The genre of luxury steel watches has been seeing some real strong competition, especially in these last year. The category has been keenly contested in since it began life as the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Jumbo in 1972, but this last 12 months has seen the most intense growth in the landscape since. We pick six of our favourites.
Luxury Stainless Steel Sports Watches – a brief survey of the market
Perhaps the most illustrious designer in this genre is Gérald Genta. A design genius, Genta was the spark who started it all.
The Genta influence
To be sure, ever since the first Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Jumbo in 1972, the competitive landscape has been in contest. Even as early as 1976, the Royal Oak designer, the great Gerald Genta, went on to create the Nautilus, an arguably more iconic of the genre than the original.
Genta was also responsible for other designs like the IWC Ingenieur, the Bulgari Bulgari. And even earlier for the Omega Constellation and Universal Geneve SAS Polerouter. Not to mention the numerous collaborations with Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Chaumet, Hamilton, Seiko, Timex, etc.
He was a prodigious designer. And a genius at that. Much of his work have continued in collections after him.
The non-Genta designs
We also saw the Ebel Sport Classic with the magnificently designed integrated bracelet, introduced in 1977. It is possible that Pierre Alain Blum and designer Eddie Schopfer, prolific a designer as he may be, too were inspired By Genta. The exposed screws around the bezel on the Sport Classic is offered as evidence. So also was Carlo Crocco, who designed the original Hublot from 1980. Of course, although the case and bezel design obviously was inspired by the RO, it sported a rubber bracelet, perhaps the first use of this material as a strap. Even back then, “fusion” was a thing. Jean Claude Biver later made Hublot a household name with the Big Bang and other collections. Most of the current collection still remain cued by the elements of the early Crocco design, and hence traceable back to Genta.
But during the same time, others have also emerged. Jorg Hysek designed the Vacheron Constantin 222 which evolved into the Overseas, an unknown designer (that’s the official manufacture position the last time we asked Stefano Macaluso) who created the Girard-Perregaux Laureato was the other. The Laureato line continues to this day, with the the latest models – the Absolute Rock and the Sapphire Crystal having just been released.
Following suit is the Piaget Polo by Yves G. Piaget in 1979, though back then, it was made in gold instead of stainless steel – the new luxury metal initiated by AP. The new Polo S is now in Stainless Steel, but was only introduced in 2017. Even Chopard’s then young Karl-Friedrich Scheufele felt inspired enough to create the St. Moritz, recently revived by his son as the Alpine Eagle.
Later in the game, F. P. Journe introduced their SportLine watches in 2014, but these are in aluminium. Perhaps we also need to include the various Richard Milles, but typically RM watches march to the beat of their own drum – their use of exotic materials and top of the charts, out of the world pricing setting them in a class of their own.
And in the recent months, we have seen the likes of Laurent Ferrier with their Tourbillon Grande Sport and even A. Lange & Söhne got into the game with their oddly named Odysseus. We also saw Bell & Ross join the ranks at the lower end of the scale with the BR 05, and Greubel Forsey at the top of the heap with their GMT Sport (review soon!), which though It is the most expensive of all (US$ 400k+) is cased in titanium and does not even have a bracelet. As mentioned in last week’s Throwback, H.Moser will release a very nice SS luxury sports watch with integrated bracelet scheduled for January 2020.
Here is our selection of six of the best
We start at the begining with the roots – the Royal Oak is the mother of all Luxury Steel Sports watches with the 1972 Royal Oak, the 5402ST. The Ref. 15202ST is the current successor to the throne.
The case and bracelet is made within the Audemars Piguet premises in Les Brassus. Here is what we saw when we visited.
Our pick, however, is the the Royal Oak Jumbo Extra-Thin 15202IP, in a case and bracelet of platinum and titanium. The dimensions of the watch is almost exactly the same as the original and carries a retail price of USD 34,800 will be a boutique-only AND limited edition of 250 pieces. We understand the entire 250 watches have been sold out.
Gérald Genta, who designed the Royal Oak for Audemars Piguet, brought his sketch for the Nautilus to Patek Philippe in 1974. The unusual case shape was inspired by a ship’s porthole, with a rounded octagonal bezel and “ears” on the case for a hinge on one side and a closure on the other. Embossed horizontal grooves on the dial and the integrated metal bracelet added to the watch’s character and made it easy to recognize.
Since the early Nautilus Ref. 3700 appeared in 1976, two further generations have sprouted from Patek Philippe. The Ref. 3800 which followed in 1981, and the 5711 in 2006 followed. The family of watches under the Nautilus line was proliferated by Patek, springing complications from chronograph, to dual timezones to Annual Calendar versions. Our pick is the true to the original 5711 in SS. Current retail S$40,300, but good luck securing one.
The dial is as Genta had intended. Clean, clear. The bracelet is sleek, comfortable, and very beautiful.
