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Luxury Watches: The Old Classics

Q Report Team
Updated on October 06, 2022
7 min read

Wearing a luxury watch demonstrates respect for the past and a nod to the technological innovations that stepped humanity toward navigation, deep-sea exploration, aviation and even space travel.

Many brands have kept tradition alive by centring their collections around classic models. Take Rolex, for example. Instead of introducing a new model every few years, Rolex continues to improve on its core collection. Datejust and Submariner watches have been around for generations, and they’ll continue to inspire horologists of the future.

In this article, we’ll look at the old classics, those models that left a lasting impression on the world. Every watch in this list has historical roots and is still produced today. 

Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso

Ninety years have passed since the rectangular reversible timepiece debuted. What makes the Reverso unique, even today, is its ability to transform. How did the idea come about?

César de Trey, an associate of Swiss watchmaker Antoine LeCoultre, travelled to India and attended a polo match at a British army officers’ club. While there, he spoke with an officer whose watch had broken during a recent game. A swinging polo mallet had smashed the fragile dials and glass crystal of his timepiece, and he challenged De Trey to solve the problem.

When De Trey returned to Europe, he tapped French designer René-Alfred Chauvot to engineer an innovative watch case. He wanted polo players to be able to slide the watch face and flip it over during athletic events, leaving only the solid metal case-back exposed. The name “Reverso” means “I turn around” in Latin, and the timepieces became opportunities for self-expression. Amelia Earhart and King Edward VIII, among many others, owned personalised Reversos.

Although initially intended for practical purposes, JLC has elevated the Reverso to the levels of haute horology. Beginning in the 90s, Reversos started featuring beautifully finished movements and unexpected complications. Today’s Reversos come in a stunning array of precious metals, artful complications and elegant straps.

Rolex Submariner

In the early 1950s, a passionate diver called René-Paul Jeanneret sat on Rolex’s board of directors. A friend of the legendary Jacques-Yves Cousteau, Jeanneret thought there was a market for a diving watch marketed to the general public. 

Scuba diving was new in the 1950s, and divers relied heavily on their watches to know how long they could stay at specific depths. Jeanneret sought Cousteau’s advice on creating a professional diver’s watch that met all essential specifications, and the Submariner was born.

Rolex planned a spectacular debut for the Submariner In September 1953. Auguste Piccard dove 3131,8 meters with his Bathyscape deep-diving submarine. Rolex had affixed a timepiece (with its logo and luminous dial clearly visible) to the vessel’s hull. When the Bathyscape emerged from the water, the Rolex was still functioning correctly.

With such a dramatic debut, it’s no surprise that when Rolex began selling its Submariner model to the public in 1954, it attained cult status almost immediately. The model still holds its place as Rolex’s most popular. It’s durable and legible, and its perennially classic design continues to delight new generations.

Rolex has made dozens of changes to the Submariner over the years, from redesigning the bezel and hands to widening the case lugs. Today, you can get a luminescent Chromalight display and choose between Oystersteel and 18-carat yellow gold.

Omega Speedmaster

The Omega Speedmaster was not just the first modern chronograph ever built. It was also the first timepiece worn by an astronaut during the Apollo 11 space flight, and it assisted in the historic failed Apollo 13 lunar mission. Even now, the Speedmaster Professional remains one of a handful of watches qualified by NASA for spaceflight.

With its historical association with space flight, you’d think the Omega Speedmaster was initially designed for extraterrestrial use. But it wasn’t. Earlier Omega models from the 1920s and 30s paved the way for a high-performance sport and racing chronograph: the Speedmaster. During the 40s and 50s, Omega perfected its chronograph, setting the standard for the modern-day chronograph dial in general, including the hallmark 12-hour, triple register layout. 

So yes, Omega set out to create a reliable and durable timepiece for racing, but they had no intention of building a watch designed for space travel. In 1962, however, Wally Schirra took his personal Omega aboard the Mercury-Atlas 8 mission. Afterwards, Breitling, Rolex and Omega all vied for acceptance into the NASA program, and Omega came out on top.

Intended for a lunar landing, Apollo 13 began running dangerously low on fuel and power following an oxygen tank explosion. The crew used the moon’s gravitational pull to slingshot them around and establish a trajectory toward earth. The astronauts used an Omega Speedmaster to time the final 14-second burn to return safely home. Later on, NASA awarded the timepiece the Silver Snoopy Award.

Today, space fans can own an Omega Speedmaster in various designs, from classic heritage models to the new “Dark Side of the Moon” chronographs in black ceramic.

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Audemars Piguet Royal Oak

The early seventies were a dire time for Swiss watch manufacturers. A disruptive innovation from Japan, quartz technology, was shuttering watchmakers right and left. At Audemars Piguet, the management decided they need to introduce something entirely new to revive sales and give the company new life.

At 4:00 pm on the day before the 1971 Basel fair, Audemar Piguet’s director, Georges Golay, reached out to designer Gerald Genta, explaining that he needed a design for an “unprecedented steel watch” by the following morning. Golay explained it should be a sports watch for all occasions with the most gorgeous finishes ever seen.

