A Deep Dive Into the Watches That Kickstarted the Unprecedented Demand for Steel Sports Watches
Continuing where we left off, we highlight some of the steel sports watches that set the bar for the industry
Continuing where we left off from our previous post about the burgeoning trend of luxury steel sports watches, we take a look at some of the watches that help set this trend as we enter the new decade.
PATEK PHILIPPE NAUTILUS & AQUANAUT
Although the Royal Oak had gotten off to a rocky start for Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe knew a winner when it saw one, and promptly commissioned Genta to create a luxury sports watch. The result was the Nautilus, which debuted to a predictable reception in 1976. This watch was water-resistant to a very respectable 120 metres, compared with the 50 metres of the Royal Oak, so some pundits consider the Nautilus the first true luxury sports watch. Nevertheless, the Nautilus was not initially regarded as highly as the Royal Oak, though it might be even more important in proving to other brands that extraordinary designs were worth pursuing.
Entirely without meaning to, the design language of the luxury steel sports watch was encoded when Genta lent his powers to Patek Philippe. There was reportedly a fair amount of grumbling among collectors about superficial similarities between the Royal Oak and the Nautilus, but this has melted away over the years. Indeed, if one subscribes to the idea that fine watchmaking is all about sweating the details, then the Nautilus and the Royal Oak are very different but clearly milled from the same steel, so to speak; even the Royal Oak and the Royal Oak Offshore are quite different when viewed through this lens. To put it another way, any given round watch made and designed in Japan has much more in common with a US-made round watch than the Royal Oak does with the Nautilus. This holds true even if you think Patek Philippe deliberately asked Genta to make the Nautilus its own Royal Oak, but without looking like a copy of the Royal Oak.
The Royal Oak and the Nautilus have certainly benefited each other, more than any of the other Genta-designed or even Genta-inspired timepieces (without even getting into the dial-maker for the Royal Oak and the Nautilus, because that is a story for another time). Both classics changed how collectors perceived the brands, and opened up new routes for watchmakers to explore.
Patek Philippe went down this road itself in 1997 with the launch of the Aquanaut, a rubber-strap luxury steel sports watch that shocked collectors. The brand had done so before, as a number of now-defunct sports models since the original Nautilus had demonstrated, but ref. 5060A was to enjoy a long life.
The evolving story of the Genta lineage goes beyond both Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe. Indeed it even transcends the luxury sports watch itself because it includes market-defining watches such as the Casio G-Shock, as well as feted stepchildren such as the Bulgari Octo. The Bulgari Octo figures quite strongly in this story, although it is not actually cited. The watch is simply too classically slim, is not offered in steel, and is not crazy enough to sneak into the extreme section. Again, this is very weird because Genta himself dreamed up the luxury sports watch as a very slim object.
JAEGER-LECOULTRE REVERSO TRIBUTE
This one is a longtime favourite at WOW, and it happens to have been designed specifically for sportsmen. Polo is hardly what anyone would call a mainstream sport, and it remains relatively niche, even amongst the rich and the famous.
A holdover from the days of the British Raj, polo today is probably not even close to the popularity levels of the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso. Oddly enough, no one ever presents this as a luxury sports watch, even though it is legitimately the first wristwatch to have been designed for and used by sportsmen. If anything, it is the fact that this watch looks and feels just right with a nice leather strap, which has the effect of making it entirely classical. Obviously, the main reason people don’t think of the Reverso as a sports watch is that it is most often manual-winding and that is just not sporty. Also, Jaeger-LeCoultre has the Polaris in play, which sports the round compressor case and automatic winding, and thus prefers to play up the active living connection there.
