Audemars Piguet has just announced details of a new collaboration with Cactus Jack, the record label and brand founded by US hip-hop icon Travis Scott. The new Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar Openworked Limited Edition is made from brown ceramic—a signature Cactus Jack colour and a first for Audemars Piguet.
It has been nicknamed ‘The Chocolate AP’ by Scott, apparently a call-back to—or a pre-emptive bit of marketing in—the song ‘Meltdown’ on his recent album Utopia. The 41mm self-winding watch incorporates a number of design elements which refer to Cactus Jack graphics.
The typography of the calendar and week indications is based on a hand-drawn model by Scott. The hands of the day sub-dial form the shape of the Cactus Jack logo. Meanwhile, the brand’s trademark smiley face-with-its-mouth-sewn-shut takes the place of the moon phase at 6 o’clock. Its luminescent coating glows blue in the dark.
The calendar indications, with the exception of the week indication, glow green. The new elements extend to the strap. Made of calfskin, with a pink gold folding clasp engraved with the signatures ‘Audemars Piguet’ and ‘Travis Scott’.
The watch is powered by AP’s skeletonised Calibre 5135 movement which automatically takes into account the number of days in the month and correctly displays the date, even during leap years. Providing it remains wound, it will not require manual adjustment until 2100.
The watch is the latest in a series of high-profile collaborations for the brand, following on from musician and producer Mark Ronson, fashion designer Matthew Williams and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
“Watchmaking, to me, is the ultimate combo of engineering, fashion, tech and design,” says Travis Scott. “A harmony of precision, craftsmanship and perfect timing. I approached this collaboration similar to sampling or starting a beat, taking inspiration from the classics while introducing innovation to push them into the future. I’m beyond amped about the results, a first ever for the iconic Royal Oak.”
What makes a watch ‘important’?
There are the big leaguers—chronometers that changed the game for maritime travel; field watches that synchronised soldiers across two World Wars; space age watches that got astronauts safely back to Earth. Then, there are the record breakers—watches that have gone deeper, higher or were more ‘complicated’ than ever before. There are watches that democratised design—step forward the USD3.75 Ingersoll ‘Mickey Mouse’ from 1933; take a bow the first 12 Swatches released exactly five decades later. And there were watches that did the exact opposite—head-spinningly bonkers and eye-wateringly expensive creations like MB&F’s HM4 Thunderbolt and Richard Mille’s RM 011 Felipe Massa.
There are many more categories and many, many, many more watches. Whittling the Most Important down to just 50 sometimes seemed a task akin to studying the history of time itself. Happily, we had the next-best thing to Stephen Hawking to help us. A crack team of industry experts, drawn from all corners of the watch world, from museums to retail, publishing to brand bosses, journalism to actual professors, as our voting panel.
Accept no substitutes. This is the definitive list of the 50 Most Important Watches Ever. (Did we miss any?)
Hyperbole? Perhaps—certainly very few mega-brands owe their success to just one single watch—but there is a strong case to be made. As the 1930s began, Patek, Philippe & Cie was in financial trouble. In 1932, it was acquired by the Stern family, which remains in control today. Seeing the need for a simple, easily marketable watch to put the business on a stable footing (in contrast to the complicated watches that were its stock-in-trade), they introduced the first Calatrava, the reference 96 in the same year, a 31mm design that espoused Bauhaus principles.
Details of its genesis are scant, its designer unknown; the name comes from a symbol used by 12th-century Castilian knights, registered by Patek Philippe 45 years earlier but never used. No one knows why. It’s not even clear why it started with number 96. (Don’t believe stories online that the Calatrava was designed by British antique watch dealer and enthusiast David Penney; he was commissioned in the 1980s to illustrate an authoritative hardback book on the brand’s history, and journalists mistook his signature against drawings of the ref. 96 for the name of the original designer. Penney was born well after 1932 and is alive and well today.)
What is more certain is that ref. 96 was a hit; powered by a respected LeCoultre calibre it provided a blank canvas for all manner of dial designs and iterations, and remained in production for 40 years. It might not leap immediately to mind when you mention the brand name—with the Nautilus on its books, and a formidable history of perpetual calendars, split-second chronographs, worldtimers and minute repeaters, you can hardly blame fans for sometimes overlooking the humble Calatrava—but it is the bedrock upon which so much great watchmaking stands.
In 1933, two companies faced bankruptcy. One was Ingersoll-Waterbury, a watch firm that grew out of a New York Mail business. The other was Disney. A marketeer and former mink-hat salesman named Herman “Kay” Kamen rescued both—despite apparently falling asleep in the pitch meeting. His solution? A watch featuring Mickey Mouse, his yellow-gloved hands rotating to tell the time. Response to the $3.75 timepiece was immediate.
Macy’s sold 11,000 the first day it went on sale, and within two years Ingersoll had added 2,800 staff to cope with demand, and an original Ingersoll Mickey was placed into a time capsule at the 1939 World’s Fair. Today, “character watches” are big news; case in point: Oris’ runaway 2023 hit, a £3,700 watch featuring Kermit the Frog. Meanwhile Mickey (and Minnie) Mouse now grace the Apple Watch and will speak the time when you press the dial. That’s progress for you.
