A Sporting Chance — a Deeper Dive into the Unprecedented Demand for Steel Sports Watches
The steel sports watch rules over watchmaking at all levels, but especially at a certain threshold of exclusivity. We examine the reasons for the unprecedented demand for this type of ticker
This is a story that insisted on being told. It emerges from a question that does not need to be asked, but plenty of people discuss it anyway. In short, it concerns the appetite for luxury sports watches, and certain design sensibilities that define said watches. Was the desire for such watches always there, or did watchmaking firms create the demand? To put it another way, using a more relatable and entirely plebeian example, did people always want the Internet or is it merely a tool that people took to? As you might guess, asking the sports watch question certainly gets interesting answers, but the entire affair seems academic.
The trouble of course is that there is no such thing as a luxury sports watch, and there exists no working definition for it. It is certainly not necessarily round, nor must it be especially robust; it need not even be in any particular material. Paradoxically, the luxury sports watch is very much a real thing, and virtually every brand has one watch that approaches some sort of ephemeral ideal. All of this amounts to lots of waffling and pointless pontificating, which does not make it an attractive story to pursue, objectively.
What finally made this story a reality for WOW was the release of the A. Lange & Söhne Odysseus watch recently. The brand had shown select parties the watch earlier in the year, and so in the end everyone was just waiting for the news embargo to lift. The moment we published online, everyone else did too – this is truly a watch that created a news cycle entirely via manufactured means, since no one broke the story early. This release pairs well with Glashutte Original’s most important new release of 2019, the SeaQ Panorama Date. The watch is charmingly utilitarian, but that big date offers a sly wink at contemporary tastes for date windows, even when too small to be useful. It can also be viewed as challenge to the Rolex Submariner models with date, but more on that later.
So, what is notable now is that every brand, from Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet to Vacheron Constantin and Breguet has a steel sports watch in play. Intriguingly, none of these brands follows a particular standard, with Patek Philippe even celebrating the 40th anniversary of its icon, the Nautilus with precious metal versions. Even neighbours such as A. Lange & Söhne and Glashutte Original have chosen very different approaches.
Obviously, the king of the luxury sports watch hill is Rolex, as you can guess just from looking at this story, and the Geneva brand does not shy away from precious materials for its Professional watches.
One of the key points about the luxury sports watch is the bracelet. For this story, even though we are saying bracelets are a prerequisite, we are not suggesting what sort of bracelet it should be. This is contentious because some models, the Patek Philippe Golden Ellipse for one, are available with integrated bracelets but are certainly not luxury sports watches. Of course, then there is the matter of the integrated bracelet, but that seems a subject for a story on its own. There are so many types of bracelets, and indeed straps, that a different kind of story would work better to address this aspect.
Then there are brands such as Panerai, Hublot and Blancpain that have very sporty watches but whose bracelet models are arguably not extraordinarily popular. In truth, the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, is a seriously attractive watch, and the Annual Calendar model in steel should be considered by anyone who is dreaming of the Rolex Sky-Dweller, for example.
The Breguet Marine collection also sports a relatively new option, with bracelet this time, and we look forward to addressing this piece in greater depth. This collection made a big splash last year with a total overhaul of all models; this year, Breguet adds a full titanium piece to the list, with matching bracelet. That bracelet really makes the difference, but the Roman numerals make the watch a bit more dress than sports, but we digress.
As for Panerai, it can be argued that every watch made by the brand is a luxury sports watch yet bracelets are not its stock in trade. The firm does have very distinctive Arabic numerals and very clear dials that burnish the sports watch credentials of the entire range. We are including some examples from the above-mentioned brands as alternatives to the dominant voices here, but we are purposely ignoring classically styled watches that happen to have beautiful bracelets, whatever the nature of those bracelets.
Honourable mention must also be made of the Vacheron Constantin Overseas and the Piaget Polo S, which are only mentioned in passing here. The Jorg Hysek-designed Vacheron Constantin 222 eventually evolved into the Overseas in 1996, and represents a highly influential, if underrated luxury sports watch. As for the Piaget Polo S, it is a direct descendant of the Yves Piaget-designed polo watch, which was peak 1970s design – an era that defines and presages the current ascendance of exclusive bracelet watches of all kinds.
