Why these 5 classic watches have stood the test of time
The world’s most legendary watches still stand the test of time, as Michael Stahl reports.
Just as fashion has the Hermès ‘Birkin’ bag and Tod’s ‘Gommino’ loafers, so, too, the watch world has its handful of models that have cheated time. They’ve earned their iconic status through industry-changing innovations, a front-row seat in history, or just being irreplaceably fit-for-purpose over decades of stylish service.
Spotting legendary timepieces like the five we’ve listed below will score instant cred among horology heads. Better yet, you can still buy one new.
1. Rolex Oyster Perpetual
Possibly the most recognised luxury watch in the world today, the Rolex Oyster Perpetual appeared in 1931. Its new, round case replaced the original square Oyster of 1926, so named for being the world’s first waterproof watch. The ‘Perpetual’ referred to the patented automatic winding mechanism, a balanced rotor that spins with the wearer’s movement. The rotor became the industry standard. The Rolex ‘Datejust’ date window was another industry first (1945), enhanced in 1955 by the ‘Cyclops’ magnifying lens.
2. Omega Speedmaster
Describing Omega’s classic sports chronograph as ‘out of this world’ is easily justified. The Speedmaster, aka ‘Moonwatch’, was tested and approved in 1965 by NASA and subsequently worn on the Apollo lunar missions. It was launched in 1957 for sports timing and in this, was innovative in locating its tachymetre calibrations on the external bezel. ‘Premoon’ (pre-1969) Speedmaster and (from 1966) Speedmaster Professional models are keenly sought by collectors, along with later Moonwatches. A manual-wound Speedmaster is still available today.
3. Breitling Navitimer
Breitling Navitimer is where ‘wristwatch’ ends and ‘instrument’ begins. The watch launched in 1952, and was an evolution of the patented 1942 Breitling Chronomat, the first watch to combine a chronograph and a slide-rule. The ability to calculate speeds, distances and fuel consumption in the pre-computer age made it popular with pilots, hence the more specialised Navitimer, developed in conjunction with the Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association (whose logo still adorns some models). There have been many evolutions of the Navitimer; among several variants available, the Navitimer Ref.806 is a re-edition of the 1959 version.
4. Seiko 5 Speed Timer
The year 1969 was the most tumultuous yet in the watch industry. Against the imminent threat of cheap, accurate quartz-movement watches, three main groups – Zenith, Seiko, and a Swiss consortium that included Heuer, Breitling and others – raced to develop the first automatic (rather than manualwound) chronograph. Japan’s Seiko would be first with quartz, and possibly also with the auto-chrono: debate still rages over actual production dates. Seiko’s ‘6139’ movement went out of production in 1978, but a 1969 Speed Timer tribute model powered by the latest auto-chrono movement has just been launched in Seiko’s limited-edition Prospex SRQ029.
5. Zenith El Primero
In 1969, long-established Swiss brand Zenith prompted the watch world to recalibrate. Or should have. Its El Primero (‘the first’) movement, powering one of the world’s first automatic chronographs, operated at a frenetic 36,000 vibrations per hour – double the industry norm – and delivered 1/10th-second accuracy. Complex and labour-intensive, it was shelved in 1975 as the ‘quartz crisis’ took hold. Zenith watchmaker Charles Vermot defied orders to destroy the tooling, hiding it in an attic. In 1983, demand from other watchmakers – notably Rolex – prompted its resurrection. The original El Primero movement today beats intricately in the ‘A384 Revival’ and the ‘A386’- inspired Chronomaster El Primero, both effectively reproductions of 1969 originals.