The watch industry sometimes feels like it is evolving so slowly that movement is imperceptible to the naked eye. In actual fact, it lurches then settles in a slightly different place when epoch-changing timepieces come along. Apple Watch is the most obvious example of the past decade, but many other models have left an indelible mark since the turn of the century, as Carol Besler discovers.
This could easily be a top-ten list of showpiece complications, several of which have made a big splash recently, including the Only One Patek Philippe that sold for a record $31-million at auction last autumn.
Instead, it is a recognition that the real feat in watchmaking is to create a collection that endures, with a design that both taps the Zeitgiest but is also timeless and adaptable.
Something that has icon-status potential. Above all it should be a commercial success.
Here are 10 watches introduced since 2000 that hit it out of the ball park.
Apple — Apple Watch
Smartwatches are either a totally different industry or a missed opportunity for the Swiss watch industry, depending on who you talk to. Either way, it’s a $5-10-billion market.
Watch industry analyst NPD Group says one in four Americans aged 18 to 34 owned a smartwatch in 2018, and Apple is now one of the top five largest selling watches of all time in the U.S. by volume.
The first series was introduced in 2014, with plenty of functions and case options (steel, DLC-coated steel, aluminum, DLC-coated aluminum, rose gold or yellow gold), as well as strap and bracelet choices – just like a fashion watch, the category it is now killing.
Five years later, we are up to Apple Series 5, which tells you something about the difference between legacy mechanical watches (which last a lifetime) and the soon-obsolete smartwatch treadmill. The design, on the other hand, is generally static: Series 5 looks pretty much like Series 1 (or at least Series 3), although it has more material options (titanium, ceramic).
But it’s still a winner. At least for Apple.
Rolex — Pepsi GMT Master II in steel
Is there any more recognizable (or copied) watch on the planet? Or, it must be said, harder to get, along the lines of the mighty Daytona and the Patek 5711.
If you were lucky enough to get one at retail when it came out in 2018 (steel, on a Jubilee bracelet with the caliber 3285), you can now expect to sell it for a tidy profit, if that’s your goal.
The red and blue bezel has been the signature of the GMT-Master since the first model, reference 6542, hit the market in 1955.
Of all the improvements since then, the Cerachrom bezel with its clean demarcation of colors is the standout achievement. As is the new movement, with a Chronergy escapement and Parachrom balance spring, delivering an accuracy rating of +2/-2 seconds per day.
The Jubilee bracelet on the steel model is also a first for the family, and nicely distinguishes it from the white gold version introduced in 2014.
Is the steel Pepsi worth waiting a decade for? Absolutely. If you’re looking for the best price/value ratio, the best envy-inducer and the best investment potential.
Hublot — Big Bang
Who remembers what Hublot was doing before the Big Bang was introduced in 2005?
As its title promises, the watch is big and bold, and it made a big bang for Hublot’s bottom line, tripling sales in the three years after its release.
It was the perfect collection to showcase the marketing genius of Jean-Claude Biver, who gave us a Million-Dollar Big Bang every year at Basel for 10 years in a row.
That, and its ongoing association with basketball stars, hip-hop artists, sports franchises and, of course, Ferrari, have brought fame and fortune to the Hublot name.
It offers every option: ceramic, sapphire, Magic Gold, carbon fiber, diamond-set, chronographs, tourbillon minute repeaters, and memorable combinations of materials – gold and rubber or denim and diamonds.
The only thing it never has been is small – although it does get down to 38mm for a ladies’ quartz. The latest is the Big Bang Unico Integral, a chronograph with a new, rigorously beveled and integrated bracelet, available in titanium, black ceramic or King gold.
Micheal Kors — Bradshaw
Apple may be crushing the fashion watch industry so far this century, but the Fossil Group is putting up a good fight, particularly with the ladies’ Bradshaw by Michael Kors, a success story that can be put down to a number of factors.
First, the fashion label has been red hot, particularly its accessories business, which has been dominating the handbag market.
Second was social media. Michael Kors and its licensing partner for watches, Fossil Group, invested early and effectively in the emerging marketing medium before it was cluttered with millions of wannabes.
There was also the emergence of reality television, which made stars out of everyday folk who, unlike A-listers, were delighted with a bit of inexpensive bling on their wrists that looked a bit like a Rolex.
Sales of fashion watches have been in sharp decline since the Michael Kors spike in 2014, but the Bradshaw remains one of the best-selling watches by volume on the market.
Audemars Piguet — Code 11.59
Audemars Piguet’s polarizing 11.59 is an abrupt about-face from the iconic Royal Oak.
Lovers of the sporty, chunky, angular, ’70s-designed icon may be disappointed, but those of us longing for something a little sleeker from this brand welcomed the 11.59.
It made a big opening splash at SIHH 2019, with 13 references at once, including five complications and three new calibers.
Among the new movements was a long-awaited chronograph caliber, the 4401, as well as Audemars Piguet’s first automatic flying tourbillon with a central rotor, and the 4302, an automatic time and date.
A subsequent version contained AP’s Supersonnerie minute repeater movement, which proves how serious the brand is about this new collection.
Some would say it has not yet caught fire, but the judges in the 2019 Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève think it should: the Perpetual Calendar Ultra-Thin, introduced later in 2019, won the top prize in the competition, and the Supersonnerie won the Men’s Complication prize.