Burning the midnight oil, Genta designed the timepiece that would become the Royal Oak. Later, he stated it was the masterpiece of his entire career. Coincidentally, Genta also designed Patek Philippe’s Nautilus, which debuted in 1976.

It’s easy to spot a Royal Oak with its octagonal-shaped bezel secured by visible gold screws. Inspired by a traditional diver’s helmet, the watch is slim at 7 mm, and it has an integrated stainless steel bracelet.

With the Royal Oak, Audemars Piguet accomplished what it set out to achieve. It created a new archetype, the luxury steel sports watch. Not only did it keep the company in business, but it set a standard for all the luxury sports watches that would follow. 

Tag Heuer Monaco

Although Tag Heuer has been around since the 1860s, it really started to make waves at the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1916, the company created the Mikrograph, the world’s first stopwatch with a precision of 1/100 seconds. And many Olympic Games and other sporting events relied on Heuer’s pocket chronographs as official stopwatches.

The company already enjoyed a sporty image when it debuted its iconic Monaco timepiece in 1969. The original square-faced Monaco resulted from a unique collaboration between Jack William Heuer (great-grandson of the company founder), Buren (a master of thin, automatic movements), Dubois Depraz (an expert in developing chronograph modules and complications) and Breitling, which shared funding for the project. In short, expertise in several areas came together to produce one iconic watch.

Its precision and movement are impeccable, but its aesthetics are legendary. With its square case, metallic blue dial and domed plastic crystal, it’s a stunner indeed. You can catch a glimpse of the Monaco on Steve McQueen’s wrist in the 1971 film Le Mans. The very same watch was auctioned in July 2012 for a whopping US$ 650,000 (US$ 799,500 if you include the buyer’s premium).

Tag Heuer hasn’t produced the Monaco continuously since its initial release. The company discontinued it after a few years and then issued a McQueen redesign in 1988. Heuer relaunched the Monaco in 2003, and today it’s presented in various colours, styles and special editions.

Cartier Santos

It was 1904, and Brazilian aviator Alberto Santo-Dumont needed to tell the time in flight. Gentlemen used pocket watches, but it wouldn’t be safe to take a hand off the flight instruments to access a timepiece. So Santos-Dumont contacted his friend Louis Cartier and explained his predicament. 

Cartier came up with an ingenious design, which many claim to be the first purpose-driven wristwatch. 

Alberto Santos-Dumont’s wristwatch served him well and became the model for Cartier’s 1911 Cartier Santos. Not only was the timepiece the world’s first “pilot’s watch,” but it also became a model of relaxed elegance, which still looks effortlessly stylish today with its rounded square case and blackened Roman numerals.

The Cartier Santos has changed over the years. In 1978, Cartier produced a Santos with a gold and steel bracelet. Today, the Cartier Santos luxury brand watch models are available in various case materials with a wide array of bracelet styles. The design is over a hundred years old, but Cartier continues to innovate. For instance, today’s iterations feature a robust sapphire crystal, which affords an extended bezel. Another point of difference is the inclusion of the in-house movement, Calibre 1847, which was first introduced in the Clé De Cartier collection of 2015.

Breitling Navitimer

In 1934, Willy Breitling, the grandson of company founder and namesake Léon Breitling, filed a patent for a new type of chronograph. Just 21 years old at the time, Willy Breitling conceived a chronograph that used two separate pushers: one to start and stop the device and another to reset it. If you’ve used a chronograph, you might be surprised that these timepieces didn’t always have the two-button configuration, especially since the chronometer was invented in 1816!

A single pusher managed three functions (cycling through them one at a time). But this format meant that once the chronograph was stopped, it couldn’t be restarted from the same position. Breitling’s two-pusher setup was ideal for aviators, and his timing couldn’t have been better. The Royal Air Force ordered many of his timepieces for pilots serving in World War II, and in 1940, Breitling received a patent for its new watch, the Chronomat. It featured a rotating slide rule bezel, which allowed the wearer to perform mathematical calculations quickly.

Combining the words “navigation” and “timer,” the Breitling chronograph helped pilots calculate distance travelled as they fought in the war. In 1952, Breitling produced a version of the watch that featured a hand-wound column wheel movement. And in 1962, a slightly modified Navitimer was explicitly designed for space travel. Called the Navitimer Cosmonaute, it was worn by Lt. Command Scott Carpenter when he completed three Earth orbits.

Although you probably don’t need to make complicated calculations on the fly, the Navitimer gives you the option. And today’s versions run the gamut, from stainless steel cases with a leather strap to 1959 replicas in platinum

When you add one of the Old Classics to your luxury watch collection, insure it with Q Report watch insurance. You can wear it with confidence and ease, knowing that if anything happens to it, you can return to your favourite watch boutique for repairs or replacement. Questions? Reach out to us at 1300 882 018 or get an instant quote.

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