Where the diving watch as we know it began, exactly 70 years ago. The turning bezel for dive-timing, the bare-essentials high-vis dial, the streamlined-but-watertight case: all came about when Blancpain’s scuba-fan boss Jean-Jacques Fiechter teamed up with French war heroes Robert Maloubier and Claude Riffaud, who needed a watch for their new commando unit, to invent the ultimate all-action underwater wristwatch. Rolex had similar ideas—its Submariner followed soon after. But Blancpain’s military-approved cult classic was foundational; rare vintage models are collector grails, and modern versions remain big sellers for the brand.
Sure, it was the first watch to show both the date and the full day of the week, but the Day-Date’s function has always been secondary to its aura. Nicknamed the “President” for having been gifted to (and worn by) Dwight D Eisenhower, it’s the watch that defines Rolex’s association with success, prestige and achievement—something that has remained as constant as the Day-Date’s unmistakable look. It’s not quite true that the Day-Date is exclusively produced in precious metals—an “entry-level” steel version occasionally comes up at auction, although since only five were ever prototyped, not at an entry-level price.
Given both the relentless hype that attaches itself limpet-like to the Royal Oak, and the multiplicity of iterations and styles Audemars Piguet has birthed over the years, it’s easy to forget just what a formidably clever, intuitive and ground-breaking design it was back in 1972.
Tasked with matching the robustness and versatility of a steel sports watch with the crafted beauty that was Audemars Piguet’s stock-in-trade, the designer Gérald Genta came up with the Royal Oak in a single overnight session. It sealed both his and Audemars Piguet’s future legacies, and begat the “sports-luxe” genre in one fell stroke.
Genta’s blueprint was an inspired synthesis of the industrial and the exotic. It was streamlined, housing an ultra-thin automatic movement, and with a look dominated by a screw-laden octagonal bezel, on a case that merged seamlessly into a complex, tapering bracelet. The brutalist dial was subordinate to the gleaming geometries of the case, where contrasting brushed or polished finishes were assiduously hand-applied. The bracelet alone was so complicated that it needed watchmakers rather than case technicians to assemble it.
The Royal Oak did for steel watches what the era’s high-tech architects were then doing for steel buildings—elevating the material of industry and kitchen cutlery to the level of the sublime. “The noble metal of modern-day cathedrals,” was how Genta termed it, according to Bill Prince, author of Royal Oak, from Iconoclast to Icon. At the time, the Royal Oak was the most expensive steel wristwatch ever made, but it unleashed a genre whose impact would only truly be felt in the following decades—and never more so than right now.
With its brash and bold designs, Hublot is the opposite of discreet luxury—something that tends to wind up serious watch collectors. The brand’s “the art of fusion” tagline is embodied in its flagship Big Bang, the first of which layered up ceramic, magnesium, tungsten, Kevlar, rubber and steel into an eye-popping (and prize-winning) new direction for watch design.
Since every Big Bang is technically limited, it also pre-empted today’s drop culture, with future watches incorporating silk, denim, diamonds and sheep’s wool. “People want exclusivity,” its creator Jean-Claude Biver told The Economist. “So you must always keep the customer hungry and frustrated.”
François-Paul Journe produced his first wristwatch in 1991, to a collective shrug from a world not yet ready to embrace artisanal, anachronistic masterpieces from unknown names. Jump ahead eight years and the mood had changed; Journe set up his own brand and took commissions to make 20 tourbillons—selling the watches by “subscription”, ie: half up-front, an idea borrowed from Abraham-Louis Breguet.
Journe’s output throughout the past two decades has been prodigiously inventive, but it took the pandemic to send things into the stratosphere; auction values of the Tourbillon Souverain tripled between 2019 and 2020.
Beloved of die-hard Rolex enthusiasts and casual “one-watch guys” alike, the modern Explorer retains the spirit of the watches that accompanied Tenzing and Hillary (almost) to the top of Everest in 1953 (both climbers in fact wore models by British brand Smiths to the summit itself).
After the ascent, Hillary’s Rolex was returned to the watch company for tests to be conducted on how it had weathered its high-altitude journey, and it is now on display at Zurich’s Beyer Museum. Despite recent flirtations with precious metals, the Explorer remains a paradigm of honest, simple watchmaking that for many really is all the watch you need.
Remember steampunk? In the late-1990s, “Victorian sci-fi” had a cultural moment. It gave us one of the worst films of the decade, Wild Wild West, emo-lads in top hats and, on the plus side, this spectacular timepiece. Inspired by Jules Verne and HG Wells, American creative Jeff Barnes envisioned an impossible watch with multiple porthole dials, rivets and an invisible rotor. Iconoclast watchmaker Vianney Halter made the impossible possible.
Halter and Barnes propelled watch-making into a strange alternative universe. A wormhole opened that subsequent visionaries—MB&F, Urwerk, De Bethune etc—would burst through, reimagining what high-watchmaking could really be.
Through countless iterations down the decades, the “5” shield logo on the Seiko 5 has symbolised the ultimate sturdy, go-anywhere, do-anything all-rounder wristwatch. Affordable, capable and just damn cool, the Seiko 5 has even accrued its own entire subculture around collecting and modding. No collection is complete without one, and for a lot of watch nuts, it’s the place where it all begins
In the age of orbiting space stations, communications satellites and Mars rovers, there is something quaintly old-school about a mechanical watch being used in space. Computers may crash but, the thinking goes, a mechanical watch will continue to work in all conditions: high temperatures, below zero, low gravity and when all tech has shut down, in darkness.