At this point, a small personal confession is required. Long-time readers will know that I’ve been craving (a word I do not use lightly) a Rolex GMT-Master II in steel for some years – the blue-and-red version with the Cerachrom bezel, known colloquially as the “Pepsi.”
After years of being frustrated and thwarted, Rolex finally made the watch last year but my initial joy dissipated once I saw the wait list. In many ways, that is the real reason this story exists; that it exists in such length is just down to the fact that I am the editor of this magazine. Yes, this is a long read so settle in for plenty of pointless pontificating (my favourite sin, if my detractors are to be believed).
Now it is certainly not news that Professional model watches from Rolex are sometimes hard to come by (collector Winston Kwang weighs in on this elsewhere in this issue), new from authorised sellers. Even some models of ultimately disposable mobile phones are hard to buy brand new. We can attribute the rush to buy the latest iPhone to people’s lust for shinny new objects, largely because if you wait long enough, things cool down and you can get pretty much any phone you want. Steel sports watches from certain brands? Good luck with that, because even the most prolific maker of luxury sports watches isn’t quite on the production level of Apple or Samsung. Ironically, this is exactly what we like to see from makers of luxury watches because who wants products that are brought to market flawed (exploding batteries anyone?). It begs yet another question though: why only sports watches? Are people – meaning men – just not interested in dress watches then, or is the tendency for men to seek out sports watches that can also work in more formal settings?
We will not pretend that this article will provide answers to the big questions, but it might shed some light on why certain kinds of designs hog all the limelight.
There is something magical about a circle, even from a purely mathematical perspective. I recall being mesmerised as a child by the idea – the fact really – that the ratio of any circle’s circumference to its diameter is always the same: Pi. So the biggest circle has the same ratio as the smallest, and that is just mind-boggling. Even more amazing is the fact that Pi is an irrational number, and thus its decimal representation both never ends and never repeats the same pattern. This is just a fact about the natural world, and seems to my feeble mind an indication that there is something fundamentally wrong with mathematics.
What this means is that if you have a timepiece with a round face (and you likely do) then you in fact own an impossible object.
If you are a watch collector then you may have looked at six impossible objects before breakfast, to appropriate a little from Lewis Carroll (himself a mathematician besides being the author of Alice in Wonderland, among other things).
It is not known where, or how, time got into this picture, vis-à-vis the circle of life and such. The arrow of time is, after all, a more accurate cliché than the circle of life, although Ted Chiang made the most excellent use of circular time in his novella The Story of Your Life. Travelling back and forth in time is, theoretically, possible as long as one does not mess with causality. This works out nicely when you have to set your watch back, for example. Think of it this way: for a stationary observer, a second that passes is indistinguishable from one that is to come. You are not at any one point, but if you stop and look, that is where you are. Yes, everything is about Buckaroo Banzai in the end.
Clearly, time as a circle forms the grammar of watchmaking design, and this is certainly not a new thing. The sundial was a preview of the display of time, and clearly showed certainly natural advantages to the design – it is easier to read, and doesn’t induce anxiety the same way an hourglass does. By the time clocks rolled around, the circle was well-established as the design of choice for the display of time. As far the shape of the clocks went though, these varied greatly, but always revolved around keeping the clocks upright. The pendulum clock design by Christiaan Huygens required the device to be as stable as possible, and immobile of course.
Round shapes are famously unstable and rather more suited to mobility, which might explain why this was the shape of choice for the pocket watch. Even a cursory examination of the Patek Philippe Museum or the archives at Breguet reveals nothing but round pocket watches, which is very impressive; no serious treatises have been published on why this might be so. Perhaps it is because time is famously described as a wheel (making arrow-shaped timepieces might have been impractical), or because clock faces were round. Whatever the case, we only bring this up because the pocket watch was designed to bring a sensitive instrument out into an inherently dangerous world, with the expectation that it will work just fine.
