If there’s just one thing that would make watch collectors scream “take my money!” it’s a stainless steel luxury sports watch. Works like catnip but only if said watch comes with an integrated bracelet and even better if there’s a blue dial thrown in. No other watch category can lay claim to such a fervent pool of ready buyers.
Moreover, the excitement isn’t isolated to small pockets of the market. It’s a worldwide phenomenon. Buyers on all corners of the globe are snapping them up like they’re going out of style. Demand for some of the hottest models has so far outstripped supply that getting one at an authorised dealer feels like an urban legend. You’ve heard the stories but never actually seen it happen.
Apparently getting on the waiting list is your only chance but then expect to wait forever. When will the watch come? Nobody knows. Even if they did, they wouldn’t tell you. You never actually own that insanely gorgeous timepiece, you merely get a queue number for the next generation.
How did it all come to this? Let us start with a flashback to the 1970s.
The Three Kings
Audemars Piguet, like all other Swiss watchmakers, was in crisis mode. Deep in the throes of the Quartz Crisis, every company was desperately seeking a way out of this catastrophe. Yet rather than submitting or surrendering to this new technology, Audemars Piguet doubled down on mechanical haute horlogerie. You could say it practically went rogue.
Then-CEO Georges Golay approached the prominent watch designer Gerald Genta in 1972 to create a statement watch. The brief: to create the world’s first luxury sports watch in stainless steel but furnished with a movement of utmost finesse. Oh and he needed it by the next morning. Genta agreed. He pulled an all-nighter and amazingly presented the design for what was to become the Royal Oak, and the rest as you know it, is history.
The excitement isn’t isolated to small pockets of the market. It’s a worldwide phenomenon.
Reference 5402 is one of the most important watches in modern watchmaking. It and its contemporary iterations such as the Ref. 15202, Ref. 15400, and so on birthed the concept of a luxury sports watch in stainless steel. Before the Royal Oak, luxury meant platinum, gold, and diamonds. Before the Royal Oak, luxury meant classic gent’s complications. Before the Royal Oak, luxury and sports were two separate worlds. Before the Royal Oak, unsightly parts of the watch such as its screws should never be exposed. Before the Royal Oak, 39mm for a watch case was unthinkable.
Before the Royal Oak, the watch industry was a completely different world.
But even though Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak was the progenitor of all luxury sports watches, the one that brought these watches to the point of no return was the Patek Philippe Nautilus, incidentally also a Gerald Genta creation. Introduced in 1976, the Nautilus bore some resemblances to the Royal Oak—pseudo-octagonal case, blue dial, inspired by portholes on a ship, integrated bracelet in stainless steel—and was famously sketched on a napkin in just five minutes.
Today, thanks to the manufacture’s extremely efficient, memorable, and universally valid Generations campaign, a Patek Philippe timepiece has become the ultimate gift that keeps on giving. Own one and the future of your kid or kids will be sorted—or something to that effect.
Hold on, doesn’t that apply to all Patek Philippes, and not just the Nautilus? Yes, but the Nautilus in stainless steel being the (for lack of a better phrase) entry level Patek Philippe, it offers the heavenly combination of achievable price meets iconic status.
That’s why despite the horologically rich arsenal of chronographs, calendars, repeaters, and more, Nautilus Ref. 5711/1A is the single most sought after timepiece in Patek Philippe’s entire portfolio. Coming in second is the Aquanaut, rising up for very similar reasons—and also because it’s the next best thing to a Nautilus.
Royal Oak Jumbo Reference 5402 is one of the most important watches in modern watchmaking.
Throughout his career, Genta designed a number of prominent watches. The Omega Constellation, the IWC Ingenieur, the Bulgari-Bulgari, the Gerald Genta Octo which later on became the Bulgari Octo… none came close to the hype of the Royal Oak and the Nautilus.
But perhaps the Vacheron Constantin Ref. 222 did, albeit unintentionally. As the manufacture’s first sports watch—clearly the 70s was a Golden Age for sports watches—this was a Jorg Hysek design and intended to mark Vacheron Constantin’s 222nd anniversary. That it did, and also paved the way for the Overseas collection in 1996. It shares the wonderful combination of stainless steel case with integrated bracelet, but offers a unique bezel inspired by the Maltese cross, which is the manufacture’s emblem.
Following in the footsteps of Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin, other players started to offer their take on the steel-sports integrated bracelet watch. Turns out it wasn’t too difficult to make one, since the blue dial trend was already making huge waves on all levels of the industry. The enduring popularity proved the cerulean hue actually does have a staying power and is not just a passing fad. Almost every brand that has a sports line now offers a bracelet model with a blue dial.
Coming in strong, Piaget’s Polo S had its eye on the Nautilus’ pie. Launched in 2016, it took its fair share of hits from watch collectors who expected a little more originality, but in retrospect it was merely a little ahead of its time. Today it is abundantly clear that the market is big enough for additional players, who are a welcome relief for the two key brands.
Panerai and Bulgari also threw their hats into the game. All three presented stainless steel versions of an existing watch but upped the ante with specially designed bracelets: Panerai Luminor Marina, and Bulgari Octo. The Bulgari Octo in particular has won over numerous fans by making the most out of its Swiss-Italian heritage: combining exceptional feats of haute horlogerie with impeccable design.
Even brands on the more accessible end of the luxury spectrum have cottoned on. For a song, the Tissot Gentleman balances time-honoured aesthetics with a Powermatic 80 calibre that operates on a silicon escapement. Tudor dressed its robust tool watch, the Pelagos, in brilliant blue but of course the signature snowflake hour hand still takes most of the spotlight.
The New Arrivals
If the 70s was a Golden Age for luxury steel sports watches, then maybe the 2010s was when it truly became cool again. This was a decade of abyssal lows and glorious highs. But most notably, watchmakers found the courage to reinvent, to break the mould and give innovation a long, hard think. No fewer than three watch brands closed 2019 by taking a big bold step, launching a completely new watch collection—all of them steel sports watches.
Bell & Ross came up with the neither square nor round BR05 line covered here which is a natural extension of its best-selling BR03. Targeting stylish urbanites, this is the first Bell & Ross collection that offers a bracelet option. And while the aesthetics does overlap with many existing steel-sports watches on the market, its accessible list price positions it well below the Royal Oak and the Nautilus, thus opening the segment up to a wider range of buyers.
Chopard’s brand new watch, the Alpine Eagle covered here, also entered the fray. Again it bears a number of common features such as exposed screws and an integrated bracelet—frankly, there are only so many ways you can rejig the formula—but kudos to the manufacture for offering that unique engraved dial and an ethically produced stainless steel alloy called Lucent Steel A223. The Alpine Eagle is also the only watch in this category with direct ties to environmental conservation via the Eagle Wings Foundation.
And the brand which took the biggest step, however, has to be A. Lange & Söhne because until the Odysseus which we featured here, the German manufacture never had a presence in the world of sports watches. Probably the dressiest watch in this arena, it represents A. Lange & Söhne’s idea of sporty elegance. With two outsized windows, one for the day and another for the date, the Odysseus throws in a little extra practicality, which is great, but there’s no denying it remains the most polarising A. Lange & Söhne timepiece to date.
This is only a tiny fraction of all the steel-sports blue-dial watches out there, and if we heard right, there’ll be more to come. Well, considering that Classic Blue is Pantone’s colour of the year for 2020, they couldn’t have chosen a better time.