Omega’s Speedmaster line was made with racing-car drivers, not astronauts in mind. It was the first chronograph with a tachymeter scale on the bezel, to measure speed over distance. But the design caught the eye of Nasa astronauts Walter Schirra and Leroy Cooper.
The story goes that the pair then lobbied Nasa operations director Deke Slayton to make the Speedmaster the official watch for use during training, and, ultimately, flying. In 1964 Slayton issued an internal memo stating the need for a “highly durable and accurate chronograph to be used by Gemini and Apollo flight crews”.
Proposals were sent to 10 brands: Benrus, Elgin, Gruen Hamilton, Longines Wittnauer, Lucien Piccard, Mido, Omega and Rolex. Only four answered the call: Rolex, Longines Wittnauer, Hamilton and Omega—with Hamilton disqualifying itself by submitting a pocket watch. The remainder underwent extreme trials: 48 hours at 71°C, four hours at –18°C, 250 hours at 95 per cent humidity, temperature cycling in a vacuum, and so on.
Nasa declared Speedmaster “Flight Qualified for All Manned Space Missions” in March 1965. It went on to become the first watch worn on the Moon—by Buzz Aldrin, in 1969—and to play a crucial role in the Apollo 13’s re-entry to Earth in 1970, when it was used to time a crucial 14-second burn of fuel. (As seen in Tom Hanks’s 1995 film, Apollo 13.)
It would be remiss of any company not to dine out on marketing gold like this, and Omega has certainly done so, issuing endless Moonwatch variants ever since. Happily, its product backs up the hype. “Speedmasters have it all: great chronograph movements, an amazing case design, fantastic dial and hand aesthetics and an unbelievable history,” says vintage-watch expert Eric Wind.
The watch that no one saw coming, that no one could get hold of, and yet absolutely nobody could avoid back in the heady days of… er, 2022. Can it really only be last year that streets around the world were shut down as mobs of thousands rushed to procure a plastic (sorry, “bioceramic”), battery-powered Speedmaster made by Swatch?
MoonSwatch fever may have died down now, but few modern watches have nailed the moment quite so perfectly. Amid a post-pandemic climate of high/low mashups, vibe shifts, blurred cultural lines and hype—so much hype—it nailed the zeitgeist dead-on, becoming the most consequential Swiss watch release since the original Swatch in 1983.
The perpetual calendar—complex, elegant, poetic—is the emblematic watch of haute horlogerie. And, like so much of haute horlogerie, Patek Philippe defined the form. Patek introduced its first perpetual for the wrist in 1925. But in 1941 it did the near unthinkable and put the complication into serial production—twice over.
Reference 1526 was a perpetual calendar with moon phases, but Reference 1518 really blew the doors off, with a chronograph thrown in and a layout of high-complication magnificence. It wasn’t until 1955 that another brand, Audemars Piguet, was able to compete with its own perpetual calendar, while the perpetual calendar chronograph has remained a signature combination for Patek Philippe and its collectors.
Braun’s concept of German modern industrial design, a mix of functionality and technology, is lauded everywhere from MoMA catalogues to Jony Ive interviews. Its design principles have been applied to calculators, coffee grinders and cigarette lighters. But you could argue the wristwatch is its purest distillation, the work of one of the Braun’s designers, Dietrich Lubs, and Dieter Rams.
Taking a lead from 1975’s AB 20 travel clock, its aim was to display time in “the most functional way possible”. That meant white type on a black dial, a yellow second hand that “pops”, and Akzidenz-Grotesk—the font known as “jobbing sans-serif”. As in, it is used for jobs—including New York City’s transportation network. The designer’s designer watch.
Well-heeled travellers of the early 1950s encountered a new phenomenon. They didn’t have a name for it yet—consensus suggests that the phrase “jet lag” wasn’t used until the mid 1960s—but the discombobulating effects of flying across time zones were clear. Passengers could bear the inconvenience, but Pan Am, concerned for its pilots, wanted to find a solution. It was naively thought that a device capable of displaying the body’s “home” time at a glance could help overcome the effects—so legend has it, anyway.
Rolex produced the GMT-Master reference 6542 in 1954, and the rest is history. The rotating bezel had already seen the light of day in the previous year’s Turn-o-graph (proof that not all Rolexes were lasting hits), but the addition of a 24-hour scale and day-night colour scheme nailed the formula. It’s easy to overlook how bold the two-tone design must have been in the postwar years, and the GMT-Master has maintained that outgoing character.
The variation of colours that followed, and the tendency of the early materials to patinate and degrade in interesting ways, have spawned a rich lexicon of nicknames and cemented the reference’s enduring appeal. In modern times, at least prior to 2023’s bonanza of emojis and bubbles, the GMT-Master II was where Rolex went to experiment, developing single-piece ceramic bezels, introducing meteorite dials, gem-set bezels and even subverting its own codes by adding the dressy Jubilee bracelet in 2018.
The introduction of a left-handed model in 2022 only added to the hype. Today it is one of the hardest Rolexes to acquire. Mechanically and aesthetically, Rolex hit upon a template that performed a simple task with clarity, character and composure, and left its imitators behind.