FROM THE POCKET TO DAVY JONES’ LOCKER
Alternatively, pocket watches somewhat resemble lockets, what with the hinged cases and such. As products, lockets and pocket watches were contemporaneous, both dating back to 15th century Europe; the first pocket watch is credited to Peter Henlein of Nuremberg, Germany while the locket is of uncertain origin. Again this was well before miniaturisation (and Huygens) got clockwork to the point that a timekeeping device could follow us around, keep time accurately, and be exposed to potential shocks and other perturbations. This is not to say that robustness, precision and accuracy were not important to people at that time, but they made do with what they had. Certainly, none of the tickers right up to the 20th century were water-resistant.
Well, the circle certainly represents a key phase of timekeeping design language for a reason related to the aforementioned special properties of the shape. From the centre of a perfectly circular dial, every point on the circumference is equidistant, as implied in our earlier math digression. This makes it easy to accurately track and display the progress of time with traditional hands. The advent of the automatic wristwatch also favoured the round shape, just by virtue of the rotor – it is unsurprising that the first quartz watches busted the bounds of the round watch almost immediately. Quartz or no, water-resistance is one area that the round watch still shines, though the makers of pocket watches could not have known this (rubber was unknown at that point). Even haute horlogerie enfant terrible Richard Mille agreed when it released its first proper diving watch, the RM25.
Offering a telling counterpoint is Bell & Ross with the BR03, which stuck with the iconic shape that co-founder Bruno Belamich pioneered, but with a round unidirectional bezel. This of course brings this story, prematurely, to the BR05, which is quite a different beast to the aviation-skewed Bell & Ross assortment. We will be looking into this piece alongside the notable new luxury sports watches this year, including the aforementioned Odysseus, and the Chopard Alpine Eagle.
It must be noted here, for the record, that there are many new luxury sports watches, including models from brands as varied as Urban Jurgensen, Nomos Glashutte, and Rado, and we cannot feature all of them here. This is true even if we exclude all the Submariner ‘homages’ and straight-up diving watches. Indeed, not every sporty watch is a sports watch, as far as the current trend goes. After all, the hot segment includes the always-popular-but-never-available Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and the Patek Philippe Nautilus, neither of which are really sports watches in the way that a Rolex Submariner, an Omega Seamaster, or the TAG Heuer Autavia is.
A MATTER OF FORM
Using time is exactly where this story is going, specifically why the luxury sports wristwatch is objectively desirable and lusted after by everyone. Just as reality is not at all dependant on time, the appeal of the sportswatch has nothing to do with timekeeping. There are various arguments made for the lasting appeal of the sports watch (of any kind), including reliability and robustness, but these falter in the face of compelling design. One need only look to successful designs from the past to see this in action. The Cartier Tank has a long and storied history from its debut in 1908, but it remains in the current collection, which is a testament to the long-term visionary powers of Louis Cartier.
Even in the case of the mighty Rolex Submariner, one of the most popular sports watches (of any kind) in the world, one could argue that it is the design of the watch that carries the greatest appeal. That is to say, it looks right and works right besides, to such an extent that even Hodinkee ventured to suggest that it might be the most important watch of all time. To be fair, when considering the “most important watch,” the Rolex Submariner definitely comes to mind – the watch successfully predicted what people wanted in a sports watch, and then proceeded to define it. The entire global watch industry went all in on the Submariner’s trademark looks. Today, this is what one simply expects a sports watch to look like.
When it comes to the strength of the form-and-function argument, it does not get better than the date model with the Cyclops lens. Sticking a little magnifying glass onto sapphire crystal to amplify the date might seem wonky but it works for the Submariner to such an extent that there are plenty of regular folks (not you) who think there is no such thing as a no-date Submariner. The more impressive illusion here is that Rolex Oyster Perpetual watches are round. Studying the profile of any given Oyster Perpetual reveals an essentially barrel shape, otherwise known as tonneau in watchmaking parlance.
