After riding out the past few years in a challenging sales climate, mainstream watch brands continue to put emphasis on value propositions with scaled-back pricing and a heavy presence of less-expensive stainless steel cases and straightforward classic designs that are, in some cases, directly derived from historic models. Retro was clearly the loudest watchword of the year, yet some brands have their sights set on the future with cutting-edge aesthetics and avant-garde, high-performance materials.
Of course, there are always a number of big wows for a select few of the world’s elite collectors. Greubel Forsey unveiled its first Grande Sonnerie, a horological tour de force 11 years in the making and priced at 1.2 million Swiss francs ($1.2 million). A. Lange & Söhne strutted its technical stuff with the Tourbograph Perpetual Pour le Mérite, which integrates a perpetual calendar, split-seconds chronograph and tourbillon, plus a chain and fusée constant force regulator in a half-million-dollar masterpiece. And the always visionary MB&F also ventured into $500,000 deep space with the fantastical sapphire crystal HM6 “Space Pirate” Alien Nation, a sci-fi spaceship of a watch manned by six tiny alien figures hand-carved in white gold.
While these spectacular grail watches surely make our hearts beat faster with their exceptional beauty and audacious technical firepower, they are extremely rare and incredibly expensive outliers—albeit highly successful ones—in a market that is looking to capture the hearts and dollars of mere-mortal enthusiasts. Still, any annual roundup of standout watches would be lacking without a few showstoppers in the mix.
On that note, Vacheron Constantin’s one-of-a kind Celestia (about $1 million) makes an unprecedented link between state-of-the-art watchmaking and the ancient notion of measuring time with the observation of celestial bodies.
Master watchmaker Jean-Marie Bouquin spent five years developing this horological knockout with a remarkable 23 mostly astronomical complications on two dials, the most complicated wristwatch the brand has ever produced. The fully integrated movement with three separate gear trains and six barrels packs 514 components into a mechanism that measures a mere 8.7-mm thick. Its functions include a running equation of time (tracking the difference between solar and civil time), tidal cycles, sunrise and sunset, length of day and night, seasons, solstices, equinoxes, positioning of the Earth, moon and sun, zodiac signs, and there’s even a star chart for the northern hemisphere displaying the Milky Way on the back. Though Celestia was not commissioned by a client, it emerged from the brand’s special-order Les Cabinotiers department as a statement of what it is capable of producing for VIP clients. Vacheron sold the first and took orders for six variations, so each will be unique. vacheron-constantin.com
A pioneer in introducing high-tech materials—often borrowed from the worlds of Formula 1 and aeronautics—Richard Mille ups the exotic-substance ante with the RM 50-03 Tourbillon Split Seconds Chronograph Ultralight McLaren F1 ($980,000, limited to 75 pieces). The use of Graph TPT (a graphene composite) makes it the world’s lightest mechanical chronograph weighing in at an astonishing 40 grams including the graphene-infused strap. Graphene was isolated in 2004 at the University of Manchester, earning two professors there a 2010 Nobel Prize in physics. The nano-material is six times lighter and 200 times stronger than steel, and the Carbon TPT blend further lowers the carbon composite’s density while increasing resistance. The skeletonized movement, which weighs only 7 grams, is built using Grade 5 titanium and Carbon TPT for the baseplate and bridges to further lighten the scales. McLaren Technology Group and McLaren-Honda are currently looking to incorporate graphene into their Grand Prix cars, so in this case, Richard Mille’s watch application outpaced the automotive world. richardmille.com
Also collaborating with a premier automotive marque, Hublot commemorates the 70th anniversary of its partner Ferrari with the striking Techframe Ferrari 70 years Tourbillon Chronograph ($137,000 in PEEK Carbon, as shown). To create a watch that embodies Ferrari’s codes, Hublot handed the design reins to the car maker’s head of design, Flavio Manzoni, and his team in Italy. They approached the project as they would a supercar, creating a lattice-like three-part modular case to serve as a lightweight yet durable chassis for the watch’s high-powered engine: The HUB6311 manual-winding single-pusher chronograph movement. To reduce size and improve ergonomics, the crown—with Ferrari’s famous prancing horse—was moved to 4 o’clock, and the chrono pusher is designed as a lever at 3 o’clock in bright Ferrari red. Smaller red pushers on the sides of the case facilitate a user-friendly interchangeable strap system. Hublot will produce 70 pieces each in its proprietary King Gold, titanium, and PEEK (Polyether Ether Ketone) Carbon, a multilayer hypoallergenic material made from long carbon fibers. hublot.com
In stark contrast to Hublot’s flash and fury, Patek Philippe stands resolute as watchmaking’s reserved and refined elder statesman. This year’s Ref. 5320G Perpetual Calendar ($82,784) harks back to coveted collector’s pieces from the 1940s and ’50s, a golden age at Patek, which lays claim to producing the first wristwatch perpetual calendar in 1925. The creamy lacquer dial of the 5320G borrows the layout of two 1940s-era perpetuals with its double aperture for day and month at 12 o’clock and a subsidiary dial at 6 o’clock displaying analog date and moon phases, plus it adds a day/night indicator between 7 and 8 o’clock and a leap year
aperture between 4 and 5 o’clock. The sleek, sculpted case with its distinctive three-tiered lugs takes cues from the 60-year-old Ref. 2405. Despite its vintage spirit, the 5320G is state of the art under the dial with the caliber 324 S Q, an automatic movement that delivers extreme precision with a maximum rate deviation ranging between -3 and +2 seconds per day. patek.com
TAG Heuer revived its ’60s-era Autavia ($5,150 on leather strap and $5,300 on steel bracelet) in a novel way: It held an online contest dubbed the Autavia Cup and invited enthusiasts to vote on which first-generation model they wanted to see reincarnated. More than 50,000 voters participated, and the winner was the Autavia “Rindt” worn by F1 driver Jochen Rindt, who perished on the track at Monza in 1970. The sporty collection’s name is a portmanteau of auto and aviation and traces back to 1933, when Heuer designed the first dash counter for racing cars and aircraft. In 1962, Jack Heuer debuted his first chronograph wristwatch with a rotating bezel and dubbed it Autavia. The new Heuer-02 caliber chronograph movement powers the larger—42-mm—modern incarnation. An automatic, it is endowed with an 80-hour power reserve and date window at 6 o’clock. Autavia’s retro touches include mushroom push-pieces, a ridged crown, the original Heuer logo, a reverse panda dial design, and a distressed calfskin leather strap. tagheuer.com
Tudor’s Black Bay Chrono ($4,725 on leather strap and $5,050 on metal bracelet) is another value-driven crowd pleaser with a retro vibe. The sporty 41-mm stainless-steel chronograph features the brand’s signature white snowflake hands. A domed, matte-black dial heightens legibility with recessed chronograph sub-counters for contrast. But the big news is the Caliber MT5813, a column-wheel chronograph with vertical clutch, which is based off of Breitling’s B01 chronograph with a 70-hour power reserve.
