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Luxury Sports - The triumph of the luxury sports watch: Part 2

Luxury Sports The triumph of the luxury sports watch: Part 2

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*

The development of steel and rubber wristbands, the no-nonsense look of tool watches, the extension of gold into the sports register, and above all the advent of new, high-price brackets for the heavyweights in the sector have made it the watch for the 21st century

Materials

The luxury sports watch is usually made of steel. Indeed, this metal is so common in the category that it virtually defines it. Its excellent combination of robustness, understatement, weight, and cost makes it naturally versatile, and that is precisely what is expected of such watches. When it comes to metal bracelets in particular, no other material has been found to be as suitable. Apart from anything else, a steel bracelet is a major part of a watch’s identity. It’s also waterproof, sweat-proof, heat-proof, wear-proof, cold-proof, and sand-proof, and remains comfortable in all circumstances, especially if it has been designed to be flexible. Titanium, with an appearance similar to steel, has also won its spurs over time, and managed to break away from its high-tech stereotype. It too has become almost standard fare in the segment. Meanwhile, precious metals have done the most to disrupt the very nature of the luxury sports watch. By definition, practising sport wearing a gold or platinum watch is an aberration. Such watches would be too heavy, too scratch-prone, and too expensive; the kind of item you seek to protect at all costs. But paradoxically enough, sports watches aren’t actually designed for an intense sports experience; at the very most, they are geared to sport or physical exercise that doesn’t call for lots of energetic leaping around. As a result, Rolex saw a resurgence of white gold Submariners, rose gold Daytona chronographs, and a new Yacht-Master II made entirely of white gold. Breguet produced variations on the Marine model in white gold, while Vacheron Constantin came up with two generations of the Overseas in rose gold. Similar examples abound; after all, look, feel, and design are of prime importance in the relationship that develops between an individual and their watch. That helps explain why Audemars Piguet still has a Royal Oak Offshore in its catalogue that features a solid platinum case and bracelet – and weighs in at almost 450 grammes.

La consécration de la montre sport

Polo S Bucherer Blue Edition © Piaget

Hyper-Funcionality

Sports watches are, in principle, devoid of all but the most standard complications – chronograph and GMT functions are its natural allies. That said, measurement of short time spans is of course inextricably interwoven with the sports watch ethos, and the latter has set about doing the former due justice. The result is a plethora of mono-pusher, double-pusher, flyback and even split-second chronographs. The latter complication is extremely sophisticated and complex; the fact that it has found a place in this category shows how open-ended the definition of a sports watch has become – or been forced to become. Indeed, the last two decades have seen the arrival of scores of new tourbillons, perpetual calendars, and other refined complications in cases from which they had long been barred. Echoing the trend for precious metals, highly sophisticated watchmaking applications have been borne in on the wave of fashion.

The triumph of the luxury sports watch

Mille Miglia Classic Chronograph Zagato 100th Anniversary Edition © Chopard

There had been some forerunners, such as Royal Oaks sporting perpetual calendars back in the 1980s (albeit in gold), but these were as yet exceptions, becoming widespread only 20 years later. As for the tourbillon, it was to prove so ubiquitous, so magnetically attractive, that it became unthinkable for a highly-prized watchmaking category to be bereft of it. And so it was that at the turn of the millennium, Hublot’s Big Bang Chronograph Tourbillon and Blancpain’s Fifty Fathoms Tourbillon Huit Jours saw the light of day.

La consécration de la montre sport

Big Bang Tourbillon 5-Day Power Reserve Indicator © Hublot

Even ultra-slim movements got in on the act, witness the iconic Finissimo versions of the Octo produced by Bulgari. With a thickness of 5.15mm for the sporty version and 6.90mm for the chronograph derivative, the concept demonstrated that what had previously been a contradiction in terms could become a commercial success within the space of ten years.

La consécration de la montre sport

Carrera Automatic Chronograph © TAG Heuer

Game-Changers

Over and above these emblematic examples, illustrative first and foremost of 20 years’ worth of changing tides in functions and wearing trends, four brands have made a particularly lasting mark on the luxury sports watch. Each in their own way has established (or indeed, created) the environment that has fuelled the success of this category. Rolex, leading the field in watches by a long way and for a long time now, has built its success entirely around the sports watch. Alongside virtually unswerving devotion to metal bracelets, Rolex has produced almost all its models in versions with a range of huge, gold dials – often before offering steel ones. Indeed, it’s thanks to Rolex that the idea of sport and luxury going together became firmly established in the collective imagination. Richard Mille also played a decisive role in breaking down barriers. His titanium split-second chronograph tourbillon went on sale for 40% more than a Patek Philippe Grand Complication model! Featuring carbon, ceramic, and sapphire cases, the brand has turned high-tech into luxury – and transformed luxury into hyper-luxury, with astronomical prices to match. Panerai, meanwhile, succeeded in imposing such a distinctive vintage design that most of its buyers did not even realise they were purchasing a historic style.

The triumph of the luxury sports watch

Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe © Blancpain

By making this old-school approach commonplace and seamlessly blending it into the contemporary landscape, Panerai legitimised the entire neo-vintage register and made the past an established source of credibility – as well as creating considerable demand for its outsize creations. Last but by no means least, Audemars Piguet capitalised on the macho ingredient of the luxury sports style.

The triumph of the luxury sports watch

Speedmaster Moonwatch 321 Platinum © Omega

The Royal Oak may enjoy the limelight today, but when the Le Brassus-based brand launched its Offshore version in 1993, it marked a huge change for men’s watches. Thicker, larger, stronger, more muscular, and more exuberant than the rest, the Offshore broke the taboo that had formerly held men back from wearing really imposing, virtually armoured watches. At the end of the day, the luxury sports watch achieved such a commanding position by being the first to promote the idea of owners as active individuals, ready to face anything life could throw at them, whose faithful companion was a watch they didn’t need to worry about, however high (or even exorbitant) its price; a watch that was versatile, robust – and flattering. What better basis for success could there be?

*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.

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