These are the watches that created shock and surprise, as well as countless news headlines, and had a lasting effect on the way we perceive watches.
To achieve their legendary status, they broke the rules or proved that the seemingly impossible was not only possible, but commercially viable. Each one of them is a victory of confidence and belief over the apathy, mistrust and mindset of the majority.
Blancpain Moonphase and Perpetual Calendar: The watch that defied the quartz crisis
The wonder about this watch is not so much in the complications themselves but the fact it was made at all. When Jean Claude Biver launched the watch in 1983 it was at the height of the so-called quartz crisis when every other manufacturer in town was desperately trying to create low cost quartz watches. Having acquired the Blancpain brand and sticking steadfastly to Swiss watchmaking traditions, Biver defied all logical wisdom at the time to create an entirely mechanical, vintage looking watch. The slogan used to introduce the watch became famous within the industry: “Since 1735, there has never been a quartz Blancpain watch. And there never will be.”
Rolex Oyster: The watch that made Rolex famous
A direct forebear to the famous Rolex Submariner, the Rolex Oyster led the way in being the first watch to be called a‘waterproof’ watch. As much a marketing wizard as a watch visionary, Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf managed to attract front page headlines for the Rolex Oyster watch when typist and amateur English channel swimmer Mercedes Gleitze attempted to swim the channel for the second time on October 21 1927. She wore a Rolex Oyster around her neck attached by a necklace. After the swim she wrote this testimonial:
“You will like to hear that the Rolex Oyster watch I carried on my Channel swim proved itself a reliable and accurate timekeeping companion even though it was subjected to complete immersion for hours in sea water at a temp of not more than 58 and often as low as 51. This is to say nothing about the sustained buffeting it must have received.
Rolex took out full front-page advertisements, and the swim, even though unsucessful, made Rolex famous. The press dubbed the Rolex Oyster watch as “the wonder watch that defies all the elements.”
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak: The watch that redefined the sports watch overnight
According to Gerald Genta, the Royal Oak was conceived overnight. He presented his design for the Royal Oak to Audemars Piguet in 1970 having taken his inspiration from a diver wearing an old-fashioned helmet attached to his suit by eight screws. This translated into the design of the watch, which to this day still features an octagonal shape with eight screws on the bezel. The watch caused shock, horror and consternation when it was first launched. The visible screws on the bezel were viewed as ugly, and it was a luxury watch made for the first time from stainless steel. It changed the way luxury watches were designed, literally overnight.
Breguet No 169: The watch that defied gravity
The legendary Abraham-Louis Breguet based his work on the observation that gravity is the enemy of the regularity of horological movements, creating variations in timing adjustment with each change of position of a watch when worn.
To solve this problem of gravity he had the idea of installing the entire escapement (meaning the balance and spring, the lever and the escape-wheel, the parts the most sensitive to gravity) inside a mobile carriage that performs a complete rotation each minute. Thus, since all the flaws are regularly repeated, they are engaged in a process of mutual compensation.
Even though watchmaking has considerably improved the reliability and regularity of watches over the last century, the Tourbillon, patented in 1801, remains a wonder creation in Breguet’s stellar career. Right up to today, any manufacturer worthy of the name has at least one tourbillon wristwatch in its collection.
Omega De Ville Co-Axial: The watch that broke the stranglehold of the lever escapement
There are many that consider the co-axial escapement to be the most significant breakthrough in watchmaking in over 200 years. Yet it took George Daniels, its inventor, over 20 years to convince anyone to incorporate it into their watches. Developed in 1974 and patented in 1980, it wasn’t until 1999 that Omega showed a new generation of watch enthusiasts, and watchmakers the virtual elimination of the sliding friction component; i.e., the sliding of the pallet stones over the teeth of the escape wheel. Not bad for a lad who started out by selling mattresses by day and attending watchmaking classes by night.
Seiko Astron: The watch that nearly destroyed the Swiss watch industry
Launched on Christmas Day 1969, the Seiko Astron was the first commercially available quartz wrist watch, and its impact was to cause near devastation for the Swiss watch industry. Astron was the watch heard around the watch world, triggering chaos and devastation to the traditional mechanically based Swiss watch industry. The Far East swamped the world with affordable, reliable quartz watches and toppled Switzerland as the world’s watch production leader. The Swiss watch industry was in crisis from 1970 and until the mid-80s, during which time employment fell from 90,000 to 28,000. There was not a single Swiss family involved in the watch industry that was not affected.
Swatch Watch: The watch that saved the Swiss watch industry
In dire need of an answer to the Far East quartz invasion, in 1983 Nicholas Hayek, Chairman of what was to become the mighty Swatch Group, launched the affordable, brightly colored, instantly likeable and collectible Swatch watch. It brought a desperately needed financial shot in the arm to the fortunes of the beleaguered Swiss watch industry. Swatch proved an instant hit with the younger generation with some enthusiasts wearing two on each wrist. To this day, limited edition Swatch watches are still snapped up superfast by collectors.