Of course, the Reverso is available in all manner of metals, with the appropriate bracelet too. To our minds, a steel Reverso with bracelet plays to win the luxury sports watch game. Along with the Cartier Tank and Santos, the Reverso is a bracelet that happens to tell the time. The fact that you can flip the case around is especially useful for urban warriors because you can always keep your sapphire crystal out of harm’s way. If only the Le Sentier manufacture could manage to get automatic winding to work efficiently in a form movement (something simple geometry has prevented for most watchmakers) then the Reverso would really take off as the luxury sports watch to take on even giants such as Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe. We hold out hope that the clever folks at Jaeger-LeCoultre figure this out because the Royal Oak and the Nautilus have run a two-horse race for too long.
AUDEMARS PIGUET ROYAL OAK & ROYAL OAK OFFSHORE
Not only did Audemars Piguet spark what would become a luxury sports watch arms race in watchmaking, it also changed what was then a segment dominated by Rolex-flatterers. The Royal Oak debuted in 1972 to instant acclaim, receiving an impromptu parade in its honour at BaselWorld from every brand that would soon follow in its footsteps. Except it did not work out that way at all.
In a few words, the watch was derided as a royal folly and pundits expected Audemars Piguet to fold – the quartz crisis was still unfolding at this time, and would not claim its final scalp for some years. Except it did not work out that way at all. Instead, the Royal Oak ushered in the era of the watch designer, with one guy named Gerald Genta dominating the design language of the entire industry; the legacy of his own watches survives today as part of the Bulgari Octo line, itself a demonstration that one can maintain all the staples of the luxury sports watch yet not really be considered proper sports watches. Anyway, Genta was responsible for the Royal Oak and the Patek Philippe Nautilus, which we will get to, but was reportedly appalled by Audemars Piguet’s next move, the Royal Oak Offshore.
Humans, it seems, are not very good at learning from the examples of the past because the Offshore was sneered at even within Audemars Piguet. Initially posited as a celebratory limited edition for the 20th anniversary of the Royal Oak, the Royal Oak Offshore emerged from the mind of designer Emmanuel Gueit. His sketches reportedly received a less than enthusiastic response from management (this according to Audemars Piguet itself, as you can read on their website). Gueit told TimeZone that he dreamed up the Royal Oak Offshore because he “liked the idea of a Royal Oak that was unwearable for a woman.”
As quaint as that sentiment sounds today, given that Audemars Piguet makes Royal Oak Offshore models for women, the vision of a beefed up Royal Oak alternately thrilled and horrified then Audemars Piguet Co-CEO Stephen Urquhart. Ultimately, Gueit convinced him by comparing the Offshore to the reigning ubermensch of the luxury sports watch, the Rolex Sea-Dweller. Urquhart signed off on it and made history as the watch debuted in 1993, to much the same reception as its inspiration, the Royal Oak.
Like Genta, Gueit would go on to ply his trade across the watch trade. While Genta’s designs popped up everywhere, in very recognisable form thanks to the fact that he was selling his designs on the cheap (CHF10 per sketch) to virtually everyone in the 1960s, Gueit has been more surreptitious. Indeed, no one other than Genta has been openly feted as the creator of the luxury sports watch, as embodied by the shaped case and integrated bracelet. Of course, the example of Gueit shows that Rolex was certainly on the minds of other creators, and the brands they worked for. As for Genta, he had other obsessions, but his work and the example of Rolex Oyster Perpetual models continue to define the luxury sports watch.
This watch is criminally neglected but it is a fine example of a purpose-designed luxury sports watch that comes alive on a very specific style of bracelet. It is missing that Genta touch and indeed, has no designer at all credited – even to this day, Girard-Perregaux has not made any public statements about the designer or design team. Launched in 1975, the Laureato is actually among the first luxury sports watches to follow in the wake of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. Denting its image is the fact that it was quartz-powered, although at that moment in history this could have been justified.
Nevertheless, the watch suffered from a similar issue as the Genta-designed IWC Ingeniuer (1976) – these watches dropped a little too early, and were reportedly priced too low.
