The sport luxe revival stainless steel watches have long been more difficult to attain than their precious-metal counterparts. Not any more; sport luxe is in.
That we live in strange times needs no explanation or context. Politically, environmentally and ethically the world has been turned on its head in the past half-decade. But in the world of watches, the floor has been the ceiling for far longer.
Want a sports watch in full gold or platinum? If you have the budget you’ll be able to track down a precious metal (maybe even gem-set) Royal Oak, Daytona or Nautilus reasonably quickly. But ask for the same watch in stainless steel and you’ll join the back of a waiting list many months or even years long, if you aren’t laughed all the way out of the store altogether. So how did stainless steel become so ludicrously desirable to watch collectors?
Aside from wondrous aberrations like the steel Patek Philippe 1518, desirable steel watches didn’t really exist until 1972 when Audemars Piguet turned to late watch design supremo Gerald Genta with a simple request: “Make us the most luxurious watch in the world”.
Genta did so, creating the Royal Oak. He repeated the trick four years later for Patek Philippe with the Nautilus; the watch’s porthole-shaped bezel designed with the sailing-obsessed Stern family, the brand’s owners, in mind.
That original brief from Audemars Piguet, coupled with Genta’s tendency to use octagonal forms wherever possible – he was a true auteur in that sense – led to the creation of the Sport Luxe watch and, after a tentative first few years due to hesitant consumers, AP and Patek were joined by Vacheron Constantin’s 222, Girard-Perregaux’s Laureato and a host of integrated bracelet watches from Omega, which even today still define the current Constellation collection.
But it is only in recent years that we’ve been faced with the Kafkaesque scenario of steel references being considered more desirable, through lack of availability, than their precious metal equivalent.
Of course, the likes of Patek Philippe and Rolex could increase production, but why focus increasing resources on lower-margin steel watches when you can give your boutique sales staff the opportunity to upsell customers on higher-profit, precious-metal models?
So, as these brand CEOs dig their heels in and prepare to ride out the choppy waters brought about by a mix of guaranteed revenue and customer disappointment, others have this year stepped forward in bid to offer these customers watches of a similar ilk, swelling the ranks of the Sport Luxe category like never before.
First to be unveiled at Basel in March, albeit quietly, were high-end independents, Laurent Ferrier and Urban Jurgensen. Ferrier, with his Tourbillon Grand Sport, wanted to create a sports watch to commemorate his podium finish at Le Mans in 1979 and succeeded in roughing up his trademark elegance with satin-brushed case-finishing and a bold combination of brown dial and vivid orange markers.
The Jurgensen One is also a sports watch debut for the traditionally reserved Urban Jurgensen and the beautifully executed integrated bracelet is a cascade of intersecting curves inspired by ripples on the water.
French brand Bell & Ross revealed its biggest departure yet from the cockpit-instrument aesthetic it’s been recognised for since launching in 1992, the BR-05 collection. Yes, designer Bruno Belamich’s signature ‘circle in a square’ signature remains central to the design, but the square is softened, melding seamlessly with the bracelet to form a handsome silhouette, clearly inspired by the past and yet at the same time utterly contemporary. While Bell & Ross has focused mainly on the use of steel for the collection it has created one gloriously louche range-topper in full 18ct rose gold.
Family-owned watch and jewellery brand Chopard was next to stake its claim with the Alpine Eagle which offers genuine heritage as a heavily redesigned take on the brand’s 80s favourite, the St Moritz. The original was designed by current brand co-president Karl-Friedrich Scheufele as he was just starting out, while the Alpine Eagle was a passion project of Scheufele’s son, Karl Fritz. Ball Watches, better recognised for its tritium gas tube illumination than heritage-inspired designs, has also entered the fray with its Icebreaker, one of the brands most stylish models in some time, and one that pushes form ahead of function.
That A. Lange & Sohne’s own take on the Sport Luxe watch is named Odysseus suggests a journey is on the cards, either through jet-set clientele or for the watch with a wider collection in the pipeline. The design mimics the two large apertures at the 3 and 9 o’clock positions already found on the Zeitwerk, but here used for day and date complication (with back and forward pushers cleverly disguised as case asymmetry) rather than digital hours and minutes.
Certainly if 2019 has proved anything, it’s that anyone can create a watch using a tried and tested blueprint. What no-one can predict is how desirable they become four decades from now. Let’s wait and see.