The Hands of Time

Classic Watches Are More Than Just Timepieces--They're Works of Art for the Wrist
| By Nick Foulkes | From Danny DeVito, Winter 96

It is under the term "classic" that some of the gravest offenses against male style have been committed. We have had "modern classics," "classics with a twist" and "reinvented classics," and almost without exception, they have been the most meretricious garments: jackets with oddly cut lapels, dining suits fashioned out of fabrics more conventionally used for making costumes for exotic dancers, and shoes with eccentric stitching and soles that look as though they would be more at home on the tires of a heavy-duty agricultural vehicle. The chances are that if something is trumpeted by its manufacturers as a classic, it is anything but.

A classic is, or should be, something that by its harmony of aesthetics and function achieves a kind of immortality. Beauty is a notoriously subjective thing, but nevertheless, a classic is an item that is instantly recognizable and over the years comes to define its own visual integrity. The black and yellow band of the Cohiba is, of course, an example every cigar aficionado is familiar with. Taken out of context and viewed dispassionately (an impossible task if ever there was one), the band comes across as a curious and dated piece of design, but the mythology surrounding it and all the associations of the fabled cigar would make tampering with the band an example of the grossest sacrilege. In the world of lighters, the Alfred Dunhill Rollagas has achieved a cult status; it is the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud to Zippo's Ford Mustang.

So it is in the 24-carat world of fine watches. There are always those who will argue that spending anything more than a modest amount on a wristwatch is tantamount to lunacy, and it is true there are many cheap watches that, in their own way, have achieved some kind of cult status; just as it is also true that there are some perfectly popular machine-made Honduran cigars as well as the Hoyo de Monterrey Double Corona, and some perfectly palatable Appellation Contrôlèe Burgundies as well as La Tâche.

Fine watchmaking is an art every bit as refined as the making of fine wines, fine motor cars and fine yachts. Some of the great watchmakers have reputations stretching back centuries, and from time to time they produce genuine classics.

Even in these high-tech days of the Internet and information superhighways, the most prized watches are those with mechanical or automatic movements. It is a remarkable experience to wander through the watch factories of Switzerland and admire the utmost calm with which workers assemble the most intricate and minute of movements, often having to deal with pieces little larger than a human hair, so delicate that they have to be kept beneath glass domes. The atmosphere is best described as somewhere between the most modern of operating rooms and Oxford University's Bodleian library.

Once you've seen the craftsmen at work at their benches, hunched over magnifying glasses with Lilliputian tools in their hands or carefully engraving the case or movement, it becomes easy to understand why, although quartz may often offer greater accuracy and reliability, the connoisseur will invariably select a handcrafted mechanical or self-winding watch. There is something about winding a watch by hand that is curiously restful; like smoking a cigar, it imposes a kind of leisure and allows a moment of reflection on the many processes that have gone into putting the watch on your wrist.

A twentieth century phenomenon, the wristwatch's popularity took hold during the First World War. The route to a watch becoming a classic is a circuitous one. It could achieve classic status because it has been designed for, or worn by, a famous person. Perhaps the most celebrated of these is the Cartier Santos, which was designed for the pioneer Brazilian aviator and plutocrat Alberto Santos-Dumont and was used by him to record a record-breaking flight in 1907. Cartier also made the first Pasha watch for the Pasha of Marrakech who, in the 1930s, wanted to be one up on other plutocrats and be able to take a dip in his pool without having to remove his Cartier wristwatch. The famous jeweler on Paris' rue de la Paix obliged. More recently, the Rolex Cosmograph, a much sought-after chronograph, has become colloquially known as "the Paul Newman" because of the film star's preference for it.

A watch can also be elevated to classic status because it has calibrated an important event. A Breitling Navitimer with a 24-hour dial, sold today as the Breitling Cosmonaute, was strapped to the wrist of astronaut Scott Carpenter during his Mercury 7 space mission of May 24, 1962. But the most famous astronaut's watch of all time is the 12-hour chronograph called the Omega Speedmaster, which was designed during the 1950s but achieved international fame when Neil Armstrong wore it to the moon in 1969.

It could be a design feature that captures the imagination of the discerning watch buyer. Even though pocket calculators have long superseded the slide rule, the circular slide rule set into the bezel is still a much-loved feature of Breitling's Old Navitimer watches. It might be something as simple as a motif. Take, for example, Vacheron Constantin's famous Maltese Cross, which is reproduced even on the clasp of these excellent Swiss watches. Or it could be an overall approach to watchmaking. There are those who would argue that it is impossible for master watchmaker Breguet to turn out anything other than a classic watch, and certainly this marque's famous engine-turned dials are easily spotted; watch hands that boast a small hole beneath their apex are known as Breguet hands.

