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Power Watches

A watch is more than the sum of its parts, and the right timepiece signals that you're a force to be reckoned with
Elizabeth Doerr
From the Print Edition:
Tom Selleck, Nov/Dec 2007

Entering the boardroom, the first thing on your mind is making the right impression. Not just with your business acumen, but with your smart, confident style. So you dress in your best power suit, a made-to-measure Armani or Saville Row perhaps, your favorite Ermenegildo Zegna tie powered by a perfect double-Windsor knot and wing-tipped brogues brought to a high shine. You also arrive donning an accessory that says so much about you, yet is sometimes overlooked by discerning males: the power watch. Today, wearing the right watch signifies to your friends, colleagues and even your adversaries that you are on top of things. The power watch is formal, yet sporting and active, and is loaded with a certain substance and style that exudes confidence in any setting. Most of all, its appearance demands attention.

Power Players
Back in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan became known for the red tie he always wore. It was dubbed the power tie and soon turned into a symbol of American corporate culture. Although the term "power watch" wasn't coined until the same period, such timepieces originated in the early 1970s. The legendary watch designer Gérald Genta was hired to design a new sports watch for Audemars Piguet, signaling that the time had arrived for stainless steel to be taken seriously in the luxury industry. Since its inception in 1972, the Royal Oak has been an undisputed leader. It has experienced a number of evolutions in the three and a half decades since hitting the world's jewelry shops, the next almost always better than the last, and has remained a perpetual best seller.

Genta also lent his expertise and fine feel for soft-yet-hard lines in stainless steel to the Nautilus, Patek Philippe's first purpose-built sports watch, which debuted in 1976 and has enjoyed evergreen success ever since. An advertisement supporting the original Nautilus does an excellent job of defining what a power watch stands for, even today. "One of the world's costliest watches is made of steel," the copy read. "Designed for diving, for formal or festive occasions, or for slaying dragons in the executive suite."

Thirty years on, in the world of high-end horology, power watches are yours for the taking. However, visually expressing this is sometimes easier said than done. A vast range of power watches exists. Choosing one comes down to which brand you may be loyal to, a certain movement you desire and the amount of money you're willing to pay.

In Your Face
If you are technically minded, the first timepieces to look at are by Richard Mille. One of the hottest new designers, French-born Mille makes big toys for big boys. They are high in testosterone and get their special look and feel from Mille's love of automobile technology. "Racing has always been a passion of mine," Mille explains. "The creation of my watches emulates the system of thinking from the world of Formula 1 development. Every part of the car must have a specific function working at the highest certain level and quality, especially under stressful conditions. Also, every gram counts; many people do not realize that F1 cars are weighed by the gram during their development and construction. It's a balancing act, a pushing of the envelope."

Mille's statement is not just lip service. His desire has always been to go to the edge. "My RM 009 Felipe Massa, the world's lightest tourbillon wristwatch at 28 grams [without using plastics] was born of a challenge [Formula 1 driver] Felipe Massa made me. He asked me if I could make his RM 006—at 48 grams, then the lightest—even lighter." The technology and materials that Mille uses, including aluminum, titanium, Anticordal 100 (an alloy comprising aluminum, magnesium and silicon) and alusic (an aluminum and silicon carbide alloy), were unheard of until other brands saw how well his unique ideas were being received and also began using them to make watches.

The stately dimensioned timepieces designed by Mille are rare—approximately 1,000 wristwatches are made annually—technical and just plain cool-looking. They are mechanical beauties that immediately attract eyes.

Mille is not the only one who designs wristwatches targeted for in-your-face attention while retaining a distinct mechanical message and remaining rare. About three years ago, Hublot completely changed when it introduced the Big Bang line. Jean-Claude Biver and his longtime friend and designer Mijat—the masterminds behind the model—read the taste of the modern man so precisely that the Nyon, Switzerland —based Hublot can't keep jewelers in stock.

The reason is simple: the Big Bang is one of the sharpest watches out there. With its use of new materials to create the movements and the case, the Big Bang has modern grace, which is aided by its chunky size and classic rubber strap that the brand made socially acceptable for luxury watches. "This is deeper than fashion, which means it will not disappear," says Biver, Hublot's chief executive officer. "It starts with fashion, then it becomes about function, about the movement. And that is the nice thing. Hublot started with the fashion: rubber and gold. And today this is not just our fashion, it has become an institution—everybody does it."

