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8 Iconic Watch Designs that Are Worthy of Being Called Legendary

8 Iconic Watch Designs That Are Worthy of Being Called Legendary Featured

What makes an iconic watch design? I don’t mean iconic in the everyday, overused sense, I mean the watches that have come to define whole eras of horological history. It could be their technical accomplishments; it could be who wore them, or it could be their iconoclastic impact. Whatever the reason, they’re the kinds of watches where all you need is to show a single key design element, a bezel here, a silhouette there, and even budding collectors will know what you’re talking about.

Which is precisely what we’ve done. We’ve worked with watch illustrator, Ben Li, better known on Instagram at @inkdial, to sum up eight truly iconic timepieces in sketch form. If you like what you see, I highly recommend you check out more of his work at inkdial.co.uk – or the incredible cover to this very issue. What says ‘watch lover’ more than an art print of your favourite watch? For now, read on and check out his work in brief, with an equally brief history of each unique design.

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Ref.5402ST by Ben Li

The bezel that launched a thousand sports luxe timepieces, the original Royal Oak was one of the few watch designs that can actually be called revolutionary. At the time the quartz crisis was a vortex of bad news for traditional horology, sucking many a brand into oblivion when they realised that these new-fangled movements were cheaper and more accurate than their mechanical counterparts.

Audemars Piguet however went the other way. In an era where most watches were gold, delicate numbers, they needed something to stand apart. The apocryphal story goes that they went to designer Gerald Genta and asked him, the night before the 1972 Swiss Watch Show, to come up with a concept. The hastily sketched result was a big, steel sports piece with an integrated bracelet and, topping it all, a chunky octagonal bezel with eight visible screws. It’s a design that has been imitated ever since (occasionally by Genta himself) but in my opinion at least, never bettered.

It may have seemed ludicrous in the 1970s that a steel sports piece could cost most than gold, but for us in the watch world that’s a well-mapped route these days, waters first charted by the Royal Oak. Today there are a fair few variations of the Royal Oak, be that the chunky, macho Offshore collection, apparently countless flying tourbillons, or the latest generation of ‘Jumbos’ harking back to the 1972 original. Either way, it’s an enduring classic iconic watch design in the truest sense. You see that bezel, you instantly know what we’re talking about.

Read more about the history of the Royal Oak at Audemars Piguet.

Patek Philippe Nautilus Ref. 3700 by Ben Li

The Royal Oak wasn’t Genta’s only enduring success. Two years after his industry-shattering launch with Audemars Piguet, the designer went to Patek Philippe with a design for what their answer might be. Patek being one of the more cautious watchmakers, with a focus on elegant high complications – and one that didn’t need the boost as desperately as AP did – they didn’t launch headlong into it. Instead, it was two years of development later before the concept would see the light of day at the Nautilus.

Inspired by a porthole, hence the name Nautilus, taken from the Jules Verne classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the new watch had another octagonal bezel, but smoother and more rounded, with protruding ears connecting it to the main body of the watch. The nautilus’ famous design was a visually striking and iconic silhouette, but one that was also incredibly practical; it ensured a water resistance of 120 metres, which at the time was incredible. There were other similarities to the Royal Oak along with the bezel.

The dial was blue, though used horizontal grooves like a ship’s deck rather than the more industrial Tapesserie, and it housed the same calibre 2121 movement. Patek Philippe though hit the nail on the head with one phrase: “one of the world’s costliest watches is made of steel.” The slogan they launched the Nautilus with back in 1976 could still apply to the Nautilus of today, a watch design that’s barely changed over nearly 50 years. Will it change now the grand dame of luxury steel watches is discontinued? Probably not. At least not when it comes to that inimitable, muscular silhouette.

View the current Nautilus collection at Patek Philippe.

Zenith El Primero A386 illustrated by Ben Li

The El Primero started life as Zenith’s centenary challenge to themselves: to create the world’s first automatic chronograph. The development began in 1962, with an aim to launch just three years later, but it was a tall order. Not only was the watchmaker insistent it be an integrated chronograph rather than a module, it had to offer 1/10th of a second accuracy. That would make it the most accurate watch in the world.