The Cartier Santos-Dumont, launched in 1904, claims not one but two places on the watch history books: the first pilot’s watch and the first wristwatch designed specifically for men. Created to get around the impracticality of flying with a pocket watch, it was born after Brazilian pilot Alberto Santos-Dumont raised the issue with Louis Cartier.
Given Cartier’s red-carpet-reputation today the watch boasts a decidedly non-showy design. Characterised by eight screws, its case seems to have been influenced by a contemporaneous square pocket watch, with curved lugs and a leather strap designed to make it comfortable to wear on the wrist. Meanwhile, the instantly readable dial design foreshadowed the Art Deco movement of the 20s and 30s and remains a look that defines Cartier watch designs to this day.
With headlines declaring “Mr Santos-Dumont’s First Success with a Flying Machine” still fresh in people’s minds, by 1911 Cartier was marketing “the Santos-Dumont watch” in platinum and gold, its daring-do aviation connection piquing the interest of a new demographic: men. The model would be relaunched by Cartier twice after. In 1998, to celebrate the Santos-Dumont’s 90th anniversary, and in 2005 as part of the Collection Privée Cartier Paris.
In 2018 Cartier made it available in steel, the first time the watch had appeared in a non-precious metal, putting it within reach of a new consumer. Its timing was prescient—with interest in men’s watches exploding, there was a newly design-literate customer on the market. Cartier may not use the fanciest movements or the trendiest materials. Instead, it outpaces the competition with 100 years of rock-solid designs, and watches that look unique.
Every year, Morgan Stanley produces a financial report on the Swiss watch industry. Nine of the top 10 brands by revenue date back 100 years or more; the same nine all produce at least 50,000 watches a year.
The outlier is Richard Mille: barely 21 years old and making a shade over 5,000 watches a year, it outranks giants like Longines, Breitling and Vacheron Constantin. The secret sauce is complex, but it owes a lot to the technically innovative watches worn by Mille’s sporting ambassadors—and that all began with Massa, way back in 2007.
On Christmas Day 1969, Seiko gave the world its most important gift: the first quartz-powered wristwatch. A decade in development (during which time the Japanese had shrunk the technology from the size of a filing cabinet to something you could wear), it was the harbinger of seismic, lasting change.
The mass production of cheap quartz watches that followed in the 1970s wrought catastrophic damage on Swiss watchmaking, although the scale of the job losses and closures was down to currency devaluation and the stagnant, uncompetitive structure of the industry as much as the threat of marauding outsiders. Perhaps unfairly, the Astron is forever associated with these effects, rather than as a genuine innovation that made watches more accurate and more affordable.
Almost 35 years after its launch, the F-91W remains not just the world’s most popular digital watch, but the most-purchased watch on the planet. Created by Ryusuke “G-Shock” Moriai as his first design for Casio, it is technically and materially inferior to every other watch the brand produces. That’s not the point. The F-91’s charming resin design, iconic shape, accuracy, perfectly judged number of functions and—last but not least—£15 price make it a must-own. The backlight is absolutely terrible, though.
Technically, you could land a plane using just this watch’s info-packed bezel, but it would be a brave man who’d try. Still, the development of the Navitimer (“navigation” + “timer”) offered something no other watch manufacturer had ever proposed: a chronograph combined with a slide rule, enabling pilots to perform vital calculations like average rate of speed, fuel consumption and converting miles to kilometres. Originally only available to accredited aircraft owners and pilots, the Navitimer was also the watch world’s first automatic chronograph.
“God is in the details” was the dictum of Bauhaus pioneer Mies van der Rohe; the watch designed in 1961 by the Bauhaus-trained architect and artist Max Bill, for the German brand Junghans, doesn’t half bear this out. In its cornerless numerals, its crisp lines and perfect proportions, its minimalism is exquisite and unimprovable; no wonder Junghans has kept this modernist classic unchanged ever since.
One of the most popular modern sports watches, Rolex’s sibling company offers exemplary levels of craftsmanship, quality and value in one impossible-to-resist package. Deftly cherry-picking elements from forgotten 1950s and 1960s Tudors, it kick-started today’s obsession with vintage watches—and sent dozens of rivals scurrying to their archives. Without it, the watch business would look very different.
So sprawling is Omega’s back (and current) catalogue of Seamaster watches, it can be hard to know just what the name stands for. Dive watches? Yes. Sports watches? For sure. But also dress watches? Gosh yes, some true bobby-dazzlers… The answer comes from a 1956 Omega ad: “The Seamaster was designed to share with you the zest of high adventure and the stresses and strains that go with it… There is more ruggedness built into the Seamaster than you are ever likely to call for. It feels good, though, to know you can count on the extra stamina and extra precision which set the Seamaster apart from other watches.”
In other words, however it was styled, the Seamaster represented Omega’s cutting edge: the most water-resistant, robust, precise and easily serviceable watches you could get on the mass market; a next-level product for demanding customers—the ad cited sportsmen, airline pilots, golfers and military personnel as typical wearers.
Launched in 1948, the Seamaster came about as Omega transferred tech it developed in its wartime watchmaking for the British armed forces to the civilian market: screw-back cases sealed with newfangled rubber O-ring gaskets, and high-spec automatic movements that were a benchmark for durability and accuracy. They’re often still in fine working condition today; one reason why early Seamasters have tended to be a gateway watch for nascent vintage-watch collectors—you can still find them for a bit over £1,000, but prices are rising.
