless steel case but rated at 100m WR!

Most of the Sport models I have seen are on the small side, about 33mm case size. There is a protrusion on the case opposite of the crown so that total width is approx. 36.5mm. Lug to lug is only 40mm. I Don’t know enough about Gruen’s marketing at this time or this series to know if the Sport was offered in a bigger size? I would call it a mid-size like the sizing options of Tag Heuer at the time which had four sizes for most of their models. Was it considered a women’s size? I wish it was a bit bigger—say 36-38mm.

Base metal case, stainless back with code 001-6L32

It is a combination of base metal alloy and stainless steel. I think all the stainless is on the case back and bracelet. The bracelet has 3-piece oyster style links with a matte finish. The case and bezel are all base metal. The overall look is an elegant satin grey-ish titanium look. Together with the grey dial the feel is subdued with a bit of bling from the gold touches. The combination of tool watch/vintage diver that I love. I like that it is not polished. Depending on your perspective it can look cheap or like a patina. The watch had a grime on it when I got it. That is what you get with base metal alloy—it will tarnish unlike stainless. I used some Brasso the polish it up a bit even though the grime patina was kind of cool!

I’m not through collecting more of these diver-esque Gruens from 90s. Some of the designs are just so pleasing. There is a field watch version out there that I like, too. As things moved into the 2000s, the styles got a bit too heavy-handed for me, as well as too big. The edges got sharper and more armored looking. The Arabic numbers got big and wide and surfaces more polished.

As long as I find some in good condition and don’t have too-high expectations for quality, I will be back with more.


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