Oh, and they wanted it to be small, too. And have a date. Needless to say, the designers overran. But by 1969, the El Primero, meaning ‘the first’ in Spanish, made its long awaited debut. The delay meant that both Seiko and Chronometric Group got their automatic chronographs to market first, but even with a few months difference (the Seiko launched in May; the Zenith in September) the El Primero stood out. It was by far the best, as Zenith hit every single element they were aiming for. The movement was actually placed in two watches initially, the A384 with its tonneau case and smaller, 37mm size and the A386.

The latter had a round case, thin bezel, and a scale dividing each minute into 100 to show off the 1/10th second accuracy. Visually, it was also defined by its three oversized and overlapping subdials in a trio of colours. Of the two models (and the odd rarity that is the A385), the A386 came to define the El Primero as a racing chronograph. Its sportier look, easier readability, and the sheer coolness of those overlapping subdials carried it through as one of the biggest constants in Zenith’s line-up from 1969 to today.

Read more about the history of the Zenith El Primero here.

Cartier Crash illustrated by Ben Li

Cartier’s history isn’t short of iconic and famous watches. There’s the first pilot’s watch in the Santos; the archetypal rectangular piece in the Tank, and the ever-tactile Ballon Bleu. Yet while they all have facsimiles at other watchmakers, the Crash does not. Surprisingly for a Parisian company, the Crash emerged from the brand’s Bond Street location and Jean-Jacque Cartier.

The story goes that what became the watch design started as a customer’s Cartier Baignoire, an oval-shaped dress watch with a Tank-ish dial. After getting damaged in a car crash, it was warped and distorted. Inspired, Jean-Jacque’s team created the first Crash in 1967. There’s some debate on the matter, but it’s generally thought that the Crash was the first asymmetrical watch.

Whether that’s entirely true or not, it was considered avant-garde on release, a defiant, Dali-esque melting refresh of the Cartier DNA. While the Crash never took off in the same way as the Tank, Santos, or Ballon Bleu, it’s become talismanic of Cartier’s unique design sensibilities – that they can pull pretty much anything off – and has come back into its own in recent years, with starring roles on the wrists of superstars like Kanye West and Jay-Z. To this day, there’s still nothing else like it.

Read more about the history of the Cartier Crash at Phillips.

Tag Heuer Monaco illustrated by Ben Li

Heuer (both pre and post TAG) has always been synonymous with motorsport, right from the early automotive chronographs in 1911, with milestones like the first 1/100th of a second stopwatch (the Mikrograph), or the Autavia stopwatch that, before OMEGA, was an Olympic timekeeper. Possibly the biggest success in the field though was the Carrera, a nowlegendary racing chronograph built by the founder’s great-grandson, Jack Heuer. However, he had another aim which, much like Zenith, was to build the first automatic chronograph.

To do so, he collaborated with Buren, Dubois Depraz and Breitling to create the Project 99, renamed the Calibre 11. It was initially placed in a slightly upsized Carrera and an Autavia. But Heuer wanted a brand new watch for the brand new calibre and, at the same time, his design team had been working on a newly-patented, waterproof, square case. Released in 1969 alongside the El Primero, it became the Monaco. The Monaco was an Instant success.

The El Primero may have had the technical chops, with its integrated chronograph (the Calibre 11 was modular) but the world’s first waterproof, automatic chronograph was nothing to sniff at either and the case shape with its twin squared subdials was one of the most attractive layouts to date. Even today the Monaco is a racing slanted classic, made famous by the inimitable Steve McQueen in the 1971 film Le Mans that remains an enduring icon of Heuer watch designs.

View the current Monaco collection at Tag Heuer.

Breitling Navitimer illustrated by Ben Li

The Navitimer began life in the early 1950s for one very specific function. This was still the early days of flight and pilots needed to use a logarithmic slide rule to make calculations throughout each flight, which seems a touch terrifying. In 1952, Breitling was approached by the US Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) to create a members’ chronograph. So, the watchmaker decided incorporate the slide rule into a watch. It wasn’t the first time Breitling had used a slide rule though, as the Chronomat of 1942 had a sliding telemeter.

