Elegant styling, profound complications and tributes to classic models mark our annual best-in-show top-10 list of wristwatches.

With optimism exuding from the big brands, and a slew of new consumer-friendly watches as well as more boutique brands joining the market, 2011 proved to be a year of watchmaking creativity with a distinct leaning toward classic looks. Our survey of Switzerland’s annual watch fairs produced a top-10 list that should captivate collectors and connoisseurs.

Perennial favorites such as Rolex and Patek Philippe delight the observer with a host of new models. Baume & Mercier and Vacheron Constantin unveiled rare complications. TAG Heuer and Rolex paid homage to earlier watches. Corum made an automatic version of its classic Golden Bridge. In all, 2011 has shaped into a banner year for watchmaking with a few surprises in store for the observant consumer—including the nomination of the first nonmechanical watch for Cigar Aficionado’s “Best in Show.” Have a look at the next generation of fine watchmaking.

Baume & Mercier:
Classima Jump Hour

When the head of IWC Georges Kern added a second Richemont Group brand, Baume & Mercier, to his responsibilities, he brought his love of telling stories through the collections in his charge. So the existing model families at Baume & Mercier have now been streamlined and revamped. Each chapter of the brand’s new story adds up to represent “Hamptons” lifestyle.
The Classima line now contains some absolutely beautiful examples of classic watchmaking that are outfitted with smaller complications, such as this jump-hour model. Its moniker comes from the hour display in a small window at the 12 o’clock position that jumps forward at the top of every hour. A relatively rare complication, it is an eye-pleaser despite its unfamiliar dial approach, which sees all three displays (hours, minutes, seconds) separated.

The complication is clothed in a completely classic case and dial. The barleycorn, guilloché-style stamped dial harmonizes perfectly with the numeral font chosen and the gold color of the hands, minute and second markers, as well as the frame around the jump hour window. Combined with the convenience of the automatic movement, it perfectly embodies the current trend toward understated luxury while standing out in a crowd.

A limited edition of 500 pieces in a 42-mm stainless steel case, the Classima Jump Hour retails for $5,400.

Laurent Ferrier
Galet Micro-rotor Entre-Pontst

Monsieur Laurent Ferrier has turned into the pundits’ choice—an insider tip for the aficionado. Placing extreme emphasis on the quality of the horology inside, Laurent Ferrier’s technical delicacies are clothed in extremely conservative dress, destined to keep them in style for as long as watchmaking continues to exist.

Critics—if Laurent Ferrier had any—might call this boring, but it is really nothing other than simply beautiful. The new Galet Micro-rotor Entre-Ponts, for example, is housed in an 18-karat white- or red-gold case, wonderfully sized at 40 mm, which is certainly destined to become the new classic dimension. The silver or slate-gray dial classically offsets the case, and the slender assegai-shaped hands are unobtrusive, yet very legibly display the time without obstruction or ambiguity.

However, the element that really sets collectors’ hearts soaring is found underneath the hood in the beautifully designed movement: the placement of two large stabilizing bridges that are decorated with côtes de Genève reveal only two elements—two that deserve to be highlighted. A gold micro rotor efficiently and stably winds the movement automatically and a new escapement style containing new materials keeps the time. Though the double direct-impulse escapement contains silicon elements, its inspiration was found in the work of Louis-Abraham Breguet, perhaps the standard among classic watchmakers.

The Galet Micro-rotor Entre-Ponts can be purchased for $52,000 in rose gold and $53,500 in white gold.

HD3 Slydeu

One of the challenges that looms for manufacturers is that the younger generations don’t generally wear watches nor see them as an expression of taste. The attitude seems to be: why bother strapping something to your wrist if you already have the time displayed on your mobile phone?

One of HD3’s three founders—well-known industrial designer Jorg Hysek—has come up with the answer by approaching timekeeping in the same way that all technology is approached these days.

Welcome to the era of the Slyde. This fine watch is not mechanical and actually functions much like an iPod on the wrist: not only does it tell the time in a variety of selectable ways, it can also store pictures and other data. It is operated in a user-friendly manner with the same sort of touch screen available on many electronic devices today.