The Overseas collection has grown up since it first saw light as the Ref. 222 in 1977, designed by Jorg Hysek in 1977 to celebrate VC’s 222th Anniversary, and intended to compete with Genta’s Royal Oak and Nautilus. The series is often erroneously attributed to Genta, but this is a true Hysek masterpiece. VC ran the 222 for only 500 pieces in stainless steel, 120 in stainless steel and gold and only 100 pieces in gold. The Overseas line only began in 1996, and revised in a new collection of 12 references in January 2016. The collection continued to grow since then.
Our pick is the Chronograph version with the blue lacquered dial which looks alluringly seductive. The design retains the old charm of the original VC 222, but appropriately updated. The very clever interchangable strap/bracelet system allows for 3 different looks for the watch, and indeed the steel version is delivered with all 3 attachments – stainless steel bracelet, crocodile strap and rubber strap.
Finishing is beyond reproach, with the new automatic in-house chronograph movement sporting a vertical clutch mechanism controlled by a very classical column wheel. Retail price S$ 44,500.
Next up, the Girard-Perregaux Laureato. The design inspiration came from a the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral in Florence. The design was based on the octagonal structure as support for the circular dome. This construction idea was used in the watch as an octagonal bezel “nested” inside of the round shape. The design was taken to the next level by the harmonious integration of the bracelet in the case, creating one complete, iconic and elegant piece. Interestingly, the case was not the only new development in this watch. The new quartz movement, back then just a few years old novelty in Switzerland, was redesigned to a compact, thinner version.
The design was revived 40 years later, with several models. Our pick is the latest update was made in November 2019, in their headquarters in La Chaux-de-Fonds. The chronograph model in a new novel case material – in Carbon Glass.
The brilliant, irregularly shaped flashes of blue within a black case makes it very attractive. On the touch, the surface is smooth, and feels very nice. The movement is in-house and speaks for its own technical merits in the smooth operations of the timekeeping as well as chronograph functions. Despite being 44mm in diameter, the Absolute Rock is comfortable in the way in which the watch wraps around the wrist on rubber straps and the buckle’s micro adjustment system. And the very reasonable retail price of S$ 23,300 makes for one very attractive proposition.
First designed by Karl-Friedrich Scheufele in 1980, Chopard’s first sports watch was the St. Moritz. It was then a calculated risk. At that time the Swiss industry was just about to pull itself out of the doldrums of the quartz crisis, and the majors like Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe was beginning to see success with their luxury sports steel watches – the now iconic Royal Oak and the Nautilus, both designed by the erstwhile Gerald Genta. The St. Moritz too followed in the path and was the maison’s best sellers for the next decade.
The Alpine Eagle in 42mm SS with the blue dial is our pick. It drew our admiration on three fronts. First, the use of a new steel – Lucent 233, which not only have superior technical properties (it is 50% harder than 316L), but also aesthetic (the crystalline structure creates a hue which is brighter and whiter than standard SS) and environmentally friendlier (70% of the steel used is recycled).
The design does not let it down either. The dial is very beautiful. As is the differential finish of alternate polish and brushed surfaces across the entire watch and bracelet makes for an aesthetic which is very pleasing. The new movement, developed for the collection too is impressive. At S$17,200, it is also very reasonably priced.
Last but not least is Lange’s entry. The new watch has no precedent history in Lange, having never produced a stainless steel watch in a series for sale. The only series production SS watch was the ill fated 1000 pieces made as “Not for Sale” service watches, while the other steel Langes were extremely rare and often one off pieces.
The strange name given to this new watch is unusual, to say the least. Lange have always named their collection in the typical Teutonic straightforward descriptive way (Lange 1, Langematic, Saxonia, 1815, Datograph, Zeitwerk, Turbograph et al), but the choice of a poetic, Greek name is perhaps oddly out of character. The watch, however is almost beyond reproach, though some might argue that the bracelet is ugly. But we think not. Truth be told, we did not take any special note of the bracelet until we processed the photograph (the one shown above is the most obvious). When we had the watch on our wrist, and wore it for the short while we had it with us, we felt nothing was amiss. But once one sees it, it cannot be unseen. The taper is a bit strange looking, and the lack of a shoulder makes the bracelet the critical focal point.
The watch: the case, the dial, the hands and movement is pure Lange. From the commanding retail price of S$40,700 to the magnificent build and superlatively beautiful finish. Totally within the DNA of the brand. Perhaps a bit too much so. Some renditions in cyberspace, replacing the bracelet for a regular Lange crocodile strap makes the Odysseus look almost like the Saxonia. Perhaps this is our beef with it. It is too little from what we have come to expect from Lange, making us question, wither the innovation?
So there you have it. Perhaps too long a essay on this very first world topic. We are keenly aware that many of the picks are high up in the grail scale, and unattainable for many, if not most, but that on its own does not make the watch less of a reference. Or less desirable for that matter.