When it launched a hardcore dive watch in 1957, naturally Omega made it a Seamaster (the Seamaster 300). In fact, the Speedmaster chronograph was also originally categorized in Omega catalogues as a Seamaster; and so was the ultra-dressy De Ville line. A Seamaster was a watch that could take on anything; and it still is.
In 1955 Rolex took a full-page ad out in the Daily Express (back then, that meant something) to proclaim the wonder of its invention in the 1930s of the self-winding wristwatch. A few months later it inserted an apology into the paper and, in a new ad, corrected what it had previously left out. The convenience of a watch that doesn’t need winding was arguably the fundamental breakthrough in the evolution of the wristwatch; but in the story of its genesis there is, as Master Yoda might say, another.
John Harwood was a watchmaker who, during army service in World War I, became convinced of both the usefulness and shortcomings of wristwatches. He saw the winding/setting crown as a watch’s weakest point, letting in dust and moisture. His solution was radical: a watch with no crown, that could be set via a turning bezel and with a mechanism that wound itself via the motion of its wearer’s wrist.
Harwood took his idea to Switzerland, where he obtained a patent in 1923. He forged a partnership with Fortis to make Harwood automatic watches, recognisable by their knurled bezels and a red dot above the six that told you the movement was running. The winding action was down to a “hammer” mechanism that swung from side to side, tensioning the mainspring.
Launched in 1926, Harwood’s was the first mass-produced self-winding wristwatch, and sold well in Europe, the UK and North America. But the Wall Street Crash of 1929 dealt a hammer blow to Harwood’s business; by September 1931, it was all over.
That year, Rolex patented its own method, the “Perpetual” rotor that swung around freely on top of the movement. It’s the format that proved the basis for the self-winding watches that would become all-dominant; but it wasn’t the first.
The need to tell the time accurately in all 24 time zones is a relatively recent invention in the history of timekeeping. In 1885, the Swiss watchmaker Emmanuel Cottier came up with a world-time system he presented to the Société des Arts. His son Louis-Vincent followed him into the trade, attending Geneva’s horological school and winning several prizes, including a handful from Patek Philippe. By 1931, Louis had perfected his own world-time mechanism.
It was developed for a pocket watch, but Rolex, Vacheron Constantin and Patek Philippe soon took an interest and he delivered dozens of versions for the latter using his HU calibre, or “heures universelles”. World time-watches made nowadays still follow the Cottier principle. City names circle the periphery of the dial above an inner 24-hour ring that turns counter-clockwise. The ring’s movement simultaneously coordinates the times in all time zones, while the hand indicates the “local” time at the city displayed at 12 o’clock.
Today, Cottier has a square in Geneva named in his honour, and world-time watches provide a time capsule for the eras in which they were made; each dial reflecting the political climate. For example: under German occupation, France switched to central European time—Patek continuing to put London and Paris on the same time zone until the 1970s, making these watches highly collectable.
It’s all about the story with watches, and the El Primero’s is straight from central scriptwriting. It raced to be the first automatic chronograph ever made (it was announced first but was beaten to customers’ wrists by both Heuer and Seiko); the investment nearly broke the business, which went under with orders to destroy the El Primero’s parts and tooling. Defied by one watchmaker, it was resurrected, used to power the Rolex Daytona for a generation, and has finally established itself as a beautiful, technically accomplished watch for people who care about the details.
Water resistance has been fundamental to our conception of reliable wristwatches for decades, but in 1926 it was revolutionary. Hans Wilsdorf, Rolex’s founder, didn’t come up with it himself. But when a patent was filed for a new system to hermetically seal the case via a screw-down winding crown (the most likely area for water ingress), he moved fast, acquiring it and registering the “Oyster” trademark—to symbolise the impregnable seal of the shell—within days.
Next, in 1927, he got swimmer Mercedes Gleitze to carry one as she became the first British woman to swim the Channel and took a full-page ad in the Daily Mail to proclaim its perfect performance during her feat. Thus he announced his breakthrough to the world.
The Rolex Oyster—"the wonder watch that defies the elements" as its advert put it—would change the whole game. It laid the technical foundation for practically every Rolex model since, nearly all of which still carry the name “Oyster”, and drove the wristwatch forward as a sensible, reliable, wearable accoutrement for modern people in a fast-changing, fast-moving world.
Moreover, it inculcated the association of Rolex with robustness, quality and innovation, and confirmed Wilsdorf’s absolute genius for cutting through with inspiring, opportunistic marketing. After that, there was no looking back.
Six decades before the Octo Finissimo or Richard Mille Ferrari UP-01, Piaget created the calibre 9P and calibre 12P, hand-wound and automatic movements of astonishing thinness, produced with none of the high-tech fabrication machinery or design software available today. These established the brand’s reputation for ultra-thin prowess and created an iconic dress watch.
Commissioned by the Ministry of Defence for use by the British Army, this set of 12 watches by the likes of Longines, Omega and IWC, plus long-forgotten names such as Grana, Cyma and Eterna, combined black dials, antimagnetic steel cases and luminous hands to establish an entire genre that lives on today.
Truth be told, most of the 150,000-odd watches that were made only arrived late in 1945; for the preceding six years, British servicemen used something called the ATP (Army Trade Pattern) watch, but it is the Dirty Dozen that has passed into watch-collecting lore. Tracking down a full set remains one of the ultimate grails for collectors the world over.