If it's the larger size of modern timepieces coupled with a hint of elegance and rarity that makes your heart tick a little faster, then head 15 miles farther south to Geneva and take a look at Roger Dubuis's collection. Since each model that this brand makes is limited to 28 (gold) or 280 (stainless steel) pieces, it is highly unlikely that the guy sitting next to you in the meeting is also going to be wearing one. And should that come to pass, it's even more unlikely that it would be the same model, since this brand's owner and chief designer, Carlos Dias, has developed close to 7,000 models, including dial and metal variations, for the company's current catalogue.

The powerful case shapes and stately dimensions of Roger Dubuis's timepieces are matched only by their exquisite mechanical movements and myriad of high complications, and their accessibility to the average consumer is the sheer genius of Dias and his designs. The Excalibur Chronograph illustrates the point perfectly.

Audemars Piguet, one of the oldest brands in this illustrious list of contemporary manufacturers, might have the widest collection to choose from. With complications as difficult and rare as the equation of time—a dial that displays the difference between the current mean time and solar time—and watches that show the amount of torque left in their mainsprings, this company offers timepieces for consumers looking for luxury, rarity and a grand name.

However, it is the Royal Oak that has become a power watch of utmost renown. Going along with the times, it has increased in size and visibility, even gracing the wrists of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who collaborated with the venerable brand to co-design a limited-edition timepiece bearing his name. Although the recently introduced forged carbon fiber version of the chronograph is perhaps the most technically advanced, it's the red-gold and black-rubber version introduced a few years ago that remains a classic power watch.

Panerai has also made a name for itself among financially and physically powerful men. Sylvester Stallone, another Hollywood heavyweight, was involved in this legendary brand's rise to fame in the mid-1990s. Stallone fell for the Panerai Luminor, which at the time was a rare model made by a little-known brand. The brand was soon purchased by the Vendôme Group—now Richemont, the largest luxury watch group in the watch industry—and given a new lease on life. Stallone was so taken with the brand and its long and heroic history (Panerai had supplied watches to the Italian navy in the 1930s) that he ordered a set of watches for himself and friends. This limited-edition Slytech is one of the industry's legendary watches and helped Panerai attain insider status. Thanks to its oversized simplicity, the Radiomir model has also become a name known among the general populace.

Franck Muller was among the first to create watches that could be identified as power watches in a modern sense. Muller was a remarkable watchmaker who came of age in the early 1980s. At the time, his incredible horological feats earned him a reputation like no other among watch connoisseurs in an industry that had been brought to its knees by Japanese quartz offerings. Muller's large watches were Art Deco in style and instantly recognizable during the 1980s and early 1990s. Still large and recognizable, and now famous, Franck Muller's Cintrée Curvex line continues to exude a power all its own.

Three newcomers are also proving their impressive prowess on wrists of men. Hautlence, the product of two young, ambitious and experienced watch industry veterans, is a brand that is powerful and sporty, but has an aura of cerebral mechanics thanks to the unique functions among its watches. (One such function allows an hour disk to be propelled forward by the brand's own "connecting rod," which is set into motion when the minute hand reaches the end of its retrograde arc.) While this brand's first effort was a little more elegant in style, the new version of the HL—called the HLS—is a sportier timepiece in a chunkier case that can hardly be missed. These watches are extremely limited—only 350 have been delivered since the company's founding three years ago—guaranteeing powerful exclusivity.

Another newcomer is Romain Jerome, spearheaded by Yvan Arpa, an industry veteran who became CEO of the three-year-old watchmaker in August. Using "Titanic DNA," as the company calls it, Arpa has produced a sandwich-construction case of masculine size that can look rusty or not, depending on the desired alloy. Alongside the knowledge that this alloy contains metal taken from the sunken Titanic (retrieved by divers in the 1980s), the cool look of this technically demanding timepiece is unbeatable. Romain Jerome's Titanic-based timepieces are limited to 2,012 pieces per model—a number that denotes the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the ill-fated cruise ship. "You wear a piece of real history on the wrist," Arpa smilingly confirms.

Equally as adventurous are the timepieces created by Bernard Richards, a French designer located outside Paris. Four years ago he founded B.R.M, a sporty line of unusual timepieces that look as if they could speed off your wrist at any moment. The stately size of these watches, with a unique va-va-voom design, has captured the hearts of men looking for something different. While each B.R.M has its own powerful charm, it is the technically demanding Birotor that is the star of the collection.

Cool Elegance
While the above-mentioned watches make an immediate and bold declaration on the wrist, there are power watches that make a less in-your-face statement. These have a bit of understatement more typical of European culture that ensures they never go out of style.