But adapting the function for aviation use meant taking a much more technical approach – and upsizing the case to a then massive 41mm – to make room for everything. To make using the slide rule even easier, the Navitimer was given a tactile beaded bezel, something that (until the collection’s recent relaunch) became an instantly recognisable detail. In fact, the number of beads is an easy way to date various references.

This initial version wasn’t Breitling branded and only went to AOPA members, so it wasn’t until 1956 that it came onto the open market as the Navitimer we know and love today. It very quickly became synonymous with the golden age of air travel, a practical, stylish pilots’ watch that suited a sharp uniform and jet-setting wage. Thankfully pilots no longer need to rely on a slide rule now they have a suite of electronics at their disposal, but it’s good to know that many will still be wearing a Navitimer in the cockpit. You never know what can happen.

Read more about the history of the Navitimer at Breitling.

Rolex GMT Master-99 illustrated by Ben Li

The quintessential traveller’s timepiece – and not just because of the innate jet-set connotations of wearing a Rolex these days – the GMT Master-II is the second timezone timepiece that all others aspire to. In the 1950s, air travel was becoming more the norm than a novelty. With it came a demand for some way of keeping track of time across the world in an era before electronically synchronised clocks, particularly from pilots.

So, tapping into that market, Rolex released the GMT Master in 1954. The GMT Master had two things going for it. First was the cyclops magnifier over the date; the second was the dual time function of the calibre 1065, which had a 24-hour hand. This was read off the iconic bezel, which wasn’t just bi-coloured to highlight day and night, but was rotatable.

There were a few variations available, but the one that came to epitomise the GMT Master was the red and blue ‘Pepsi Cola’ version. While the Ref. 6542 may have originally been built for PanAm, the GMT Master took off, and in 1959 Rolex launched the second series, the Ref. 1675. However, bezel variations, sapphire crystals, and other slight evolutions aside, it took another couple of decades for the biggest change in the collection: the 1983 introduction of a newly-independent 24-hour hand and a name change to GMT-Master II. The GMT-Master II is still the ultimate traveller’s watch, and that original Pepsi Cola bezel the most desirable of the lot. It’s hard to look at any GMT these days using red and blue and not see an homage to Rolex. Iconic barely cuts it.

View the current GMT-Master II collection at Rolex.

Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso illustrated by Ben Li

The Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso is far from the only watch on this list built with a particular purpose in mind, but it’s the only one whose purpose is quite this particular. It’s also the earliest chronologically (and, I guess, chronometrically) by far. The story is actually an incredibly British one. In 1930, watch collector César de Trey was watching British army officers play polo in India, because that’s something we apparently did. One of the officers had taken a ball to the watch, which had completely smashed the crystal. And so Trey saw an opening for a polo-proof wristwatch, an idea he took to Jacques-David LeCoultre.

Rather than reinforcing the crystal or anything so prosaic, LeCoultre instead opted to take the crystal out of the equation and create a (I assume much more complicated) rotating system. The concept was that off the horse, the watch would be a handsome, Art Deco dress watch; during play, it would be protected by its own caseback. Was it necessary? Probably not. I doubt many serious polo players have much time to read their watch during a match.

Was it cool? If you’ve ever played around with a Reverso, you’ll know the answer’s a resounding yes. The Reverso, with its rectangular case and Art Deco good looks has seen little change over the past 90-odd years. There was the two-faced Due, metiers d’art and high complication references, and many tributes to earlier models, but the blueprint is always the same: that rotating, rectangular case.

View the current Reverso collection at Jaeger-LeCoultre.

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About the author

Sam Kessler

Legend has it that Sam’s first word was ‘escapement’ and, while he might have started that legend himself, he’s been in the watch world long enough that it makes little difference. As the editor of Oracle Time, he’s our leading man for all things horological – even if he does love yellow dials to a worrying degree. Owns a Pogue; doesn’t own an Oyster Perpetual. Yet.