In 1976, designer Gérald Genta adapted the Royal Oak blueprint to create a Patek Philippe equivalent: shapelier, more sumptuous, more peculiar—not least in its flanking “porthole hinges” that screw shut for watertightness. Made in infuriatingly small numbers, the Nautilus has come to define an entirely modern watchmaking trend: scarcity. It never won’t be a major, major flex; but it’s the sheer exoticism of its form that makes it arguably the most glamorous watch design of all.
Initially known as Le Mans and received so unenthusiastically that Rolex considered discontinuing it, the motorsport-themed chronograph has gone on to achieve the status of World’s Most Desirable Watch. Paul Newman wearing a version (ref: 6239) no doubt helped; his watch later took all of 12 minutes to sell at auction for $17.5m.
A decent return on its original price of USD210. Rolex’s Daytona is one of the greatest chronographs of all time—precious metals, blinged-out dials and Rolex’s strategic limiting of supply have made it an icon. The hard-to-get wristwatch is also a great investment. A stainless steel and ceramic Daytona bought for £12k in 2019 would now sell for twice that.
Often overlooked by vintage devotees in favour of the later 13ZN models with their larger cases and frequent military connections, the 13.33Z, first introduced in 1913, was the very first purpose-built chronograph wristwatch movement. Hand-wound and usually found with enamel dials painted with tachymetric scales, they are beautiful inside and out.
Commissioned by the RAF in 1948, whose airmen would use it for the next 40 years. the Mark 11 put wartime advances in precision, reliability and anti-magnetism inside a design (by the MOD, not IWC) that’s both utilitarian and iconic, becoming the quintessential military aviation watch. Its blueprint has proven endlessly adaptable, yet never better than in its original format.
The Luminor has been called “the essence of Panerai” with a history that is at once serious (until 1993, it was only available to Italy’s military) and silly (its deep-sea luminosity originally came from the use of an unsafe radioactive compound). Its signature crown-protection guard speaks to old-school diving equipment, as well as signalling its “if-you-know-you-know” appeal.
The Seamaster range may include world timers, yachting chronographs and the cult favourite Ploprof. But at its heart is the Seamaster Diver 300M. First produced in 1957, it has never quite achieved the mythos of the Speedmaster—its history more sprawling, its style more frequently updated—but it is still one of the great dive watches.
Comparisons to the Rolex Submariner are inevitable, and the fact that since 1997’s Goldeneye, James Bond has worn a Seamaster brings extra spice to the calculation. In recent years Omega has striven to outflank Rolex on a technical front too, adding antimagnetic and supremely accurate “master chronometer” movements, ceramic bezels, something called a “naiad lock” and sleek black ceramic cases.
For 20 years, MB&F’s Max Büsser has been the wizard at the heart of a movement driving horology in fantastical new directions—think Urwerk’s cyberpunk devices, Greubel Forsey’s tourbillon extravaganzas and, more than anything, MB&F’s phantasmagorical Horological Machines. Inspired by World War II fighter planes, HM4 was Büsser’s biggest risk but arguably his greatest success: a kitsch, postmodern thrill-ride that’s as innovative as it’s outlandish, proving that—in his world at least—anything really is possible.
The question was never, “Can you make a Swiss quartz watch to compete with Citizen and Seiko?” Swatch’s creative director Carlo Giordanetti told this magazine in 2017. But rather, “Is it possible to make a cheap, mass-manufactured product that inspires the personal attachment and ‘soul’ associated with handcrafted equivalents?”
Yes, the first modestly sized range of 12 watches that launched in 1983 were cheap and plastic. But the success of Swatch—or “second watch”—routinely credited with saving Swiss watchmaking from the digital Asian apocalypse, was down to something else: “a new, fascinating way to say who you are and how you feel”.
It took physician and watchmaker Ernst Thomke and his two-man team 12 months to develop the prototype, working backwards by first developing the case, then reducing the number of quartz components and attaching them to it. Plastic wasn’t the only contender, they also looked at wood.
Launched in the same year as the Porsche 911 that shares its name (although the first 911 to officially be described as a Carrera was the 1972 2.7 RS), Jack Heuer’s masterstroke became just as indelibly associated with motor racing. By dint of Heuer’s marketing nous, it soon ended up the preferred watch of the Formula 1 paddock during the sport’s golden era. Jack was a fan of modern design and architecture, and deemed the tracks found on chronograph dials fussy and unnecessary.
After taking a class on watch dials at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology he used the principles of his studies to come up with something cleaner. Between 1963 and 1985 it underwent multiple reinventions, but the original reference 2447 stands as one of the three heroic chronographs of the early 1960s (alongside the Daytona and Speedmaster). An exemplar of mid-century modernism and sporty practicality that is coveted by collectors around the world.
The place: Les Ambassadeurs Club, Mayfair. The year: 1962. Seated at a casino table, two gamblers are going head-to-head. One is a beautiful woman in a red dress; the other, a dashing man in a sharp suit. He asks her name. “Sylvia Trench”. He lights a cigarette and stares at his opponent across the table. “Bond,” he replies. “James Bond”.
