It was a decade of naffness unchained in so many cultural realms. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Dirty Dancing and Top Gun are still considered seminal movie works of the period, despite all the great work done by Bill Murray, Harrison Ford, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. On the popular music front, the birth of MTV saw record companies championing artists according to how good they looked on screen, with the long-term effect that commercial success has been purloined from today’s Dylans, Bowies and Joplins and handed over instead to contestants on America’s Got Talented Voice Idols With X-Factor. This injustice has its roots in a decade when spiral perms, fluorescent towelling socks and heavy metal T-shirts ruled the sartorial roost.

Yet the 1980s can generally be seen as a halcyon period for wristwatches – and not only thanks to the spring-driven sector’s bounce-back from the battery-driven industry that had threatened to decimate the public’s appetite for mechanical movements. So while the quartz craze had seen kids go barmy for cartoony Swatches, precociously soul-crushed adolescents wearing nerdy-chic calculator watches (an early precursor to the current wearable-tech phenomenon) and Southern Californian surfers opting for zany, multi-coloured Shark watches, sophisticated grown-ups began enjoying the classier spoils of horology with renewed vigour.

Watches that were all the rage included those by Bulgari, which only began in earnest in 1980 with the founding of the Italian company’s Swiss watchmaking arm Bulgari Time (although the Bulgari Bulgari had actually waltzed onto the scene, flaunting the conspicuousness watch-face branding that would become Bulgari’s horological trademark, three years before the 1970s came to a close). So wild a success did the group’s horological output become in the 1980s, it opened stores in Munich, London, Milan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo.

Around the same time, Gucci’s minimalist pieces with numberless faces, two-tone cases and plain black leather bands, along with Breitling’s authentically nautical Yachting pieces, joined the ranks of the finest watches worn on the wrists of the stylistically forward-thinking. Then there’s the timely intervention in the contemporary scene of Ferdinand A. Porsche. It was 1978 when the designer of the original 911 joined forces with IWC Schaffhausen to create a compass-watch combo, which would become just the first of many high-functioning cases fashioned from non-allergenic titanium throughout the 1980s.

Top Gun
Tom Cruise’s Maverick wearing an Orfina Porsche Design watch in seminal 1980s film Top Gun

To be Franck

But perhaps the greatest boon to haute horlogerie around this time came with an abrupt deepening of the talent pool when Franck Muller graduated from the Watchmaking School of Geneva in 1980 and, having further cut his teeth by restoring more than 80 pocket watches belonging to the Patek Philippe Private Collection, spent the rest of the decade designing highly complex, avant-garde timepieces under the name “Franck Muller Geneve”. Robin Williams, Demi Moore and Elton John are amongst the ardent devotees he picked up during the decade.

It wasn’t just timepieces made during the decade itself that made the 1980s a horologically fruitful one. Margaret Thatcher, while terrorising junior ministers with her shoulder-padded outfits and black Asprey handbag, would enhance her steely elegance with a vintage Piaget circular-dial model with dot numerals and polished bezel or a similar-styled Cartier.

Thatcher’s ideological soulmate and platonic paramour Ronald Reagan was, like every president since, presented with a Vulcain Cricket by Finnish jewellery mogul Keijo Paajanen. Whether it ever replaced his beloved Rolex Datejust is lost in the ether – Reagan is joined by Gerald Ford, Dwight Eisenhower, Bill Clinton, George Bush Snr and Jimmy Carter as White House-occupying Rolex fans. And showing the broad appeal of the brand, Rolex was also favoured by boxer Mike Tyson, rocker Ozzy Osbourne and comedian Eddie Murphy who all sported Day-Dates during the decade on which we’re focusing.

Margaret Thatcher
Margaret Thatcher seen here in what appears to be a gold Cartier timepiece (Source: Getty Images)
Eddie Murphy
Eddie Murphy sporting a yellow-gold Rolex Day-Date

The Crowned Kings of Hollywood

A host of movie actors surfing the zeitgeist in the 1980s also had the Rolex bug – both in reality and in character mode – as typified by Richard Gere’s two-tone Datejust with Jubilee bracelet (later worn in Pretty Woman), the Rolex “Root Beer” GMT Master that Clint Eastwood wore through a string of 1980s flicks (Firefox and Tightrope among them) and Harrison Ford’s steel Rolex Datejust Jubilee, which got a pretty good showing in Roman Polanski’s French mystery thriller Frantic. Sylvester Stallone’s also got a good public flaunting, not least in one Rocky III promotional still in which it pokes out of his pinstripe jacket as he squares up to Mr T.

