Designers and watches which became icons, through the years

I will focus on just five of the most insightful watches I have come across, based on my personal views and feelings. 

Also, you are going to find some very different market values in there. I mean, watches which are worth a King’s ransom, and others which are instead affordable almost for a Baron. But hey, you have asked for “most prestigious”, right?

I will start with something you cannot buy, but it represents an awesome technical feat, and marks the state of the art of horology as a research field. And I am talking about the Piaget Altiplano Ultimate Concept, presented at the SIHH 2018. As you probably know, Piaget has always been famous for its ultra-thin watches. But with this concept, it has surpassed itself: the whole watch is just 2 mm thick. Not the movement – the whole watch.

It is awe-inspiring to see this. Mindblowing. A mechanical watch so thin that Piaget had to perfect a special alloy of steel, additioned with cobalt, which is characterized by its rigidity so to avoid any king of axial torsion that would destroy the minute and absolutely precise wheel train.

By the way, a regular Piaget Altiplano 900 P series, at 38 mm, which is the closest you can get to this stunner, will cost you from 20.000 to 30.000 USD, depending on the case metal.

piaget-altipiano.jpg
Piaget Altiplano Ultimate Concept

Now, I would like to introduce you to something really extraordinary – and let’s admit it, very difficult to wear. A watch that would really surprise everyone you meet, because it features a songbird automaton inside the watch.

And I am talking about the Jaquet Droz Charming Bird. It features a small automaton of a bird which moves, chirps and fultters its wings inside the “cage” – and its chirping can be set to mark the time. Beware it would cost you ten times the price of the Altiplano 900P I have talked about above.

Jaquet Droz Charming Bird

The Franck Muller Aeternitas Mega 4 – a beast of a watch, featuring 36 complications, 25 of them visible, 1,483 components, and a 1000-year calendar, maybe is the most complicated and costly wristwatch of all the planet.

And it costs – errrr – 9 times the Jaquet Droz above – for a cool 2.7 million USD

Aeternitas Mega 4, by Franck Muller

Now, no list of amazing watches would be complete without citing the work of Richard Mille. His watches are extreme, impossible, amazing, and often so far out of normality as to become a sort of mere exercise of style in horology. 

And, of course, they are absurdly expensive. But they are like having a F1 wrapped around your wrist, when you are used to drive maybe a Lexus, or even a Lambo. RMs are so out of the ordinary as to be radically different, and you can see it from their style and the technical solutions they employ. For example, this Richard Mille RM018 Boucheron features a wheel train made in semi-precious stones (which have required a research of three years to be cut in this way), that you can clearly see through the skeletonized movement. The price of this amazing watch lies over the 1 million mark, for the onyx edition studded with baguette cut diamonds, so it comes almost affordable if you consider the Franck Muller above.

Richard Mille RM 018 Boucheron

I would like to close this shortpresentation by showing a true Grail watch, made by independent master watchmaker Kari Voutilainen – the Observatoire
It is an extremely rare piece of horology, as only 50 units have been made. Voutilainen, one of the best-known independent watchmakers, crafted this gem in 2008 around a heavily modified Peseux 260 ebauche. The dial is enriched by the three different guilloche patterns, which give it a sense of depth which is almost astounding. As you can easily understand, it looks simple, almost understated – but it’s effectively almost priceless.

Voutilainen – Observatoire

You can find much more about horology and its fascinating history in The Watch Manual, a thorough e-book that explains all the basics about watchmaking and its protagonists.

To download a FREE 8-chapter extract from The Watch Manual
please CLICK HERE

Patek Philippe kills the 5711 and retreats from steel luxury sports timepieces

It is the talk of the day.
Nope, the year.
Well, let’s say: of the 2000s.

This watch was the wet dream of horology fans worldwide.
And everyone keeps asking himself why.

The answer is that Patek Philippe wanted to return back to its roots as a luxury company.