Dr. No gave us one of the most famous introductions in cinema and guided us into a new universe of covetable clothes, accessories and gadgets. Though 007 would later defect to Omega, for his debut another brand was tucked beneath his crisp white shirt cuff. He wore a Rolex “Big Crown” Submariner (ref: 6538)—from a new line of diving watches introduced nine years earlier that, as Rolex put it, “unlocked the deep”. (The watch was Sean Connery’s own.)
Ask a child to draw a man’s watch and chances are they’ll come up with something that looks like a Submariner. It is the most recognised, counterfeited and copied watch in the world. Today, thousands of brands produce what may politely be called “Submariner-adjacent” models.
While not the first dive watch, the Submariner was the first to be waterproof to 100m and feature a rotatable bezel for divers to read. The model came into its own in the golden period of sports watches, the 1960s, and as sales rose Rolex began refining and standardising the line.
Today’s Subs are waterproof to 300m, with triple-protected waterproof winding crowns, blue “chromalight” luminescent material and ceramic bezels that are unaffected by seawater, chlorine or ultraviolet rays. Meanwhile, the collecting community delights in giving its many references nicknames based on individual design features. They include, but are not limited to, “Hulk”, “Bluesy”, “Smurf”, “Starbucks”, “Bart Simpson”, and, of course, “James Bond”.
The Freak is a significant watch for two reasons. The first is its sheer ambition: doing away with a traditional dial and hands. Mounting the entire gear train and escapement on a bridge that would rotate under its own energy, acting as a colossal minute hand as it did so, was truly maverick. The second is that the idea came from Ulysse Nardin, a 150-year old brand steeped in conservative tradition. The Freak showed the Swiss establishment that it didn’t have to let the young indie hotshots corner the action.
“My feeling is it’s going to be a failure,” the CEO of a well-known Swiss watch brand told this magazine in 2016, with all the foresight of Pete Best. “Apple doesn’t realise that the reasons for buying a watch are very different from buying a phone or Mac. You don’t buy one for the functionality, you buy it for what it says about you, for its design and uniqueness.”
Today, Apple outsells the entire Swiss-watch industry by a wide margin—you only need to look at people’s wrists on the next bus, train or plane you take to realise that. Initially promoted as a fashion accessory, Apple soon pivoted to fitness-oriented marketing—harvesting our health data as it did so. Either way, Apple’s Watch is an incredible piece of industrial design, each edition incrementally better than the last—with 2022’s OTT Apple Watch Ultra finding a surprisingly wide fanbase outside of athletes and sports enthusiasts.
The 1st Generation was available in 38mm or 42mm and four versions: aluminium, stainless steel, Hermès stainless steel and 18ct gold. It allowed you to get notifications on your wrist, hail and taxi and make phone calls, just as science fiction predicted — but only with your phone connected. It still did more than any other smartwatch on the market in 2015. The arguments over whether Apple’s Watch counts as a “real” watch and fears it would obliterate “traditional” watchmaking proved silly.
The two coexist. Interest in watches is now at an all-time high, and Apple must take some share of the credit. Still, it didn’t get everything right. “People are carrying their phones and looking at the screen so much,” said software developer Kevin Lynch, positing his invention as a cure. Hmmm.
Tourbillons are the status symbol of high-end watchmaking—where a watch’s “heartbeat” workings are put on display in a delicate, ever-rotating carriage mechanism. Franck Muller’s obsession with dazzling mechanics meant that by 2011 he’d already produced the winner of the “most complicated watch in the world” title, twice. With the Giga Tourbillon—at 20mm, more than half the size of the entire watch and larger than some women’s watches—he set new standards in accuracy, showboating and status symbols.
As a watch that flips over on itself, sitting securely with its dial folded away and the reverse side worn outwards, the Reverso was already in a category of one. But J-LC—“the watchmaker’s watchmaker”—was only getting started. Subsequent Reverso models (and there have been many) have included one with four faces, one with shutters that wind open to reveal a nude woman and last year’s Reverso Tribute Enamel Hidden Treasures, a trio of models with tiny reproductions of “lost” artworks by Vincent Van Gogh, Gustav Klimt and Gustave Courbet hand-painted onto them. Not far off a century after its debut, the Reverso’s innovation continues to run wild.
Gérald Genta called it a “sea monster”, lamenting the engorgement of his masterwork. It was so complicated to make that six months after its launch, only five cases had passed the water-resistance test, and in its first three years, only 716 were sold. Now celebrating 30 years in the sun, the Offshore is a phenomenon: pre-dating Panerai’s revival, the IWC Big Pilot or the rise of Hublot, it can legitimately claim to have established the “big watch” trend. After the Offshore, CEO François-Henry Bennahmias won endorsements from the likes of Jay-Z and inserted Audemars Piguet into the zeitgeist via hip-hop, movies, motorsport and, er, golf.
It’s easy to celebrate the legacy of watches supplied to World War II’s Allied forces. For others, like the B-Uhr or Panerai Radiomir, it is necessary to acknowledge that they were used by Axis forces. Four German brands—A. Lange & Söhne, Laco, Stowa and Wempe, plus IWC in Switzerland, answered the Luftwaffe’s call for a navigator’s aviation watch, and the B-Uhr—also known as a “Flieger” (“pilot”) watch—was the result. Huge even by today’s standards, it is notable for the sword-shaped hands, oversized crown and simple, legible dial print. The design DNA lives on in many modern pilot’s watches, most notably IWC’s Big Pilot series.