Naturally, Tudor made its own modifications, such as developing the high-precision regulating organ with a silicon balance spring. And in the true spirit of partnership, Breitling’s updated Superocean Heritage dive watch—another retro standout, which is marking its 60th anniversary this year—is outfitted with the new Breitling Caliber B20 movement based off the Tudor Caliber MT5612 with Breitling modifications. tudorwatch.com
Another no-brainer classic dive watch is Rolex’s 50th anniversary tribute to its legendary Oyster Perpetual Sea-Dweller ($11,350), which is expected to be among the year’s top sellers. One leading U.S. retailer commented that his phone started ringing as soon as the watch was unveiled in Baselworld last March. Rather than recreate the original, Rolex updated it with a 3-mm increase in size to 43 mm and added the brand’s cyclops lens over the date window at 3 o’clock, a first for the flagship model. This technical dive watch is water resistant down to 4,000 feet and features a helium escape valve, an innovation that Rolex patented in 1967. The tribute Sea-Dweller has been equipped with a new Caliber 3235 automatic movement with patented timekeeping innovations that ensure precision of -2/+2 seconds per day in keeping with the brand’s stringent Superlative Chronometer certification. In a nod to the original from 1967, the words Sea-Dweller are printed in red on the black dial. rolex.com
Zenith’s new Defy El Primero 21 ($10,600 in skeletonized titanium as shown) traces back to the brand’s legendary 1969 El Primero high-frequency 5Hz column-wheel chronograph that lives on today. This year’s Defy 21 supercharges the El Primero with a second 50Hz regulating system that can track elapsing times to 1/100th of a second with a central chronograph hand that spins around the dial at a dizzying one revolution per second. The blue and dark-gray chronograph counters offer a nod to its ancestor, while the open-worked dial puts the intricate architecture of the cutting-edge movement in full view, making a thoroughly modern technical statement. zenith-watches.com
Bulgari continues its record-breaking run of supercool ultrathin watches with this year’s time-only Octo Finissimo Automatic. The world’s thinnest automatic watch, it measures only 5.15 mm thick with a 2.23-mm-thick movement appointed with a heavy platinum micro-rotor for winding efficiency and a 60-hour power reserve. The elegant, yet resolutely contemporary, design is housed in a lightweight, faceted titanium case that can be fitted with a leather strap ($12,800), but we prefer the supple titanium bracelet ($13,900) that feels like liquid metal on the wrist. bulgari.com
Perhaps more than any other new model, Panerai’s Lab-ID Luminor 1950 Carbotech 3 Days—49mm (50,000 euro, or about $51,300) best fuses the watches of yesteryear with the watches of tomorrow. Known for its oversize cushion-shaped watches that evoke its mid-20th-century history as a supplier to the Italian navy, Panerai preserves its essential forms. However, the materials used in the 49-mm Luminor 1950 case and its trademark cutaway sandwich dial are anything but traditional. The watch’s case is made from lightweight Carbotech, which consists of thin layers of carbon fiber fused under high temperature and pressure with the organic polymer PEEK for added robustness. In addition to being lighter and stronger than ceramic or titanium, Carbotech is also hypoallergenic and resists corrosion. Striations in the material make each case unique. The dial is covered with dense, black, carbon nanotubes that absorb light like a black hole, so the bright blue Super LumiNova numbers and indexes pop.
The real innovation is in the movement. The manual-winding, semi-skeletonized caliber P.3001/C applies carbon advancements to achieve watchmaking’s long-held goal of eliminating traditional lubricants. The main plate and bridges are made from a new low-friction Tantalum-based ceramic composite with a high percentage of carbon. The main escapement components are made of silicon, and the wheelwork is finished with a special DLC (diamond-like carbon) coating that is also used in the coating on the two spring barrels. The use of self-lubricating and dry-lubricating materials throughout makes added liquid lubricants unnecessary, which means Panerai can guarantee the new Lab-ID (limited to 50 pieces) for an unprecedented 50 years. panerai.com
Laurie Kahle is a contributing editor for Cigar Aficionado.