The company did not discontinue the whole Nautilus line, of course: it discontinued the 5711 model, that is, the “basic” steel Nautilus.

The meteoric, upward rising demand for a watch like the steel Nautilus was a sort of anomaly for a company like Patek Philippe – and a bit of an unwanted one.

The Stern family
The Stern family, with Mr. Thierry Stern on the right.

Mr. Thierry Stern, the current head honcho of the venerable watchmaker, had in more than one occasion stated his personal dislike for the model designed by Gerald Genta in its most plebeian material variant: stainless steel.

The Seventies, with their democratisation of luxury, are long gone. And the 5711 was the one exception that once confirmed the rule, but still brought the Geneva-based company too close to its utilitarian emulators clad in ferrous metal: the Professional Rolex line.

Rolexes, which continue to be tool watches, enjoyed the same popularity as Patek Philippe’s Nautilus. The difference between the two maisons was beginning to become less noticeable as the waiting list for both began to equalize.

What’s more, Stern wanted to remove surgically the thought of buying a Patek Philippe like the Nautilus for the most heinous crime imaginable for the company: flipping it.

So much for Patek Philippe’s key message: that a Patek watch is never owned, but treasured to pass down to the next generation.

Mr. Stern, faced with the proliferation of this low-life behaviour, decided to call it quits.

Taking a big risk, and displeasing many people who would have wanted a 5711, but cutting off forever this kind of activity on a model which was certainly exclusive, but one of the most affordable in Patek’s lineup.

In the meanwhile, he offered his customers an alternative: the 6711, which will be a bit bigger (41 mm) and won’t use steel anymore, but the more futuristic titanium. And will have a black-dial alternative in precious metal as well – ça va sans dire – platinum.

Patek Philippe Nautilus 6711 in platinum and titanium

With this move, Patek got itself out of the rat race, leaving it to Rolex and its supporters. Patek is returning to its previous state of excellence a status that is not and should not be dependent on an “access list” with a progressive number, but that refers to quite different and much more rarefied characteristics.

For Patek Philippe, luxury is exclusivity, and before it can be bought, it must be conquered through mutual recognition.

The result of this move by the Geneva-based company was the obvious and expected upward price spike of the steel 5711, which practically doubled its price on the second-wrist market overnight.

A final price to pay in regaining its position, leaving the market for luxury sport watches in steel to the swarm of other contenders.

The King exits the scene, making himself
even more conspicuous by his absence.

Who is going to step in and seize the Crown? Time will tell – but I have selected a few contenders in the article on The Truth About Watches: Patek 5711 RIP


You can find much more about horology and its fascinating history in The Watch Manual, a thorough e-book that explains all the basics about watchmaking and its protagonists.

To download a FREE 8-chapter extract from The Watch Manual
please CLICK HERE

Who was Gérald Genta

The world of horology would not be the same without Gérald Genta (1931-2011). He was a sort of wunderkind of modern horology and has been one of the most influential professionals of all time. He both invented the profession of watch designer, and at the same time, he was also a technical master of the craft of watchmaking.

He was born in Geneva. His mother was Swiss and his father came from the region of “Piemonte”, in Italy – and let me tell you, my family comes from the same place as well.

He studied watchmaking all his life: at age 20, after the school, he was recruited by Universal Genève, at the time one of the best manufactures for its chronograph models.

Genta worked in the technical department, and designed Universal’s Polerouter Microtor in the 1950s, as well as the Golden and White Shadows during the mid-1960s.

Between the innovations he pioneered, the most notable and widespread is the off-centered rotor of automatic watches, first installed in the Universal Geneve Polerouter.

This solution has permitted to reduce the thickness of movements, and eventually, create modern designs such as the Bvlgari Octo Finissimo, a timepiece based on his late work.

A modern edition of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, originally designed by Gérald Genta in 1970

Genta has been the creative mind that has designed two of the modern icons of horology, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak (picture above) and the Patek Philippe Nautilus (picture below). And in the meanwhile, he has created a completely new category of watches: the luxury sports, characterized by their use of stainless steel in the case and bracelets.