In the 1980s quartz crisis, when cheap Japanese watches threatened to destroy the Swiss industry, makers began rediscovering the arts of complicated horology. First, time-honoured “complications” reappeared in mechanical watches; then came blends of these. Having already produced superlative watches showing key complications individually (perpetual calendar, moon phase, minute repeater, split-seconds chronograph and tourbillon), in 1991 Blancpain united these in a multi-functional masterpiece. The 1735 was the most complex automatic watch ever made. Thirty were made, and Blancpain still has a watchmaker just for servicing these.
The Monaco wasn’t the first square* watch, but it was the first-ever square chronograph, as well as the first water-resistant square-cased watch. Those are the facts. But its appeal rests on less tangible assets—its cool factor. Heuer was the first non-automotive brand to sponsor motorsport. And after Steve McQueen paired his Monaco with a Porsche 917, the endorsement proved so valuable that he’s still listed on the watchmaker’s website as a brand ambassador, despite having died in 1980. Defunct for over a decade, the Monaco’s cult appeal grew alongside enthusiasm for the 1970s’ sprucely modern design language, and it has remained popular ever since.
Something of an oddball when first launched in 1939, using a pocket-watch movement to create an oversized wristwatch with improved accuracy and legibility. Come the brand’s 125th anniversary in 1993, a graceful mid-century design was just the ticket and in the last 30 years, the Portugieser has become a modern classic, particularly in chronograph form.
All-new mainstream watch designs are vanishingly rare; great ones even more so. The original Octo carried a faint essence of the work of Royal Oak and Nautilus designer Gérald Genta, but in its ultra-thin “finissimo” form the multi-faceted case took on a distinct personality. Its slinky presence is seductive in its own right, but watch fans have been won over by the engineering: the Octo Finissimo has held seven records for ultra-thin watchmaking.
Few designs—of watches, or anything else—have proven so malleable and so constant as that of the Tank, conceived by Louis Cartier in 1917 and named after its resemblance (in overhead profile) to the machines then rumbling across battlefields in Flanders. There have been long Tanks, curved Tanks, asymmetric Tanks and more—each, with its elongated flanks and Belle Epoque dial, unmistakably a Tank and unmistakably Cartier. On the wrist of Rudolph Valentino in the 1920s, Jackie Kennedy in the 60s, Warhol in the 70s or Paul Mescal today, the Tank in its small, slim original format has never been anything other than effortlessly, exquisitely on point. And it never will be.
George Bamford, founder, Bamford Watch Department; Tim Barber, writer, Mr Porter; Alex Barter, author The Watch: A Twentieth-Century Style History; Alex Bilmes, editor-in-chief, Esquire; Nicholas Bowman-Scargill, re-founder and owner, Frears Watch Company; Maximillian Büsser, founder MB&F; Davide Cerrato, CEO Bremont; Ross Crane, cofounder, Subdial; Johnny Davis, editor, The Big Watch Book; James Gurney, editor and consultant; Chris Hall, senior watch editor, Mr Porter; Adrian Hailwood, watch business consultant; Robert-Jan Broer, founder and editor-in-chief, Fratello; Ming Lui, writer, The Financial Times; Tracey Llewellyn, editor Telegraph Time; James Marks, international head, Phillips Perpetual; Kathleen McGivney, CEO, RedBar Group; Caragh McKay, creative content director; William Messena, founder Messena Lab; Benoit Mintiens, founder, Ressence Watches; Oliver R. Müller, watch-industry entrepreneur; Tim Mosso, media director and watch specialist, WatchBox; Bill Prince, editor and author of Royal Oak: From Iconoclast to Icon; Philipp Stahl, founder Rolex Passion Report; Rebecca Struthers, watchmaker and historian; Rikki, Scottish Watches; Charlie Teasdale, contributing editor, Esquire; Silas Walton, founder and CEO, A Collected Man; Asher Rapkin, founder, Collective Horology; Dr James Nye, deputy master of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers; Eric Wind, owner, Wind Vintage; Charlie Pragnell, chairman and CEO, Pragnell; Robin Swithinbank, writer, The New York Times
What could be more of a flex than performing at Lollapalooza while sporting an Audemars Piguet Royal Oak? Wearing a personalised, limited-edition Audemars Piguet Royal Oak for your performance at Lollapalooza. And it looks like that's exactly what Lil Yachty did this past weekend, strapping a version of the celebrity-beloved watch—reworked by the French operation MAD Paris—on his wrist for his headliner-worthy set (which actually took place a few hours before Lana Del Ray and the Red Hot Chili Peppers did their respective things on the main stages).
Want to throw another heavy-hitter name into the mix? Let's do it. MAD Paris didn't take on this project all by its own. Mathew Williams was also involved. If you need a refresher, Williams is the brains behind Givenchy as well as 1017 Alyx 9SM. This Royal Oak was customised for the latter brand and features a very clean dial that forgoes the customary tapisserie treatment in favour of a smooth, brushed finish. The clasp has also undergone a contemporary transformation, mirroring the industrial closure that Williams favours for belts, purses and various accessories.
The price to put your hands on something like the watch Mr Yachty is wearing? According to Hypebeast, the original iteration, which was produced in a series of 40, went for USD81,000—though there's no telling what kind of markup one might be looking at on the secondary market. If you ask us, that might deserve a little more main-stage time than Anthony Kiedis.