However, the qualities that make a classic are often unquantifiable; it just happens that a design will capture the spirit of the moment. There are at the moment many new designs making their way onto the market, of which only a few will become classics. It would be foolish to predict which ones will achieve such status, but among the brands to consider are Franck Muller, maker of some of the most intricate and exquisite formal watches for men, and Hublot, whose rubber-strapped, porthole-style watches are already a cult item. The Hublot GMT, with its blue dial and handsome clasp, is certainly one of the most coveted sports watches available.

What follows is a brief listing of the true classics in fine watchmaking. Prices on these watches vary widely, with many examples commanding prices of $3,000 and up.

The Piaget Tank

Designs for this watch apparently date back to 1917, when the British army used tanks in battle for the first time. The bars along the sides of the watch, which have become a design feature associated with the Tank and its many imitators, are said to have been inspired by the tracks of the first armored cars used by the Allies. But given the elegance of the Tank watch, the mud and death of trenches and the clumsiness of those early motorized engines of war are not the first things that spring to mind when strapping a Tank around the wrist.

Early examples of the watch were presented to high-ranking officers within the American Expeditionary Force, including Gen. John "Black Jack" Pershing. The Tank's readily identifiable rectangular styling made it instantly popular with the fast-moving and novelty hungry Art Deco crowd when it was officially introduced in 1919. In the eight decades that have elapsed since the first vague sketches for the design were drafted, many versions of the watch have appeared, including the square Chinese Tank and the larger, chunkier American Tank. It may not be the earliest wristwatch in the world, but it must be one of the best known.

The Breitling Chronomat

Some watches capture the spirit of a point in time, and for the late 1980s and the '90s, one such watch has been the Breitling Chronomat.

During the 1960s and early '70s, Breitling chronographs enjoyed a great vogue; the 1965 James Bond film Thunderball, for instance, boasts numerous examples. However, by the beginning of the '80s, the firm's fortunes were flagging. Ernst Schneider, a keen aviator with a mania for all things military and technical who had purchased the firm in 1979, wanted to create a watch for Breitling's centennial in 1984--the Chronomat was the result. The watch was first produced in volume in 1985 for the Frecce Tricolori, Italy's crack aerobatic and fighter pilot squad, and has since been adopted by such aerobatic teams as the U.S. Navy's Blue Angels and the U.S. Air Force's Thunderbirds, while a special limited-edition run has been created to commemorate the foundation of the British Royal Air Force's Red Arrows. The Chronomat's rugged profile, rider tabs (timing markers) and unidirectional bezel have remained unaltered; however, the early 1990s saw the introduction of a swirling "B" logo on the center second hand, which as well as being decorative acts as a counterpoise to enhance accuracy. Less of a wristwatch and more of a wrist-worn instrument, the Breitling Chronomat has captured the imagination of playboys and millionaires all over the world--even if they do not have an aircraft they fly themselves--and its distinctive chunky push-pieces can be seen poking out from under everything from a Turnbull & Asser shirt cuff to the sleeve of a Schott leather jacket.

Jaeger-le Coultre Reverso

The polo-playing man-about-town of the 1930s was just not properly dressed unless he had a Reverso buckled to his wrist--it was the sports watch of the day. Former denture maker turned horologist (watchmaker) Cesar de Trey was visiting India in 1930 and encountered a large number of polo players, whose cracked watchglasses may well have testified to their sporting prowess, but made telling the time a bit difficult. His solution was to devise a watch that, with a quick flick, could be turned over to reveal a steel back, thus protecting the glass from stray balls and flying polo sticks. This reversible watch also allowed the vain playboy to engrave either his initials or his coat of arms on the back, turning the watch, in effect, into a testosterone-charged signet ring.

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak

If there is one watch that can be judged as a membership requirement of the international club of millionaires, it is probably the Royal Oak. As F. Scott Fitzgerald's oft-quoted maxim points out, the rich really are different. So while the merely aspiring millionaire may dream about the day when he can have a gold watch gleaming with diamonds sitting on his wrist, the man who actually is rich has tired of such baubles and is looking for new ways to spend his money. Thus it was in 1972 that Audemars Piguet launched a revolutionary luxury watch...made of steel.