A. Lange & Söhne, a German brand based in the historic watch city of Glashütte, created the Lange 1, an elegant power watch, when it was re-founded in 1994. Though this model has experienced a number of interesting evolutions, it is the original Lange 1 that remains so fascinating with its off-center displays and large double-digit date—one that kicked off a whole new trend in watchmaking. "German watchmaking was in a Sleeping Beauty —like sleep for many years," says Fabian Krone, CEO of A. Lange & Söhne. "It is now a very passionate arm of the art of watchmaking, committed to a very honest type of horology and craftsmanship. In the last 15 years, German watchmaking has been more about craftsmanship, a certain honesty and technical progression, while remaining 'German.'" What Krone explains here is a lot like what people experience when thinking of a German-made automobile. It is the solidity of the chassis, the honed beauty of the overall design that is neither showy nor flashy, and the time-honored quality that becomes tangible upon touching the object.

Jaeger-LeCoultre is also expert in understated elegance and its products rank among the world's true power watches. The Reverso has been around since 1931 when British polo players stationed in India desired a wristwatch that could protect the sensitive crystal—which at that time was simply made of normal pane glass, today called mineral crystal—over the dial while playing. The Le Sentier —based company responded by inventing a case that could revolve 180 degrees so that the metal case back was facing up while being worn during play. The rectangular Reverso has gone through many evolutions in the ensuing 76 years, many of which now include a second dial for a second time zone or ornately enameled and/or engraved case backs.

Celebrating 75 years of the Reverso, Jaeger-LeCoultre introduced a new case shape for it in 2006. This chunkier, square version was a more masculine update of the Art Deco style of the famous model. Jaeger-LeCoultre's newest power watch was born. Wearing this lets your peers know that you are knowledgeable about good quality, good design and watch history.

Wearing a Patek Philippe is perhaps the only thing that could top this. This 168-year-old company is the undisputed king of the watch industry, producing watches that are the utmost in discreet taste and quality. A Patek Philippe—pick any model of your liking—is possibly the ultimate power watch, and always has been.

The Look for Less
Perhaps you like the power watches mentioned, but don't quite have pockets deep enough to acquire a real dream piece. Don't despair. You don't have to turn to the same common staple most everyone else does: Rolex. Although the marque is still a classic choice among businessmen and watch enthusiasts, there are a number of great brands offering cool, unique wristwatches that won't break the bank.

Anonimo's Polluce model in bronze is one. It's a masculine timepiece you can wear equally as well in the boardroom as you can yachting or playing a round of golf. This stately watch houses an excellent Swiss movement, features outstanding case and dial design, and has the added plus of being the first model to bring bronze back as a case metal. This alloy is practically the only one currently used in watchmaking that is able to project a unique and manly patina after being worn for a while. The color of the bronze case changes slightly over time, gaining a used and worn look that can only bring out the best in you and your wardrobe. Combined with a light brown strap, this timepiece not only makes your wrist look powerful, but adds an air of masculinity to your entire being. This model retails for $3,950.

Bell & Ross has emerged as one of the industry's hot brands since creating the BR 01 Instrument line. This expansive 46 x 46 millimeter wristwatch is now available in a number of different versions housed in stainless steel, black PVD or rose-gold cases. The various dials include fluorescent orange or blue—and even a "stealth" version that is legible at night, while remaining a little more low-key during the day. Starting at $3,000, this is one power watch that will not burn a hole in your wallet.

Real watches inspired by real pilots are what Ernst Benz offers. Although only six years old, this is one of the first marques to serially offer timepieces in an oversized state of 47 millimeters—making them an instant hit among watch fans. A change of ownership two and a half years ago gave the brand another push in the design department, since the company's young new owner, Leonid Khankin, also happens to be a gifted designer with a distinct feel for pilot Ernst Benz's original intentions and early designs. Jazzing the bezels with high-grade diamonds and offering the dials in a myriad of fresh colors have also made this brand a new favorite among professional sports players as well as rainmakers. Non-diamond pilot-style timepieces start here at about $2,000.

For a watch line that starts at less than $2,000, yet remains completely unique in appearance, have a look at Alpina's Avalanche Extreme Regulator. Available in 48- or 42-millimeter diameters, this Swiss-made timepiece remains a distinct conversation piece, outfitting you with the same type of shape, size, look, and feel that the power watches costing 10 times or more provide.

Make a statement with the only real piece of jewelry you can get away with in the boardroom. Be daring and get informed—and you will see it pay off by letting everyone know exactly who you are. After all, it's going to be kind of hard to carry that BMW into the office, now, isn't it?

Elizabeth Doerr is a freelance watch writer based in Germany.

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