There are watches and then there are iconic and important watches. What makes the latter? To begin with, they were adored and were certainly a technological breakout when they were launched. Were they commercially successful and long-lasting? One would certainly think so.
Part two of this feature highlights 10 fabulous watches that have had a substantial impact on watchmaking.
CARTIER SANTOS-DUMONT (1904)
A REAL HIGH-FLYER
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.
PATEK PHILIPPE REF. 1518 PERPETUAL CALENDAR (1941)
A WRISTWATCH THAT CREATED A GENRE
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.
BREITLING NAVITIMER (1954)
A WATCH FOR HIGH-FLYERS
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.
OMEGA SPEEDMASTER PROFESSIONAL (1957)
LOVED ON EARTH AND BEYOND
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 markerting gold like this, and Omega has certainly done so, issuing endless Moon-watch 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.
SEIKO ASTRON 35SQ (1969)
THE FIRST QUARTZ WATCH
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.
ROLEX GMT-MASTER (1955)/ GMT-MASTER II (1982)
THE WATCH THAT ANNOUNCED THE JET AGE
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 dis- combobulating 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.
CASIO F-91W (1989)
ONE OF THE CHEAPEST WATCHES IS ALSO ONE OF THE BEST
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 Ryu- suke “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.
BRAUN AW10 (1989)
GOOD DESIGN IS MAKING SOMETHING INTANGIBLE AND MEMORABLE
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.
RICHARD MILLE RM 011 FELIPE MASSA (2007)
RICHARD MILLE DOESN’T SELL MANY WATCHES. AT HIS PRICES, HE DOESN’T NEED TO
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.
OMEGA X SWATCH MOONSWATCH (2022)
A GENIUS MARKETING PLAY
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.
This piece originally appeared in the November 2023 print edition of Esquire.