Watch geeks don’t talk like normal people when it comes to watches. Rather than just describing a watch, they’ll cite the reference, that particular model’s unique identifying number. The reference of a watch changes according to everything from the movement to the case material to subtle changes on the dial, and you don’t want to be saying the wrong one at the wrong time. Once you get to know the right references it makes talking about watches nice and quick, but before then the whole thing is esoteric to the point of incomprehension. So, where to start? Well, rather than buying old catalogues and religiously memorizing every number therein, consider this a little cheat guide to get you going. You’ll kill it at your next dinner party.
1. Rolex Daytona
Let’s start with arguably the most famous watch in history: the Paul Newman Daytona. The crowned king of auction watches is a legend, defined by its contrast subdials and inextricable link to the Hollywood leading man. The reference you want to remember here is 6241. It rolls off the tongue and sounds less prosaic than ‘Paul Newman’ and anyway, it’s far more official.
2. Patek Philippe Nautilus
Patek Philippe is one of the few watchmakers that always talks in references like an elitist code. There are some rules – references beginning with 3, 5 and 6 are generally men’s pieces, 2s and 7s are women’s, while the letters at the end are the case metal. The most consistent bit of internal logic is that anything beginning with 57 is a Nautilus. It’s probably the only logic that Patek will always stick to, and the reference at the top of the pile is the 5711/1A. This is the iconic time and date blue-dialled steel version. A, just to clarify, stands for ‘acier’, French for steel.
3. Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch
The first watch on the moon is a pretty impressive achievement and it made the ref. 145.012 a must-have watch for collectors. This is the version with Omega’s famous 321-calibre inside and a hesalite rather than sapphire crystal. It’s also not actually the watch Aldrin had on his wrist; that’s the very similar ST105.012. You’re welcome to use that little nugget of watch trivia anytime you want. There have been so many versions of the Speedmaster since that it’s hard to keep track of specifics, with limited editions thrown in there all too often as well. The modern equivalent of the original moon watch however is the 3188.8.131.52.01.005. You can see why that doesn’t trip off the tongue.
4. Audemars Piguet Royal Oak
The Royal Oak has come to define Audemars Piguet and they’ve released a fair few variations on the Gerald Genta formula. The original – if you ever come across one – is the reference 5402, which laid the foundations. Today however you’re looking for the 15202, generally referred to as the ‘jumbo’ model. It’s the one collectors will happily wait months if not years for and is, to all intents and purposes, the direct descendent of the original 5302ST.
5. Rolex Day-Date President
The watch of world leaders, the full-gold Day-Date is a very specific watch, tied closely to ambassadorial glamour and political power. The quintessential version is the ref 1803. There are earlier versions of the watch, but that’s the reference that you should hold on to; it’s what many collectors consider the ‘perfect’ version. Luckily it’s easy to tell the general period a Day-Date was made. Past 1977 they started using five numbers rather than four, all beginning with 180XX. From 1988 that changed to 182XX and the modern Day-Dates upped it again to six numbers, beginning with 118XXX. Rule of thumb: the fewer digits after 18, the better.