In the middle of the 1970s, right when the Swiss watch industry had to face the Quartz Crisis, high-end watchmakers had to find the solution to stay alive. Salvation came from a brand new concept, the paradoxically named luxury sports watch. This era gave birth to some icons, and here are the ones to consider.
The starting point, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak
If there is one watch to summarize the concept of luxury sports watch, it must be the Royal Oak. This watch actually created the category in 1972. Designed by the famous Gerald Genta, it was steel, thin, luxurious, robust and it was more expensive than most simple 18k gold watches. Shocking and provocative, it was an instant success. Inspired by a ship’s porthole, its iconic 8-side bezel, integrated bracelet and chequerboard guilloche dial were later to be the inspiration for all the other models in this segment of watches.
Today, the Royal Oak still is in the catalogue, with the same aura and presence. It is a 45-year-old classic and yet as fresh and provocative as on the day it was introduced. If you want to be as faithful as possible to the original, opt for a time-and-date version, meaning the modern ref. 15400 or the ultra-thin ref. 15202, which is almost a remake of the 1972 original.
The Patek Philippe Nautilus
Created according to same concept as the Royal Oak, with the same designer in fact, the Nautilus is based on the same inspiration and luxurious appeal but still has its own personality. This watch, born under the guidance of Genta in 1976, was Patek’s reaction to a growing market created by the Royal Oak. The Nautilus was the first real sports watch of the highly conservative Geneva watchmaker, one of its first serially produced watches entirely in steel by Patek. And after 40 years of life, the Nautilus is now a watchmaking icon.
The current collection still comprises a model based from the original 1976 edition, the ref. 5711/1A. Thin, exquisitely constructed, and feature a superb dial, the ref. 5711/1A is a proper Patek Philippe in steel. In 2016 the brand introduced a 40-year commemorative version in platinum, which will definitely be a collectible.
The Vacheron Constantin Overseas
Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet are not the only ones to rule the luxury sports watch market. Their main competitor is the third member of the “Holy Trinity” of fine watchmaking, Vacheron Constantin. In 1976, a young designer called Jorg Hysek proposed to VC a sketch named the 222 (a reference to the 222 years since the founding of the brand at the time). Also fitted with a steel integrated bracelet, the 222 featured a bold bezel, while being slim and luxurious. Sometimes forgotten in the modern context, the 222 nonetheless gave birth to Vacheron Constantin’s current luxury sports watch, the Overseas.
In 2016, the brand introduced a new version of the Overseas, armed the right tools to go head to head with the two other icons in its class. The modern Overseas is high quality, perfectly designed and entirely in keeping with the tradition of a luxury sports watch. The time-only ref. 4500V is the best option to consider, being sleek, simple and elegant.
The IWC Ingenieur
While not as luxurious as the three watches featured above, being more of an affordable “tool watch”, the IWC Ingenieur Automatic shares many elements of the luxury sports watch concept. First of all, its design dates back the 1970s and it was designed by no less than Gerald Genta himself. Like many of his other designs, the Ingenieur has a porthole-likebezel, integrated bracelet, a bold steel case and a simple time-and-date dial.
The highlight of the current collection is the ref. 3239, characterised by a 40mm case in steel, it’s a clear design faithful to the 1970s original. It offers a lot to be admired, at a highly accessible price.
The Piaget Polo S
The latest arrival in the category is a talking piece. Somewhat criticized when first unveiled, due to some resemblance to other watches, the Piaget Polo S has merits of its own. Its case shape is actually faithful to the history of the brand, being inspired by the cushion-shaped watches of the 1970s. Both robust and luxurious, the Polo S is powered by a fine in-house movement, with a dial available in the classic colours of a refined sports watch. In fact, the Polo S has everything a sports luxury watch should have. It’s a watch that need to be held in the hand to feel how nice it actually is.
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Frank Geelen – The Netherlands
Frank Geelen is an expert on Haute Horlogerie and beautiful hand-finished mechanical movements make his horological heart beats faster. He loves to explain all technical details of complications like tourbillons, minute repeaters, constant force escapements and column-wheel chronographs and he has been doing that for nine years.