While some components are derived from fine watchmaking (the tactile sapphire crystal covering the screen and water-resistance to a depth of 30 meters) others are in sharp contrast, which is part of the extreme allure. The owner can connect the Slyde to the Internet for recharging and downloading customized modules. All technology inherent to the Slyde and its electronic movement is internationally patented.

Retaining the essence of what makes a fine watch tick—namely the ability to create and transmit emotion—the Slyde’s sizable, no-frills case measuring 47.71 x 57.84 mm is available in black or gray titanium and rose gold with power reserve lighting reminiscent of a laptop on the side of the case. Its straps can be had in a choice of leather, printed alligator skin or rubber. Prices range between $6,895 and $48,000, depending on the case material and diamond setting.

The underlying principle of the smartphone with a tactile screen brings watchmaking into the 21st century—and perhaps into the hearts and minds of young technophiles: it does raise pure emotion. And it comes with a charger.

Corum Golden Bridge Automatic

Corum’s Golden Bridge is one of the watch industry’s all-time classics. First released in 1980, it was immediately hailed as an innovative work of horological art thanks to visuals that went far off the norm yet remained elegant and wearable. This year it took a step further.

Aside from the inventive baton movement designed by master watchmaker and cofounder of the A.H.C.I. (Académie Horlogère des Créateurs Indépendants/Horological Academy of Independent Creators) Vincent Calabrese, the case of the original Golden Bridge comprised two hand-faceted sapphire crystals held together by four golden screws and two bases of yellow gold. Thirty-one years ago, some of the greatest difficulties posed by its manufacture were polishing of the intricately shaped crystals and drilling them with precision.

The Golden Bridge, so completely elegant in its transparency and so difficult to achieve, was resuscitated several years ago and now plays a central role at the brand today. Combining traditional watchmaking with both classic and new materials, Corum writes a new chapter in its history as the first baguette movement with a tourbillon (released last year) and, unbelievably, with automatic winding—which was this year’s big introduction.

With every detail visible through the sapphire crystal case, the main challenge, explained CEO Antonio Calce, was in keeping with the linear motif of the movement while adding a self-winding mechanism. “To keep the movement’s design pure, the unique solution was to invent linear winding,” he said. Calce cited three main challenges: winding capacity, the oscillating weight’s mass and, naturally, friction. “We tried 10 different material combinations before settling on cupro-beryllium and steel with a nickel-polytetra-fluoroethylene coating comparable to Teflon,” he explained. The  result is a wondrously elegant movement—it seems to float on air caught between two panes of sapphire crystal—that does not look as if it could support all the mechanical functions it does.

It is for the moment available in a limited production of 130 pieces in rose gold ($42,000) and 70 pieces in white gold ($44,000). The svelte case comes across in a very masculine manner, measuring 37.2 x 51.8 mm.

Patek Philippe Ref. 5235

To represent the slew of lovely watches Patek Philippe has brought out in 2011, many of which are highly demanding pieces of complicated horology, we pick the brand’s first regulator wristwatch. This is a dial style that enjoys popularity among connoisseurs: it separates out the hours, minutes and seconds to make reading the time more precise once the wearer has gotten used that presentation.

This automatic 40.5-mm white-gold wristwatch—one of the larger Patek Philippes—also contains an annual calendar. If you own a typical mechanical watch with a date function, you will have noticed that at the end of months with fewer than 31 days a manual adjustment is required. The perpetual calendar function, which adjusts for the length of the month automatically, is a very high complication that is pricey and can become a pain to set if you don’t wear it every day. The annual calendar is the perfect in-between solution. Not nearly as pricey as a perpetual calendar, it still recognizes all the months but February, leaving you with only one date adjustment in a year.

The biggest advancement of this watch is, however, its hacking-seconds function. This very practical little addition allows the owner to set the watch to the second. Pulling out the crown stops the timekeeping. This is very important to a regulator where the seconds display is literally in the spotlight. ($51,000)

Rolex Oyster Explorer II

The original Explorer model from the 1950s was named for the world of exploration. Today, Rolex retains three well-known explorers as ambassadors to underscore the association.