The Nautilus by Patek Philippe, from 1976, another design by Gérald Genta

Genta as an independent designer

After he left Universal Geneve, he pursued his career as an independent designer – and he worked for the best manufacturers, for whom he designed some models that became icons of horology. Between them we can cite:

Universal Geneve’s Polerouter (1954);

Omega Constellation (1959);

Patek Philippe Golden Ellipse (1968);

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak (1970);

IWC Ingenieur (1976);

Patek Philippe Nautilus (1976);

Cartier Pasha de Cartier (1985).

Patek Philippe Golden Ellipse (1968)

Genta as a watchmaker

He then started his own company, where he specialized in complicated watches such as the Sonneries. He created the Gérald Genta Octo Granda Sonnerie Tourbillion, which contained four gongs and an emulated Westminster Quarters bell ring at each quarter and on the hour, “the same melody rung out by London’s Big Ben”, and then, the Grande Sonnerie Retro, the (back then) world’s most complicated wristwatch of the time, priced at approximately $2 million.

A modern version of the Omega Constellation, designed by Genta in 1959

During the 1980s, he showed his most creative and quirky spirit: through an accord with The Walt Disney Company, he made a series of watches featuring limited editions of the Disney characters, between which Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Scrooge and Goofy, with cases made of 18 carat gold.

Eventually, he sold his eponymous company, which was later bought – brand and technical contents – by Bulgari.

Genta died in Monaco at age 80.


You can find much more about horology and its fascinating history in The Watch Manual, a thorough e-book that explains all the basics about watchmaking and its protagonists.

To download a FREE 8-chapter extract from The Watch Manual
please CLICK HERE

A homage to the star of the show

The Rolex Submariner came in 1953, after the development of the Oyster case in 1926 and the historic crossing of the English Channel, by the British swimmer Mercedes Gleise. Rolex developed the Submariner to improve a watch with the most advanced water-resistant features possible, namely, the automatic movement, so it could work by itself without having to wind it up, and the screwdown crown.

The first Submariner, the Ref. 6204, was launched in 1953, and was quite different from the Submariner we know today. It had a thick Oyster case with a large 8 mm crown. The hands were pencil-shaped and had a simple black dial with hour markers in geometric shapes filled with lume, an proudly displayed the “Submariner” name, as it was trendy to do back then. However, some models had other names like “Sub-Aqua” or “Submariner Perpetual” – or no name at all.

The Submariner, which back then had more in common with the Turn-O-Graph than anything else, was a simple, sturdy tool watch that was used for diving – and available back then for just $150 – around $1,500 today.

Its great success outside its main application came only in the 1960s, after the most fashionable secret agent of all time, James Bond, wore a Big Crown Submariner (precisely, the Ref. 6538) in the 1962 blockbuster, Dr. No.

A vintage Rolex Submariner, now with 200 meters water resistance

From the appearance of the ref. 6538 on the wrist of Bond, the Rolex Submariner skyrocketed to glory, bringing the whole brand with it and becoming the style icon that we know today.

The diver watches, from 100 meters to infinity

The first diver watches, like the Submariner and the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms were certified water-resistant to 100 meters (91 for the Fifty fathoms, as the fathom is a marine unit measuring a bit over 1.8 meters). Still, technical advancement brought this limit forward very soon, with many timepieces reaching 500 meters and more, down to the present record of watches like the Omega Seamaster Planet Ocean Ultra Deep Professional, which safely reaches a depth of 10,928 meters (the deepest on Earth).

Every famous – and not so famous – company has manufactured at least a diver’s watch, and quite possibly, it echoes the style of the Submariner. This watch is so famous that it is almost impossible to do something completely unlike it.

