Last time, we looked at five iconic watches – the Cartier Santos, JLC Reverso, TAG Heuer Monaco, and the Submariner. Each of these is instantly recognizable and they all occupy hallowed ground in their respective brand catalogs. There are some firsts among these five – the first men’s wristwatch, the first automatic chronograph, or depending on your interpretation of the historical record, the first one that was square – and one, the Sub, that defines the entire dive watch category. Let’s add a few more icons to the list by looking at a selection from IWC, Chopard, Audemars Piguet and Panerai.
Though the IWC Big Pilot turns a surprisingly young 20 this year, it is based on the 1940 classic IWC B-Uhr that helped define the pilot watch category. Back then, the only people who wore pilot’s watches were, well, pilots. They were tool watches with very specific specs for aviators – oversized dials to provide good legibility in all conditions, big crowns for easy adjustment even with gloves on, a rotating bezel to track flight time, hacking for precision timekeeping, a generous power reserve for reliable operation and superior resistance to shock, magnetism and temperature extremes. Since pilots often wore them over the sleeves of a flight jacket, watches like the B-Uhr usually had a long leather strap with prominent rivets that provided a visual indication that the strap was securely attached. The modern iterations of the Big Pilot are true to the original’s form and function but in a more contemporary, wearable package. The 2021 version comes in at 43mm, 3mm smaller than the ones that came before, and it’s also thinner. The crown retains the same prominence despite its slightly reduced size and a riveted leather strap remains standard. Unlike the B-Uhr and previous IWC Big Pilot watches, this one has a quick-change strap that’s easily replaced with a bracelet.
The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak was the first stainless steel luxury sports watch. The watch debuted in 1972 with a design inspired by the deep-sea diving helmets designer Gerald Genta saw on divers working on a dam in Geneva. The brass helmets had an octagonal shape and prominent rivets to hold their facemasks in place. AP named the watch after the British Royal Navy’s HMS Royal Oak ships. The last of the 8 ships that carried the name over the better part of 3 centuries had octagonal portholes.
The first AP Royal Oaks were priced around $3,000, which seemed like an outrageous amount for a stainless steel watch. Since then, though, it has become the iconic model for AP and one of the most collectable timepieces in the world. Every Royal Oak has several signature elements including the octagonal bezel with 8 hexagonal screws, Tapisserie dial and mix of satin and polished surfaces in a thin, comfortable case. Modern Royal Oaks can be had with a variety of complications including the bold pre-owned Royal Oak Offshore automatic chronograph in rose gold.
There is nothing else like Chopard’s Happy Diamonds collection. Each piece features free-floating diamonds sheathed in gold that glide around watch dials and jewelry with every movement. The concept originated in 1976 and was named Happy Diamonds after Chopard’s co-owner Karin Scheufele remarked upon seeing the first completed watch that “diamonds are happier when they are free.” Her statement was inspired by the watch, but it also reflected the wave of women’s rights victories that were occurring in Europe and the US.
The spark for Chopard’s iconic design came from water droplets glistening in the sun, which designer Ronald Kurowski recreated by sandwiching diamonds between two sapphire crystals. Since Chopard is equal parts extraordinary watchmaker and high jeweler, every piece is a perfect fusion of the two arts. So, while the playful energy of a Happy Diamonds watch is amplified by the motion of the diamonds, underneath there’s also an exquisite timepiece. A wide selection of Happy Diamonds watches and jewelry is available in store including the stainless steel Happy Sport collection.
Panerai has a long history that dates back to 1860 when Giovanni Panerai started the company. His grandson Guido took over the business after the turn of the century and began building instruments and watches for the Italian Royal Navy. Panerai’s creations had highly legible displays that glowed in the dark thanks to a luminous substance it created and patented in 1916 called Radiomir. Radiomir was radioactive, which may have caused more than just its watch dials to glow. In 1949, the company created a new lume treatment called Luminor. Instead of using highly radioactive radium, Luminor got its glow from tritium, another radioactive substance that’s only harmful if its inhaled or ingested.
Since the original Radiomir and Luminor watches were produced under classified government contracts, Panerai didn’t produce any consumer-targeted products until 1993. That year, it debuted the Luminor, a 44mm watch based on the design of the military watches it had been producing for decades. The signature crown guard gave the watch a unique appearance and also made it appear even larger on the wrist. After Sylvester Stallone became a fan a couple years later, it quickly became a success and so began the Luminor’s ascension to icon status. Panerai produces several Luminor variants including the hand-wound titanium California ref. PAM00779 with a brown leather strap and combination of Roman and Arabic numerals on the dial.
There are other watches with names like Carrera, Daytona, Calatrava, Speedmaster, Seamaster, Navitimer and Chronomaster that belong in the icon category. Look for the stories about those great watches and others in the future.
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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