Girard-Perregaux’s Laureato made its return as a full collection at SIHH this year, after its reintroduction last year as a limited edition timepiece that saw just 225 pieces being produced to mark the manufacture’s 225th anniversary. As one of the pioneers of the luxury technical performance sports watch – robust timepieces that straddle both sports and dress categories – its renaissance in 2017 comes amidst similar efforts by other brands such as Piaget and its new Polo S. Curiously enough, the Laureato’s genesis in the mid-1970s was also against such a backdrop, when several brands were releasing (the pioneering batch of) their own takes of watches in this category.
It’s an oft-recounted story: the luxury technical performance sports watch category owes its creation to Gérald Genta, who designed the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak in 1972 ahead of the brand’s presentation at the Basel watch fair. Before the Royal Oak came along, watches were categorised in an almost dichotomous way – a watch was either slim and modestly sized to serve as a dress watch, or designed to fulfil a specific function as a tool watch, and chunky compared to its dressier counterpart. The Royal Oak, however, broke down these conventions with a steel case and a sporty design that didn’t scrimp on the luxe factor (it cost some ten times what a Submariner did when it was introduced). If you’re well versed in watch history, you’ll know that Genta designed two other watches in the same vein, both of which were released a few years later in 1976: the IWC Ingenieur SL and the Patek Philippe Nautilus. Despite being recognisable from each other, it is almost mischievous how similar the construction of the cases and bracelets are on these two timepieces. Others followed, of course. There was Vacheron Constantin’s ref. 222 just a year later in 1977, which eventually evolved into the Overseas, and Hublot’s Classic in 1980.
What drove the brands to develop watches in this category? The 1970s was a revolutionary era not just because of the Quartz Crisis, but because it was when the concept of luxury changed – and not just in the minds of watchmakers but in the minds of consumers as well. People wanted versatile watches that could both be worn in pretty much every setting while maintaining their prestigious, luxurious appeal. Something not many recall is that the transition was quite slow, to say the least – the comfortably paced Swiss watch industry took its sweet time to get there. Just look at how it took Patek Philippe and IWC some four years to create their own new-wave luxury watches after the Royal Oak’s introduction in 1972.
Where does the Laureato come in? Surprisingly, right in the first chapter of this story. The Laureato was, at its inception, an alternative to the Royal Oak, and despite the similarities in their play with shapes was not a work of Genta. Instead, it was the result of Girard-Perregaux’s own efforts, and made its debut in 1975, a year before IWC and Patek Philippe introduced their own takes on the category.
The task of designing the original Laureato fell to an architect in Milan, whose identity Girard-Perregaux is reticent about communicating today. His goal was to create a watch that could be worn in all settings given a sporty yet discreet aesthetic, which was characterised by the primary design element of the bezel, as well as a seamless integration of case and bracelet.
The Laureato’s calling card is its octagonal bezel, which contrasts against the circular dial. This design element has, of course, led to frequent comparisons with the Royal Oak, but the two models are differentiated in various ways. Whilst the Royal Oak was inspired by the look of a diving helmet, screws and all, the Laureato’s play with shapes was more architecturally inspired, thanks in no small part to its designer’s background. The other significant difference was in their movements – the Laureato was fitted with a slim quartz movement, a field in technology that Girard-Perregaux had worked on since the 1960s, and quite a far cry from the relatively large quartz calibre – the first Swiss made one – that it had first presented in 1971, while the Royal Oak was still driven by a mechanical one.
Looking back, the paths these various timepieces have taken have diverged drastically as well. Look at how the Royal Oak is now the mainstay within Audemars Piguet’s line up, or how the comfortably the Nautilus has settled into the Patek Philippe family, with its sibling the Aquanaut joining it much later in 1997. For Girard-Perregaux, the return of the Laureato is a reaffirmation of the manufacture’s work – both design and technical – that took place in the tumultuous 1970s, and arguably contributes to a more complete representation of the brand’s story.
Perhaps the more curious thing is how these watches seem to embrace a certain style that make them so collectively recognisable as a category unto itself. Ideas, designers, and manufactures don’t exist in a vacuum, and there was little doubt that the design elements of these models have inspired and cross-pollinated with each other over the years. As one of the forerunners of the category, the Laureato’s return is something quite special indeed.
Words by: Victor Toth and Jamie Tan
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