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20th Anniversary
Luxury Sports - The triumph of the luxury sports watch: Part 1

Luxury Sports The triumph of the luxury sports watch: Part 1

In the space of 20 years, the sporty chic watch has gone from major-league to top-tier, condensing and assimilating all the major trends in watchmaking to become the strongest, most enduring and most attractive segment*

If one were to single out a category that has benefited above all others from the watchmaking boom of the 2000s, it would be the luxury sports watch. With prices ranging from the lower reaches for high-end watches to the very top, sports watches are both casual and tough, and come on comfortable, sturdy straps /bracelets featuring no-nonsense colours and designs. They are supremely versatile: able to be worn anytime, anywhere, without compromising the fundamental values of style and uniqueness. They have seen a merger of almost all the structural determinants shaping contemporary watchmaking: higher prices, a greater variety of colours and materials, a blend of registers, the end of the gender barrier, and a fascination with complications, to name but a few. No other type of watch has seen such robust growth, been the subject of such intense interest, or experienced such a thorough revival.

La consécration de la montre sport

Grand Prix de Monaco Historique Chrono © Chopard

These timepieces have benefited from a gradual blurring of styles and categories – and succeeded in breaking free from their original definition in the process. By appropriating every available material, from the most precious to the most high-tech, they have extended their territory. Borne on the winds of a broad and constant trend in fashion towards less formal dress, they can now be worn on all occasions. Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine the howls of protest from all manner of purists when, for the first time, a fashion shoot featured a man dressed in a dinner jacket with a diving watch on his wrist, signalling that these two registers had at last become compatible.

La consécration de la montre sport

Marine Tourbillon Chronographe 5837 © Breguet

Roots

By the end of the 2010s, the phenomenon had become so pervasive that luxury watches made from steel – especially if they were mounted on a steel bracelet – had become the most desirable timepieces in existence, giving rise to speculation on a dozen or so models by Rolex, Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet and Richard Mille that bordered on the ridiculous.

La consécration de la montre sport

RM11-03 © Richard Mille

The changes that resulted in these historic hysterics began in the late 1990s, a time when a few brands already bore within them the seeds of the success that was to eclipse so many other varieties of the high-end watch offering. Some even say the story goes back to the 1970s, when Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet launched the Nautilus and the Royal Oak respectively. That is something of an anachronism, however, as those watches actually took some time to become as successful as they are today. And besides, the real roots of luxury sports watches go even further back: the 1920s military watch, followed by the first watches for leisure (in particular for horse-riding) in the 1930s, and later the pilot’s watches of the 1940s.

La consécration de la montre sport

Nautilus Quantième Perpétuel réf. 5740/1G © Patek Philippe

From these three genres, the smart sports watch of the 1950s borrowed the sturdiness, large diameters, and straightforward approach to watchmaking (with its attendant durability), thus establishing a place for itself on the wrists of racing drivers. What the Nautilus and Royal Oak did do in the 1970s was shatter the prevailing norms in luxury, going on sale for higher prices than gold watches with similar capabilities.

La consécration de la montre sport

Royal Oak Tourbillon Extra-Plat Squelette © Audemars Piguet

The next stage, in the 1980s, was when two-tone watches featuring metal bracelets became all the rage, embodied first and foremost by the huge success of the Rolex Datejust (for men) and the Ebel Classic Wave (for women) – a trend that marked a new era for the category.

The final piece in this historic jigsaw puzzle was to be the increasing use (in ever-more expensive watches) of ‘noble’ plastic straps. These began to dispel prejudices about the material, and played an essential role in the 2000s. Contributions in the form of the early generations of Hublots, as well as from TechnoMarine, were decisive in this respect. nical watches, chunky and boasting advanced functionalities; and everything else, which by default fell into the ‘luxury sports watch’ category – actually the lion’s share. This excluded watches designed as a demonstration of virile strength, housed in a 44mm diameter titanium or carbon case, and capable of withstanding great depths. But while that might rule out certain dive watches, it did also leave the door open to some other underwater-type pieces, not least the Tudor Black Bay – one of the most striking successes of the second decade of this century.

Stars

Most of the models that are described (sometimes rather too readily) as icons belong to this category, and the explanation is quite simple: many now successful watches are in fact legacy creations that have undergone one update after another, or made a glorious comeback. Firmly rooted in the collective imagination, and having stood the test of time, they endure all the more easily in that they are suitable for wearing on all occasions and transcend the whims of fashion. Such pieces include the Rolex Submariner, the TAG Heuer Carrera, the Vacheron Constantin Overseas, the Omega Speedmaster Professionals, the Chopard Mille Miglias, Cartier’s Santos, Piaget’s Polos, the Bulgari Octo, and the stylish Panerais.

La consécration de la montre sport

Oyster Perpetual Submariner © Rolex

As is the case with many trends in today’s watchmaking, the contemporary definition of the luxury sports watch is the result of sub-segmentation. As they became more sophisticated, drawing inspiration from every imaginable field and technical register, luxury sports watches split into several categories, each with a life of its own: vintage sports watches, featuring deliberately dated designs; ultra-technical watches, chunky and boasting advanced functionalities; and everything else, which by default fell into the ‘luxury sports watch’ category – actually the lion’s share.

La consécration de la montre sport

Octo Finissimo Chronographe GMT © Bulgari

This excluded watches designed as a demonstration of virile strength, housed in a 44mm diameter titanium or carbon case, and capable of withstanding great depths. But while that might rule out certain dive watches, it did also leave the door open to some other underwater-type pieces, not least the Tudor Black Bay – one of the most striking successes of the second decade of this century.

*On the occasion of GMT Magazine and WorldTempus' 20th anniversary, we have embarked on the ambitious project of summarising the last 20 years in watchmaking in The Millennium Watch Book, a big, beautifully laid out coffee table book. This article is an extract. The Millennium Watch Book is available on www.the-watch-book.com, in French and English, with a 10% discount if you use the following code: WT2021.1.

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