What the Laureato illustrates is that the 1970s saw an explosion of different designs as watch brands fought to make the best use of both quartz and mechanical movements. This is when the bracelet conversation really heated up, with men taking to the idea of the watch with bracelet as a bit of jewellery. There is some correlation here to Ralph Lauren making the polo-T cool, which was also in the 1970s, but there is nothing concrete to this. It just feels very 1970s to pair the luxury sports watch with the polo-T, or even the turtleneck.
The shape of time is indeed an indelible marker of intent as far as the luxury sports watch figures, but so is the price of admission. The best illustration of this comes from none other than Richard Mille, whether the watch be round or otherwise. To speak plainly, a Richard Mille watch prices itself into the game because it is purpose-built to be the world’s most over-engineered luxury sports watch.
Crucially though, Richard Mille rarely trades in steel, opting instead for more exotic materials, as seen in the titanium baseplate of the movement powering the RM001 in 2001. With its form movements, the firm also typically goes with manual-winding pieces, although it made a stellar contribution to watchmaking with its declutching variable geometry automatic system (as reported in issue #54).
Of course, there is never just one player in any one segment, although Richard Mille certainly deserves credit for carving out the extreme luxury watch space by sheer force of will. Curiously, the genesis of Richard Mille involved that pioneer in the luxury sports watch segment, Audemars Piguet. The Le Brassus firm’s haute horlogerie engineering powerhouse Renaud et Papi remains intimately involved with Richard Mille movements to this day. When the occasion demands a more extreme watch than the Royal Oak Offshore, Audemars Piguet continues to have skin in the game.
Striking a different pose here is Roger Dubuis, which has earned its spot on the grid of the extreme luxury sports watch race. We cover this marque’s equal parts insane and inspired watches elsewhere in this issue, but it is worth looking at the various experiments in micro-engineering that this Richemont-owned brand pushes. We spoke with both Roger Dubuis CEO Nicola Andreatta as well Product Strategy Director Gregory Bruttin on these and other related subjects. To summarise, the Geneva brand made a splash in the sports watch segment by releasing one of the world’s first diving watches with the Geneva Seal in 2006 (the Easy Diver), and then showed a lot of chutzpah by unleashing the world’s first tourbillon diving watch (also in the now-discontinued Easy Diver range).
These days, Roger Dubuis seems positively obsessed with motor racing – unsurprising given that many watchmaking brands have found it natural to build creative bridges between watches and automobiles. Not that this is the only creative arena to play in, as demonstrated by other brands betting big on yachting, polo, aviation and even surfing. Franck Muller, our next stop in this whirlwind tour of extreme luxury watches (that might also be sports watches), does exactly that with its Vanguard collection.
Before Richard Mille and Roger Dubuis, it was Franck Muller that threw down the gauntlet to establishment powers in watchmaking. The challenge in 1992 was to create dramatic new watches for a new century, not revisit the past or evolve into future forms; it is worth noting that this was the 20th anniversary of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, and that the renaissance in fine watchmaking was still around the corner. At first, what Franck Muller proposed was the cult of the complication but in the 21st century, that grew to include the sports segment.
In fact, the Vanguard collection was created in 2014 as a sports watch, filling a gap in the Franck Muller range. The Cintrée Curvex defined the brand for years, even though it does have a variety of shapes in its stable, but this shape showed its limitations when it was beefed up to house more and more complications. It was extreme, yes, but certainly not sporty; more importantly, it lost all its graceful qualities and any sense of nuance, which is important for a luxury sports watch. The easy solution would have been to go with a round shape, but one does not call oneself the Master of Complications if the easy way is an option.
Like Richard Mille and even Roger Dubuis, the shape of time is important enough to Franck Muller to innovate its own sort of answer to the luxury sports watch question. For example, the Vanguard collection has a range of water-resistance ratings, from 30 metres up. This would fall below expectations for robustness but the design of the watch allows Franck Muller to get away with the transgression.