Rolex introduced the Explorer II in 1971, an upgraded version of the original Explorer model. Sometimes viewed by consumers as the redheaded stepchild, its precision, robustness, power reserve and styling were enhanced at this point—these are the kinds of details that Rolex is consistently advancing rather than making groundbreaking announcements and continuously designing new models. One of the boosts was to chronometer-certify the model, meaning to have it certified by an independent Swiss entity called the C.O.S.C. (Contrôle Official Suisse de Chronomètres) to stay within a certain chronometric range: the average daily rate of a mechanical chronometer must remain within –4 and +6 seconds a day. Year for year, Rolex remains one of the leaders in earning C.O.S.C. certificates for its watches. All chronometer-certified Rolex models bear this fact emblazoned across their dials.

This year’s relaunch of the Explorer II is only the third change to the watch since 1971. Perhaps the biggest new element to this model is the buffed-up 42-mm stainless steel case size, making it the third largest watch in Rolex’s entire collection. This fact alone is destined to please a great deal of sports watch fans as it definitely makes it more contemporary in styling.

Another difference is the return of the orange GMT hand, which points out the second time zone and/or am-pm information using the 24-hour scale on the bezel. This design element—famously nicknamed “Freccione” (big arrow) by Italian collectors in the 1990s—was directed at cave explorers operating largely in the dark. Against the backdrop of the black dial—the newest
version is available with either a black or white dial—the orange hand is eminently legible.

Water-resistant to 100 meters like a good Oyster, it also includes the signature magnifying lens over the date. Its Oysterlock clasp features the Easylink 5-mm comfort extension link, a patented extension system that folds out to let the wearer increase the length of the bracelet up to 5 mm for regaining maximum comfort. This may be desired should there be an increase in temperature, altitude or physical activity, which may cause the wrist to expand. ($7,750)

Vacheron Constantin Patrimony Traditionnelle
World Timet

At the SIHH 2011, Vacheron Constantin made an absolute mark in world timing. The International Meridian Conference in 1884 established 24 time zones, which have since been expanded to a full 37 in the modern day. This state of affairs can be chalked up to politics: Nepal, for example, boasts a time zone that is on the quarter hour, while others such as India are on the half-hour.

The Vacheron Constantin Patrimony Traditionnelle World Time allows all 37 time zones to be seen at a glance on a metal dial with a Lambert projection map, with Daylight Savings Time and reference city indication.

Another superimposed part is a sapphire crystal dial with day/night shading and a 24-hour display for easy reading of home time. A third, outer part is a metal chapter ring for the local time (main hands), which stays fairly unobtrusive. This complicated piece of horology remains incredibly clean and represents a real milestone for providing all world-time information.

This is obviously not an easy thing to master, and up to now not one watch company has been able to do it properly without overcrowding the dial—and making it rather illegible.

Powered by a full in-house automatic movement, it is available in an elegant 42.5-mm rose gold-case and water-resistant to 30 meters ($45,500).

Urwerk UR-110

This boutique brand has thus far manufactured watches that defy any form of conventionality. The brand is a proponent of a bold look that either grabs the potential wearer or leaves him cold. Fence-sitters are rare when it comes to Urwerk, but if there are any out there, they will probably be convinced by the newest twist on time that Urwerk’s watchmaker/designer duo has come up with: the UR-110.

One of the coolest attributes of the 110, which is nicknamed the Torpedo, is that its time display has been turned to the side so that it beautifully peeks out from underneath one’s cuff. It will no doubt draw attention there—what the wearer of an Urwerk is after anyway. The sideways time display takes such elements from the UR-203’s display as planetary gearing and “satellite” displays that twist and turn in a seemingly complicated manner to appropriately display the right hour
numeral at the right time.

“The beauty of the UR-110 is in its apparent simplicity,” explained watchmaker and company cofounder Felix Baumgartner. “Among the challenges posed by this complication was working out the optimal architecture for supporting the central carousel and the rotating hour modules. We finally opted for a technical solution that is radically different from any of our other creations: instead of ball bearings, a fixed axis runs the full height of the watch, providing maximum rigidity and minimum play. The whole complication is perfectly balanced on this axis.” This can be fully appreciated through the panoramic sapphire crystal, including the so-called control board, which is usually found on the back of an Urwerk. The control board found at the bottom of the dial space boasts a day/night indicator as well as one telling the owner when it’s time for an “oil change” (i.e., servicing) in addition to subsidiary seconds.

