The definition of an iconic or classic watch can vary from person to person. But there are a few things that they will reach a common ground on. These symbols of style, elegance, and craftmanship must be timeless to begin with and must have an influential design that makes it instantly recognisable.
Making a list of 20 important watches was no easy feat. Part one of this feature includes some of our most-loved watches that have a very special place in our heart (and hands).
PATEK PHILIPPE CALATRAVA REF. 96 (1932)
THE WATCH THAT BUILT PATEK PHILIPPE
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, and in 1932, 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, world timers, 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.
INGERSOLL ‘MICKEY MOUSE’ (1933)
CARTOON WATCHES FOR ADULTS? IT’LL NEVER CATCH ON
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 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.
ROLEX EXPLORER (1953)
THE PERFECT WATCH?
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.
BLANCPAIN FIFTY FATHOMS (1953)
THE DIVE WATCH BLUEPRINT
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 clas- sic was foundational; rare vintage models are collector grails, and modern versions remain big sellers for the brand.
ROLEX DAY-DATE (1956)
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.
SEIKO 5 SPORTSMATIC (1963)
NEW TO COLLECTING? START HERE
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.
AUDEMARS PIGUET ROYAL OAK 5402 (1972)
FUSING THE INDUSTRIAL AND THE EXOTIC
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.
VIANNEY HALTER X JEFF BARNES ANTIQUA PERPETUAL CALENDAR (1998)
MAKING THE IMPOSSIBLE POSSIBLE
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 time- piece. 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.
FP JOURNE TOURBILLON SOUVERAIN ‘SOUSCRIPTION’ (1999)
THE ARRIVAL OF A NEW MASTER
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 upfront, 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.
HUBLOT BIG BANG (2004)
DESIGNED TO THE MAX
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.”
This piece originally appeared in the November 2023 print edition of Esquire.