Do you remember the first watch that stopped you in your tracks? The one you saw in a store, on someone’s wrist or in a magazine that you knew – or at least hoped – would be yours someday. For me, it was a two-tone Santos de Cartier. My boss at a job in 8th grade had one and I fell in love with it on first sight. The more I learned about it, the more I wanted one. The history was fascinating and even though I didn’t know much about watches back then, I knew that the Santos was important. Iconic, actually.
The Santos was one of the watches that changed the world. It was designed by Louis Cartier for his pilot friend Alberto Santos-Dumont. When flying, Santos-Dumont said, his pocket watch was difficult to read and inconvenient to access. Cartier considered the problem and designed a watch that was highly legible and could be worn comfortably on the wrist. That watch, the first men’s wristwatch ever created, represents the origin of the Santos collection that’s been iterated dozens of times since. There’s another Santos-Dumont thread in Cartier’s history. The next generation of airplanes flown by Santos-Dumont carried the name Demoiselle, which Cartier used for its delicate 26mm ladies watch and the 30-unit limited edition La Demoiselle released in 2020.
Name any watch maker and chances are there is one watch that immediately comes to mind. An instantly recognizable watch that defines the brand. Something that’s classic, timeless and perfectly captures the spirit of the era it debuted. A watch so unique it stands that on its own even without mentioning the brand name. Here are a few of my picks.
I can imagine that polo is a pretty rough sport. Rough enough that I would probably leave my watch on the sidelines if I climbed onto the saddle. Not so for a group of polo players in the 1930s who wanted a watch that could withstand direct hits from a polo ball or mallet, or a collision with another player or horse. The solution designed by Jacques-David LeCoultre involved a reversible case that slid away from its frame and flipped over to hide the dial and expose the metal caseback. Jaeger LeCoultre patented the concept in 1931 and began producing the watch shortly thereafter. Over the years since, JLC has produced countless variants in different sizes and with various complications. The Duo, a travel watch with two faces, may be the most popular modern variant but the classic solid-caseback Monoface is still the brand’s signature.
While dive watches are ubiquitous, the Submariner transcends its brand and defines the entire category. The Sub hit its full production stride in 1954. Thanks to its Oyster case and Twinlock crown, it was the first dive watch capable of withstanding depths of 100 meters. Even though there have been updates to the design over the years – changes to the case size, the addition of crown guards, new materials, bezel improvements, date variants – today’s Submariner doesn’t differ that much from the original Reference 6204. Well, the price is a little different, especially with the current market for pre-owned Rolex Submariners. The original price for a Sub in 1954 was $150. That’s equivalent to about $1,600 now. Today, a used Rolex Submariner starts around $10,000 and goes up from there.
In the late 1960’s, watch manufacturers were in a race to develop an automatic chronograph. Zenith, Breitling, Seiko, Tag Heuer and others were all in pursuit of the “world’s first” title at a time when things like that really seemed to matter. Though the history doesn’t necessarily support it, popular opinion is that Heuer won the race when it released the Monaco in 1969. The Monaco was unique inside and out. Its square case was bold and completely different than anything else on the market. Instead of putting the crown in the usual 3 o’clock position, Heuer moved it to the other side to signal that the watch never needed to be wound. The Monaco wasn’t particularly successful in the early years, which is part of the reason it got a starring role in the film Le Mans on Steve McQueen’s wrist — Heuer had enough inventory on hand to supply three identical ref. 1133B watches to the producers on short notice. Today’s TAG Heuer Monaco is a nicely evolved take on the original. Its case is more refined, and it is now powered by an in-house movement but the watch is still unmistakable.
Part of what makes a watch iconic is the sense that it has been around forever. So you might be surprised to learn that the Bell & Ross BR-01 Instruments is less than 20 years old. The round-dial-in-a-square-case design of the original 2005 release was inspired by the dials and gauges found in aircraft cockpits. At 46mm, the BR-01 is big, and the combination of oversized numbers and exposed screws prominently placed at the four corners make it appear even more substantial, especially off wrist. When you strap it on, though, the watch manages to settle in comfortably. If the BR-01 is too big, though, you can get the same look in the more compact 42mm BR 03.
If you’re building a collection of icons, the five above would certainly fit nicely in your case. I still have room for the Santos in mine and am pretty sure there’s space for a few more, too. With that in mind, I’ll look at icons from IWC, Chopard, Audemars Piquet and a few other brands in the next installment.
Bobby Frank is a freelance writer and musician based in Nashville. He’s been an avid watch collector since discovering a sample case full of early digital watches at his father’s office in the late 1970s. Current favorites include the Tudor Black Bay Fifty-Eight, Zenith Chronomaster and Jaquet Droz Grande Seconde Skelet One. A timekeeper to his core, Bobby plays the drums in several bands that perform across the Southeast including Tennessee Dead, a Grateful Dead tribute band.
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