The name itself refers to the last minute of the day before the dawn of a new one.
Omega — Speedmaster 321 Moonwatch Steel Ed White
Omega is making the most of its its Speedmaster moon-landing heritage, which peaked in 2019 (the 50th anniversary of the landing) with the platinum Speedmaster 321.
The only thing better than that was the release, a few weeks ago, of the more accessible steel version.
The watch reintroduces the vintage movement, a column-wheel-controlled, lateral-clutch chronograph that was used in the first Speedmaster in 1957 – specifically, the ST 105.003, which tested and qualified by NASA and worn by astronaut Ed White during the first American spacewalk in 1965, and in the Speedmaster ST 105.012, the first watch worn on the Moon.
The new 321 movement is produced according to the same specs as the original, but some components are now made of Sedna gold, Omega’s proprietary pink gold alloy.
The Speedmaster 321 Moon Watch is the first new Speedmaster to house the movement, and will be an important caliber for Omega moving forward.
The design is equally faithful to the original, with black bezel with its “dot-over-90” marking, a detail on the tachymeter scale that is a hallmark of pre-1970 Speedmasters. On subsequent models, the dot was positioned next to the 90 rather than above it on the scale.
Grand Seiko — SBGR305
With everyone focused on the “Made in Switzerland” marque, it’s easy to overlook the substantial achievements of Seiko in the history of watchmaking.
While known mainly as the brand that introduced quartz to the world in 1969, Seiko was also making mechanical wristwatches as early as 1913, and when it was finally allowed to participate in Switzerland’s observatory chronometer competitions in the 1960s, it repeatedly won with its own mechanical movements.
The Grand Seiko was introduced in 1960 as the company’s premium, mechanical-only model, with in-house movement and a high finish. In 2017, it was designated as a stand-alone brand, beginning with the Grand Seiko SBGR305 automatic.
The watch is classic enough to be vintage but with a titanium case, polished using Seiko’s proprietary zaratsu sword-polishing technique, and an open caseback.
The movement, the three-day caliber 9S68, was also new, and the watch sold for $7,200 in a limited edition of 968 pieces. A succession of later versions have become progressively more collectible, including the Hi-Beat GMT with a 36,000 vph movement.
Tudor — Black Bay GMT
Can’t handle the waiting list for a Pepsi, or its price on the secondary market? Try the Pepsi Lite, the Tudor Black Bay GMT, introduced concurrent with the steel Rolex GMT-Master II in 2018.
A brash imitation, you say? Well if anyone has the right to poach the design, it is Tudor, given that it is owned by Rolex.
That being said, the watch is not some down-market copy, or a “settle-for” alternative. It is a quality watch in its own right, with an in-house movement, the MT5652, that works the same way as the Rolex GMT, with local jumping GMT functionality.
When Tudor resurfaced on the U.S. market in 2013 after a decade-long hiatus, it emerged with the Heritage collection, including the ultra-cool Heritage Black Bay.
It is vintage, but rather than imitating one watch, the models in the collection take elements from various earlier watches: snowflake hands, aluminum bezels, rivet-style bracelets, and vintage crystals with raised edges.
Now, they are increasingly equipped with in-house movements and value priced considering the level of quality. At £3,040, the GMT on a bracelet is half the price of the steel Rolex GMT-Master II.
Bulgari— Octo Finissimo
Bulgari’s Octo Finissimo franchise is one for the record books: thinnest minute repeater, thinnest automatic, thinnest tourbillon, thinnest ladies’ minute repeater and, in 2019, the world’s thinnest chronograph, measuring 42 mm wide by a razor-thin 6.9 mm thick in the case.
A peripheral rotor makes for just enough room to squeeze a 24-hour GMT function into the 3.3 mm thick BVL 318.
The trick to micro movement engineering, a complication in itself, is to reduce the size of each component individually and build it to the smallest proportions without sacrificing stability.
In the 1980s, the early version of a much-celebrated “thinnest” quartz watch reportedly snapped in half when strapped around the wrist.
The Octo Finissimo Chronograph GMT’s angular case is made of sandblasted titanium with a titanium dial and a titanium bracelet to match. The peripheral rotor is platinum. It should hold.
Girard Perregaux — Laureato
The Laureato is Girard-Perregaux’s breakout modern success story, more accessible than the Golden Bridges Tourbillon and more commercial than the esoteric WW.TC.
Like most other success stories of the moment, it is a sporty steel reissue of a vintage winner.
The Laureato was first introduced in 1975, establishing its design codes: octagonal bezel, integrated bracelet, baton hands and hobnail patterned dial.
The name is said to be a reference to Il Laureato, the Italian title of the 1967 film The Graduate, with Dustin Hoffman.
It contained GP’s own “quartz chronometer” movement at the time, but the model was enlarged in 1995 to accommodate an automatic movement, and again in 1996 when it was upgraded with a chronograph caliber.
By the time the Laureato was reintroduced in 2016, it had a manufacture movement, the automatic Caliber GP03300-0030, with a 46-hour power reserve.
It was well received, and the following year, GP introduced more than 30 new versions at once, including a 45 mm tourbillon, and later a 34 mm ladies’ collection.