5 Watches That Changed What’s on Your Wrist
What does “contemporary design” mean in an industry that perennially looks backward?
It’s a serious question for watchmakers, most of whom are traditionalists at heart. (Compare the dominant aesthetic in modern wristwatches with pocket watches created 500 years ago; other than their shrinking diameters, little has changed.)
Today’s boom in sales of vintage watches, as well as new models that pay tribute to classic timepieces, has only exacerbated the industry’s tendency to repeat its own design history. “With most big makers, more than 50 percent of their models are heavily inspired by their own past — because they sell,” said Aurel Bacs, a senior watch consultant at the auction house Phillips.
But how about the current era? What will be remembered? Five timepieces, listed here in order of their introduction, made the cut — a selection sure to intrigue, and perhaps provoke, watch fans.
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore (1993)
In the first decade of the new millennium, long before today’s mania for daintier vintage timepieces began, watchmakers routinely produced colossal styles approaching 50 millimeters, or 2 inches, in diameter.
Although Panerai, the Italian heritage brand made popular by Sylvester Stallone, often is credited with kicking off the industry’s size craze in the late 1990s, Audemars Piguet did it first with the Royal Oak Offshore, a 1993 model designed by Emmanuel Gueit to appeal to young buyers.
Nicknamed “The Beast,” the 42-millimeter-wide and 15-millimeter-thick stainless steel wristwatch weighed nearly two-thirds of a pound, dwarfing the original 39-millimeter Royal Oak. And, in a testament to its sporty vibe, the pushers and crown were clad in rubber.
“The Offshore was obviously inspired by the Royal Oak, but it was completely strange for the time,” said William Rohr, managing director of the online watch forum TimeZone. “It was extremely huge, thick, heavy.”
A. Lange & Söhne Lange 1 (1994)
Viewed from today’s perspective, the Lange 1 by A. Lange & Söhne is the epitome of a classic round timepiece. But when it was unveiled in 1994, its key design elements — an asymmetrical time display and outsize date divided across two windows — cast the German maker as an iconoclast.
“When it came out, there was nothing even remotely like it on the market,” said Elizabeth Doerr, editor in chief and co-founder of the watch site Quill & Pad.
The model was the brainchild of Walter Lange — a great-grandson of the brand’s founder, Ferdinand Adolph Lange — and the entrepreneur Günter Blümlein. And it was their first big effort since resurrecting the house in 1990. (The brand, which had operated since 1845 in Glashütte, the historic home of Germany’s watchmaking industry, had been expropriated by the East German government following World War II and made to produce cheap watches for export.)
The Lange 1’s then-unusual design heralded an important new perspective for the tradition-bound world of mechanical watchmaking, said Katharine Thomas, head of the watch department at Sotheby’s New York, and she compared the revived company to a modern start-up that “marked a path for companies outside the general Swiss establishment.”
F.P. Journe Chronomètre à Résonance (2000)
François-Paul Journe has a cultlike following that is all but unrivaled among his horological peers. The most obvious heir to the scientific tradition of horology epitomized by watchmaking legends such as Abraham-Louis Breguet and George Daniels, Mr. Journe has garnered a near-mythic reputation among high-end watch enthusiasts since founding his eponymous brand in 1999, not to mention the interest of Chanel, which acquired a minority stake in the company in 2018.
“If watches are still around in 200 years, F.P. Journe will be the equivalent of Patek Philippe,” said Mr. Hallock, the Los Angeles watch dealer.
Mr. Journe solidified his reputation as a hotshot young watchmaker on the strength of his company’s second production model, the Chronomètre à Résonance, which he presented in 2000. Generally regarded as a masterpiece of modern watchmaking, the wristwatch was inspired by a Breguet pocket watch that Mr. Journe restored for a client in 1982; it featured two balance wheels in what is called a resonance movement, an esoteric example of precision timekeeping.
Ulysse Nardin Freak (2001)
During most of its history, Ulysse Nardin was best known as an old-fashioned maker of nautically inspired timepieces (even after it was reinvigorated in the 1980s by the Swiss businessman Rolf Schnyder and the watchmaking wunderkind Ludwig Oechslin, who together created a trilogy of widely praised astronomical wristwatches).
Then, during a dinner in New York in 2001, Mr. Schnyder and Mr. Oechslin presented an outlandish-looking gold watch appropriately named Freak. It lacked a dial, crown and traditional hands; it indicated the time with an enormous minute hand that also doubled as the movement, and a rotating main plate that served as the hour hand.
The model’s radical exterior obscured a movement that, for the first time, incorporated silicon, a material that has since revolutionized mechanical watchmaking by eliminating the need for lubricants like oil.
“Single-handedly, the Freak inaugurated the era of the superwatch — mechanically sophisticated, visually arresting, unapologetically exotic,” Jack Forster, editor in chief of Hodinkee, wrote on the online watch site in 2018.
Bulgari Octo Finissimo Tourbillon (2014)
If you remember only one name from the annals of watchmaking design history, make it Gerald Genta. The Swiss designer spent six decades moonlighting for the 20th century’s greatest makers, creating wristwatches known for their slender cases, graceful angles, sporty but elegant integrated bracelets and, as it happens, extreme commercial success.
Mr. Genta’s best-known designs — the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and the Patek Philippe Nautilus — are modern-day best sellers, perennially in demand on the secondary market.
In 2000, the Roman jeweler Bulgari acquired Mr. Genta’s namesake brand and set about placing its own spin on his towering legacy. Proof that it succeeded came in 2014, when the house introduced its Octo Finissimo series of ultrathin timepieces, led by the hand-wound Octo Finissimo Tourbillon, a 5-millimeter-thick titanium watch whose round bezel and octagonal case recalled Mr. Genta’s masterful use of shapes.