A. LANGE & SOHNE ODYSSEUS
There is a lot to say about this watch, even with the all the Internet still in tizzy about it. We ourselves have said a fair bit about it elsewhere in the magazine but there is always space to include additional viewpoints on what is a remarkably important watch. Revealed to the public on the same day that the brand was relaunched 25 years ago, the A. Lange & Sohne Odysseus completes the haute horlogerie sports watch story. In making the Odysseus public now, the Glashutte firm ensures that it will become an instant part of the luxury sports watch debate (we’re aware how we’re helping in that department). The reception for the watch certainly runs parallel to what Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe experienced with their sports watches, so that is an interesting track to be on. Only time will tell if the results will be similar.
To get to it, the Odysseus looks like an A. Lange & Sohne (the Zeitwerk vibes are strong), as far as the dial and the automatic movement are concerned, and it has the right stuff as far as the water-resistant steel case and bracelet go. Crucially, the price is very bold indeed – above both the Royal Oak and the Nautilus – and is probably a reflection of market realities. It does not evoke those two famous watches in any way (unless one is being extremely pedantic), so it will hopefully cultivate its own fans. As always, we will wait a few years to settle on a definitive statement on the Odysseus.
BELL & ROSS BR05
Before Chopard and A. Lange & Sohne unveiled their new sports watches, this watch provoked the loudest reaction from the watch commenting rabble. The irony of course is that the BR05 is not even positioned as a sports watch, which Bell & Ross already has in its stable. It didn’t have an integrated bracelet watch with an architectural bent, and that was the brand’s intent. Bell & Ross already owns the circle-within-the-square aesthetic so what could people find to complain about… Obviously, the watch is so different to the Nautilus and the Royal Oak that a comparison is not relevant. Indeed it might be better to take the brand to task for not making the watch even dressier, and pricing it more aggressively.
As it stands, the Bell & Ross BR05 is an excellent alternative to the muscular posturing of most luxury sports watches. Its boldest move after all is to offer this model in gold, which is actually quite unusual for the brand. In our story last issue on this watch, we noted that the design inspirations were, broadly speaking, from the 1970s. Where Bell & Ross have broken new ground is in the subtle distinction that this is really a dress watch that has grown up from military aviation roots. As a designer, Bruno Belamich defines success as a look that sells so that will be the ultimate test, from the get-go. Again, Bell & Ross is neither Audemars Piguet nor Patek Philippe so the barrier to entry is not too high. What will be most interesting is whether the gold or steel models find favour.
CHOPARD ALPINE EAGLE
Of course, it is should be possible to create new luxury sports watches without kicking up a lot of fuss, yet you might wonder where the more prosaic ones are? What were their fates? Well, even the Genta designed IWC Ingenieur SL has been retired so we leave you to simply imagine what else has left the field of battle. Well, the Chopard Alpine Eagle is certainly not a laid-back proposition; indeed it looks like it is spoiling for a fight. Watch commentators have already been declaring their allegiances with regards to this piece, unsurprisingly. The brand, and the origins of this watch in particular, all speak to why. This is Chopard, after all, and it is a design based on a 1980s watch called the St.Moritz, reportedly designed by none other than Karl-Friedrich Scheufele himself. As they say, them’s fighting words all, and watch writers have responded accordingly.
To our minds, this watch simply illustrates the overwhelming influence of the 1970s luxury sports watch, even if the inspiration was an early 80s watch. Chopard reports that the Alpine Eagle is meant to be the brand’s sports watch with integrated bracelet, but it has to be said there are easier sells than this. More than the styling though, what will make or break the Alpine Eagle is that the watch is priced closer to the Piaget Polo S than to the Royal Oak. This cannot be an accident, first because the watch starts small, at 36mm and ends at 41mm (which is far from a large size as far as luxury sports watches go). Secondly, as it happens, the Alpine Eagle looks better in gold, with a gem-set bezel than it does in steel.