It is possible to go on, without limits, about the Rolex Submariner, especially given the heated state of the luxury sports watch segment, but that is not what this story is about. Instead, we wanted to zoom on the aforementioned ephemeral ideals that the luxury sports watch represents. Before we look at the selection of watches, here is the tl;dr to this rambling introduction.
A luxury sports watch needs to be priced appropriately – there appears to be no ceiling but the appearance of exclusivity is a must.
Similarly, the watch needs to be robust, but it need not be a pure tool watch. It needs to be the sort of watch that you could swim with, and not worry about. Generally, the watch should also be an automatic, which means it will most likely be round, but it can certainly be quartz.
A compelling design is absolutely necessary, and there appear to be no constraints here. In fact, a truly strong design means the watch has more wiggle room in the robustness stakes. Chunkiness is a virtue, despite Gerald Genta’s original goals.
Without further ado then, here are the watches that illustrate all the above points, including a few surprise left-field inclusions.
Just as the extreme luxury sports watch exists, so too does the regular sports watch. Perhaps no brand has made a virtue of demonstrating amazing performance in a virtually indestructible watch as G-Shock. In a way, a G-Shock watch, like the GA-2100 with its Carbon Core Guard structure, is the Richard Mille of the affordable segment – even in this segment, availability can be absurd. As an aside, the GA-2100 sports an octagonal bezel, so the spirit of Gerald Genta continues to make itself felt! But the G-Shock is not mechanical, I can almost hear you silently scream. But mechanical movements are not a must here, and G-Shock does have metal bracelet models…
Ok, on the matter of performance, let us look within the watch too. Here is where the new TAG Heuer Autavia Isograph comes into play, because it has a band new carbon composite hairspring – this is something no other watchmaker has. The significant nature of this model means we feel it will be highly collectible, and indeed may no longer be available at stores thanks to this.
Back on point, when a brand’s offerings are somewhat favoured by collectors, individual models tend to sell out – and brands do not react to resupply. This has happened before, most famously with the Swatch watch, which was at that time a total novelty. Collectors bought up certain models, and were basically acting like hoarders. The company that would become Swatch Group reacted by ramping up production, destroying any notional resale value (although it can be argued that the original series watches, first editions as they are, are still valuable), thus putting an end to the roaring second-hand trade in Swatch watches.
Returning to the example of mobile phones, it seems evident that one cannot simply produce as many products as needed to accommodate all levels of demand. Nevertheless, it remains true that you will always be able to get a super-tough G-Shock or a sporty Swatch by just walking into a store, or shopping online. With that in mind, here are a few options that we know are still available and may well be worth looking into.
TUDOR NORTH FLAG
Not obviously a heritage watch, though it is inspired by the 1970s Ranger II, the Tudor North Flag is currently still underappreciated, if not overlooked entirely, in favour of the Black Bay series. This represents an opportunity to snap up a truly interesting watch – it sported Tudor’s first in-house movement in 2015, and still presents very differently compared with the rest of the range. Also, it has an exhibition caseback, which is highly unusual for Tudor.
SEIKO 5 SNXM17J5
One of three smaller watches in this feature, overall, this 35mm reference from Seiko surprises with its positively Bauhaus leanings. The SNXM17J5 is more handsome than its forgettable name suggests, and makes an impression despite its relatively diminutive stature. Alternatively, there’s also the new 42mm Seiko sports watches (pictured above), specifically those models with the beefy steel bracelets. These have more of the typical luxury sports watch vibe.
RADO CAPTAIN COOK
Another sports watch that rocks a variety of sizes, from 37mm to 45mm, the Rado Captain Cook also offers a more standard 42mm offering. The size is one thing, but, as noted elsewhere in this issue, it is the sunburst dials that draw the eye in. The green is very on-trend, but should stand the test of time.
MAURICE LACROIX AIKON
Looking like it was drawn out of the 1970s playbook, the Maurice Lacroix Aikon is in fact inspired by a 1990 watch. A full collection with many variants, the strong styling of the case pairs with an excellent fit and a surprising degree of flexibility (there is a quick-change option even for what looks like an integrated bracelet).