The UR-110, powered by Urwerk’s automatic Caliber 9.01, is available in a 47 x 51 x 16-mm case and water-resistant to 30 meters. It comes in Grade 5 titanium ($102,000) and AlTiN ($115,000), an industrially applied titanium aluminum nitride alloy that not only has the effect of multiplying the underlying metal’s resistance to scratches, shocks, oxidation and even acids, but shimmers with a brownish-purplish color.

TAG Heuer Monza Calibre 36

TAG Heuer has spent the last few years introducing concept watches, limited editions and interesting high horology. It is a strategy intended to lift the brand up out of the ranks of mass-market and finally bring it to a place where it can be more widely appreciated.

Last year, TAG Heuer outdid itself with an haute horlogerie concept watch called the Pendulum. Though it is not close to serial readiness, the sheer ingenuity of it had the industry abuzz at a time when it was sorely needed. Calibre 1887, a robust in-house movement, also added to the allure of the brand. This year during each of the two major fairs, TAG Heuer presented extraordinary chronographs not destined to land on all wrists: the limited edition Carrera Mikrograph introduced during the SIHH can measure 1/100th of a second; and the concept watch Mikrotimer Flying 1000—for which the brand called a special press conference during Baselworld attended by hundreds of journalists and broadcast live all over the world—can measure 1/1000th of a second (if your eye can follow).

The strategy is good: more luxury watch enthusiasts are paying closer attention to TAG Heuer than ever before, and what they will find is eminently appealing: last year’s anniversary Monacos were among the hottest watches of the season, a real sight for sore eyes during the economic downturn. This year, it is a Monza that caught the regular guy’s eye, and this limited edition of 1,911 pieces (the number symbolizes the year Heuer’s Time of Trip was patented, the world’s first dashboard chronograph) is a real beauty.

Originally introduced in the 1930s, the Monza sets itself apart with its round dial within a cushion-shaped case. The 38-mm stainless-steel model also nods to company history by featuring the brand’s original Heuer logo as opposed to the TAG logo that the brand has used since its takeover by Techniques d’Avantgarde in 1985 (it was subsequently sold to LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton in 1999). It retails for $6,500.

Jaeger-LeCoultre Grande
Reverso Ultra Thin Tribute
to 1931 U.S. Edition

This year may have seen the appearance of more thin, elegant dress watches than in the last 10 combined, with most of them classically round. But Jaeger-LeCoultre has decided to pay homage to the style in its own way, with its iconic rectangular art deco Reverso model, which celebrates its 80th anniversary this year. This case also swivels 180 degrees to reveal a case back that can be decorated as the wearer chooses: engraving, enamel, or just plain nothing other than case back—the choice allows the wearer to make his or her Reverso truly personal.

The words Tribute to 1931 in the watch’s name refer to the year of its birth. Eighty years ago, in 1931, it first arrived to grace the wrists of polo players. They could swivel the case to avoid crystals smashed by racing polo balls. This evergreen watch model enjoys consistent updating of details so that it never looks old-fashioned or outdated. A super touch is the simple “LeCoultre” logo on the elegant dial, which recalls the fact that the company was known in the U.S. only by this name until the 1980s.

The Reverso is as much part of the past of this company as the future, and this model embodies the best in the present. The stainless-steel case, which measures 46 x 27.5 mm, is only 7.6 mm in height, thanks in great part to an in-house, manually wound movement with a height of only 2.9 mm. A 45-hour power reserve is controlled by the company’s unique thousand-hour quality control system applied to every piece that leaves the factory.

Polo buffs will appreciate not only the classic good looks of this exceptional watch, but the exclusive Eduardo Fagliano cordovan leather strap manufactured by hand in Argentina. Fagliano is an Argentinean maker of polo boots, kneepads and accessories as well as bespoke boots, jodhpurs and shoes. Casa Fagliano began its more-than-a-century-old history by manufacturing shoes for simple people. Across three generations, the Fagliano family’s clients have become polo players, famous actors, military dignitaries, kings and nobility.

The Grande Reverso Ultra Thin Tribute to 1931 U.S. Edition will be available in a non-numbered edition of 2,011 pieces for $7,250.

Elizabeth Doerr, who published Twelve Faces of Time: Horological Virtuosos, is a writer based in Germany.