Pretty Woman
Richard Gere in Pretty Woman wearing a Rolex two-tone Datejust on Jubilee bracelet
Clint Eastwood
Clint Eastwood seen here in Firefox with a Rolex “Root Beer” GMT Master
Sylvester Stallone
Sylvester Stallone squaring up with Mr T in Rocky III wearing a gold Rolex Submariner

Other examples of movie stars wearing the crown on their sleeve include Tom Cruise (who wore an Orfina Porsche Design in Top Gun but depicted Rain Man’s Charlie Babbitt wearing a Rolex Day-Date); Michael Caine (who sported a Rolex Oysterquartz Day-Date in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels); and Bonnie Bedelia as Die Hard’s Holly Gennaro McClane. Her on-screen husband in that movie – the wise-cracking, death-cheating John McClane, played by Bruce Willis – sported a stainless-steel, leather-banded TAG Heuer (“shows signs of heavy use”, quipped the lot notes when it was auctioned off 27 years later).

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
Michael Caine with a Rolex Oysterquartz Day-Date in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
Die Hard
Bruce Willis in Die Hard sporting a stainless-steel, leather-banded TAG Heuer which was auctioned at a sale 27 years later

Cartier also enjoyed a decent showing on the silver screen in the 1980s, notably in Wall Street (in which Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko opts for a Santos, while Charlie Sheen’s Bud Fox wears a Panthère), in 9½ Weeks, where Kim Basinger is given a gold Cartier Santos Octagon by Mickey Rourke and Scarface, in which Paul Shenar sports a Cartier Tank. Al Pacino’s wristwear of choice in the same movie is a stunning and lesser-spotted Omega La Magique.

Wall Street
Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko with Cartier Santos in Wall Street
Kim Basinger
Kim Basinger on the set of 9½ Weeks sporting a gold Cartier Santos Octagon

No discussion of horological grace in film is complete, though, without bringing up a franchise dominated in recent years by Daniel Craig’s (perhaps) heftily underwritten penchant for Omega Seamasters. In the 1980s, Roger Moore’s Bond favoured various Seiko pieces, while TAG Heuer’s waterproof offerings were seen on Timothy Dalton’s wrist in the latter half of the decade before the return of Rolex.

Roger Moore
Roger Moore during James Bond’s Seiko period

Techno Club

Of course, top-grade luxury pieces would look more than a little ex situ in sci-fi movies: hence Marty McFly (Michael J Fox) and his Casio CA-50 (an example of the aforementioned calculator watch), Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) and his Seiko A826, the Seiko Voice Note worn by three of the Ghostbusting quartet and Sigourney Weaver’s Seiko Speedtimer in Aliens (Arnold Schwarzenegger is also a fan of the Japanese makers, as evidenced in Predator, Running Man, Raw Deal and Commando).

Harold Ramis in Ghostbusters wearing a Seiko Voice Note
Arnold Schwarzenegger
Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando with his Seiko

The Horological Movie Moment of the Decade, though, surely came via 1983’s class comedy Trading Places. In it, the normally deep-pocketed commodities broker Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Ackroyd) tells an indifferent pawnbroker: “This is a Rochefoucauld – the thinnest water-resistant watch in the world. Singularly unique, sculptured in design, handcrafted in Switzerland, and water-resistant to three atmospheres. This is THE sports watch of the ’80s. $6,955 retail. It tells time simultaneously in Monte Carlo, Beverly Hills, London, Paris, Rome and Gstaad.”

Our hope here at Revolution is that one of the Swiss timepiece giants one day actually incarnates this batshit piece into reality – if only as a tongue-in-cheek toast to one of the most horologically fertile decades of the past century.

Trading Places
Eddie Murphy, Jamie Lee Curtis and Dan Aykroyd in Trading Places, the latter with the Rochefoucauld he pawned in the film