ICON: A guide to influential watches in the 20th century

We begin this signature series — dedicated to exploring the most important watches in history — by asking a simple, often overlooked question. Namely, what makes a watch ‘iconic’?
By Randy Lai

It goes without saying that the 20th century was a particularly productive era for humanity. Even with all of the miraculous advancements in medicine, electronics and mechanical engineering, the last 100 years have been a wellspring for all manner of objects created to enrich the lives of people. 

The Royal Oak Double Balance Wheel Openworked
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Double Balance Wheel Openworked

Let’s go through a few examples: in 1956, industrial designers Charles and Ray Eames began using heat-moulded plywood to craft their eponymous Eames chair, one of the first certifiable ‘luxury objects’ for the home; in 1985, sportswear giant Nike launched the Air Jordan 1, reshaping the whole landscape of what we now call ‘sneaker culture’; and in 2007 (relatively recently come to think of it) Apple single-handedly ushered in the smartphone era, thanks to Jony Ive’s intuitive, groundbreaking form factor for the original iPhone.

On a superficial level, you don’t need to be some kind of genius to count all three of these as ‘icons’ in their respective field. But beyond being wildly lucrative objects of universal desire, each of them a chair, a shoe, and pocket-sized computer shared yet another commonality: that of changing the game, which brings us to the topic of watches. 

 

Unpacking ‘icon’ status in watchmaking (with a little help from some experts)

Patek Philippe Nautilus Ref. 5711
Patek Philippe Nautilus Ref. 5711
Patek Philippe Nautilus Ref. 5713
Patek Philippe Nautilus Ref. 5713

As with the aforementioned examples, watchmaking in the 20th century has seen its fair share of game changers from Rolex’s professional series, to the grand complications of Patek Philippe. Over the years, these (and many other watches besides) have become ‘iconic’, though each has arrived at that reputation via its own special path. Which begs the question: are there certain universal qualities that must be satisfied for a watch to become an ‘icon’? It depends on who you ask. 

The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Ref. 15202
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Ref. 15202
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore Chronograph 25th Anniversary
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore Chronograph 25th Anniversary
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Concept Tourbillon Chronograph Openworked Selfwinding
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Concept Tourbillon Chronograph Openworked Selfwinding

For Felix Scholz (Executive Editor, Revolution Australia) it’s all about visual recognition. “It has to be the sort of design most enthusiasts will easily recognise from across a room.” Others, such as Daniel Sum (Co-Founder, Shanghai Watch Gang) attach importance to the notion of historical impact. “Basically, I always ask myself whether the watch in question had a significant ‘ripple’ effect in the industry whether because of its intended use, look, or the personalities that wore it.” By contrast, Nick Kenyon (Deputy Editor, Time + Tide) is a firm believer in the importance of broad popular perspectives. “[If a watch] bleeds into the public consciousness, often through the medium of pop culture,” he says, “then that sort of familiarity to the masses is a key indicator of influence.” That’s a sentiment shared by Wristcheck’s own Founder & CEO Austen Chu, whose own litmus test draws on all of the above. “At a minimum, any iconic watch has to either have transformed a particular paradigm within the industry or made an indelible impact on pop culture,” he says. “Indeed, over time some have managed to do both.”

Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Quantieme Perpetual
Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Quantieme Perpetual
Richard Mille RM11-03 Rose Gold
Richard Mille RM11-03 Rose Gold

 

Uncovering the many pathways to prestige

Rolex Submariner
Rolex Submariner

Evidently, reasonable minds differ when it comes to the crux of what makes or breaks an ‘iconic’ timepiece. That realisation is going to become increasingly apparent as we go forward with this series, though we can glean a few takeaways right away from what has been said by collectors and our friends in the industry. Whether by design, technology, marketing or some combination of all three, a watch becomes iconic because it transcends what has come before easier said than done in an industry as traditional as this one. 

Omega Speedmaster
Omega Speedmaster Professional
Case back of Omega Speedmaster Professional
Case back of Omega Speedmaster Professional

To that end, in ICONS we hope to tell compelling stories which are as varied and distinctive as the many watches beloved by collectors. We’ll dive into the ‘lightning in a bottle’ aesthetic of the Royal Oak; examine the resourceful ways in which NASA harnessed the Speedmaster; marvel at Richard Mille’s knack for positioning his (relatively young) brand at the centre of the zeitgeist; and most importantly, explain to you — the horologists parting with hard-earned dollars why these and a host of other watches remain relevant, important and cool as all hell in years to come. Welcome to ICONS  class is in session. 

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