This is also one of the reasons why the Rolex company has decided to use many ways to differentiate its watches from its competitors’, which also include the use of a different kind of steel, the 904L, instead of the 316L used regularly by the watch industry. The effect, when compared one against the other, can be noticed. However, the 316L might lack that lustre, but it is less easily scratched than the 904L.

The Rolex Submariner today

Divers watches have become a shadow of their past

Anyways, the use of diver watches today to monitor safe diving has been superseded by diving computers.

However, a diver watch like the Submariner is a testament to the more heroic times of undersea exploration. And it looks perfect as well at the wrist.

A modern dial of the Submariner, today


You can find much more about horology and its fascinating history in The Watch Manual, a thorough e-book that explains all the basics about watchmaking and its protagonists.

To download a FREE 8-chapter extract from The Watch Manual
please CLICK HERE

 


Everyone has his standards, and the same value does not apply to everyone. 

Watch companies ranking is highly subjective, as it is based on different elements:

  • movement (complications)
  • branding
  • materials
  • decoration/finishings
  • exclusivity/production

The five intermix, and in a typical company there are different quantities of every one of them. To make an example everyone could understand readily, Rolex as a whole is good (though not exceptional) in movements, and absolutely topmost in branding, while a company like Omega is a bit of the opposite: Omega movements are a bit more advanced horologically than Rolex (they mount the Daniels co-axial escapement) but its branding, though good, is nowhere as good as Rolex’s (nor is anyone else’s in horology).

So, while I could readily make a list of watch companies and explain why they are in one category or the other, it would be pretty futile as my evaluation standards are not universal.

I can offer you, though, my personal view on the matter. The FH – Swiss Federation of Watchmakers – divides watches in four categories based on their price, and I usually find it quite useful.

The four categories determined by the FH are:

  1. Up to 200 CHF
  2. From 200 to 500 CHF
  3. From 500 to 3,000 CHF
  4. More than 3,000 CHF

As you can see, this classification rounds up the majority of the Swiss industry. There is however a niche missing: the ultra-high end, that is, the true “haute horlogerie” which is less industrial and more artisanal, and goes from 10,000 CHF upwards.

Remember that these are just rough divisions and are there just to exemplify: you can often find companies having models selling above or below their category, as watchmakers have broad ranges of products.

So, my personal classification follows this same outline:

  1. Affordable quartz-based or entry-level mechanicals made industrially in great quantities. Mostly disposable when broken. Like Swatches and Seiko 5s
  2. Higher-end fashion watches made by licensed brands, industrially-made basic line of quartz-based and mechanical watches made by big companies. Lots of Tissot, Hamilton, Seiko and similar companies models dwell in this space
  3. Good mechanicals from different companies taking the middle-end of the horology spectrum. This is where you find companies like MidoCertinaOris, Frederique Constant
  4. Higher-end mechanicals, often with complications, belonging to the best-known industrial-level companies, like TAG Heuer, Breitling, Omega, and Rolex. This is what you could call “affordable luxury”
  5. Luxury-level watches made by the most respected horology brands like Lange und Sohne, Jaeger LeCoultreAudemars PiguetVacheron Constantin, and Patek Philippe as well as smaller “artisans” of horology making very exclusive watches in limited quantities, like FP Journe and Richard Mille. This is what you could call “true luxury” horology.

Exceptions make the rules

Yes, I am well-aware that there are many exceptions. For example, Rolex has models crossing well beyond the 10,000 CHF threshold, and some present advanced horological features. Even so, true luxury is a completely different thing altogether than what is offered by the majority of Rolex production: this is not to belittle Rolex and its excellent achievements as a company, but to put things in their context.

So, when following such a matrix, it turns out a bit more easy to place the companies in these broad categories.

As a note, true horology nerds like myself own watches belonging to different categories, as watches are accessories to complement an attire or a mood.

watches

You can find much more about horology and its fascinating history in The Watch Manual, a thorough e-book that explains all the basics about watchmaking and its protagonists.

To download a FREE 8-chapter extract from The Watch Manual
please CLICK HERE