The Royal Oak was the first luxury sports watch to be fashioned out of such a humble material as steel; it was the world's most expensive steel watch at the time. In the oil-shock years of the early 1970s, some industry pundits may have questioned the wisdom of introducing such a product, but, in the way that true classics have of asserting themselves, the Royal Oak caught on. Numerous permutations have since evolved--some set with multicolored precious stones, some with complicated movements and others with numerous subdials. The variety of choices have spawned many Oak junkies, quite literally men so addicted to this distinctive watch with its octagonal bezel, fastened by eight hexagonal bolts of white gold, that they have examples and variations of it in every metal, from 18-carat gold to tantalum (a rare metal of the vanadium family).

The name "Royal Oak" is said to owe something to the hollow tree in which Charles II of England hid after his defeat at the battle of Worcester in the mid-seventeenth century. Between 1802 and 1914, three Royal Navy ships were christened Royal Oak. But the evolution of the name is secondary to the beauty of the watch; somehow the various shapes incorporated into the design and the contrasting matte and polished surfaces combine to make one of the most memorable watches of the late twentieth century.

Piaget Protocole

Piaget has had a history of designing extravagant pieces, and the 1960s and early '70s saw an explosion of creativity. Memorable women's pieces include the Slave Collection of 1971, in which watches with coral faces were set into bangles. More restrained, yet striking, is the Piaget Protocole, with its classic Dauphine hands and square case with cut corners and grooved finish. Among the features that distinguished it when it debuted in 1963 was its ultrathin movement. Its styling is distinctive in that, although more than 30 years old, the design retains a freshness and almost futuristic appeal.

Patek Philippe--Golden Ellipse

Among collectors, Patek is regarded as the premier marque; if you collect with a view to investment, you can't get much more blue-chip. Almost any Patek is a classic. The most sought-after are perpetual calendars and those with unusual features on the dial. Many would regard the Golden Ellipse, launched in 1968, as the classic Patek. The Golden Ellipse's case, with gently rounded corners and blue-gold dial, makes it one of the world's more recognizable watches. It could be argued that its classic status owes something to subliminal appeal; Patek says that its design was inspired by Leonardo da Vinci's Golden Section, a mathematical ratio the artist used to ensure the most harmonious and pleasing rectangular shape.

Girard Perregaux Vintage

The beginning of Ian Fleming's 1957 James Bond novel, From Russia With Love, says it all: In a list of the "typical membership badges of the rich man's club," Fleming includes "a bulky gold wristwatch on a well-used brown crocodile strap. It was a Girard Perregaux model designed for people who like gadgets, and it had a sweep second-hand and two little windows in the face to tell the day of the month, and the month, and the phase of the moon." Although Girard Perregaux was founded 204 years ago, it is still very innovative. Three years ago, the firm was purchased by Luigi Macaluso, a former race car driver, and in 1995, Girard Perregaux produced the first "Girard Perregaux pour Ferrari," a chunky, classically styled 12-hour chronograph. Under Macaluso's stewardship, the company is also reissuing copies of one piece from its museum every year, selling them under the name "Vintage" and making them in limited quantities. A recent example is copied from a watch issued in the 1930s. For those who weren't around then, it is a wonderful opportunity to pick up the same watch 60 years later.

Blancpain Ultra-Slim

Blancpain prides itself on never having made a quartz watch. Instead, this marque is best known for its slim-line, round-cased automatic and mechanical wristwatches. In the early '80s, Blancpain capitalized on it reputation and introduced the Ultra-Slim, seen by some as the apotheosis of the elegant, understated dress watch, with a simple round dial with Roman numerals and two slender, "sword" hands. This year, Blancpain will unveil its first watch with Arabic numerals on the dial. To those outside horological circles, it may seem insignificant, but for Blancpain it is monumental change.

Vacheron Constantin

Along with the five-pronged coronet that decorates the Rolex, the Maltese cross of Vacheron Constantin is one of the watch world's most recognizable symbols. Vacheron Constantin has long been known as a producer of exquisite and extremely expensive watches and, along with such marques as Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe, they frequently are featured in the prestigious auction catalogs. Recently, Vacheron Constantin revived the shutter watch, a design that first became popular during the 1930s. The originality of this striking design lies in a system of shutter blades that cover the dial of the watch, much in the way that the radiator grilles of early Rolls-Royce motor cars were used to protect the engine. Just as Jaeger-le Coultre came up with the idea of the Reverso to shelter the then-fragile watch crystal from breakage, so Vacheron Constantin made the shutter watch. A refined version of this model, known as the Jalousie, now recalls the spirit of Deco days; the shutter blades are operated by a small slide set with a cabochon sapphire. Wear it in pink gold with white gold shutters or in white gold set with diamonds.

Nick Foulkes is a freelance journalist and broadcaster in London with a passion for wristwatches.