Steel In The Game: How Luxury Sports Watches Are Pushing The Envelope
Two of the most iconic timepieces in existence came into being within a span of five years in the 1970s—the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and Patek Philippe’s Nautilus. Both were inspired by aquatic motifs: the former, vintage diving helmets; the latter, ships’ portholes. Both were the brainchildren of the late, great Gérald Genta, the most important watch designer of the 20th century. And pivotally, both featured integrated bracelets, eschewing the standard lug and springbar set-up affixing most watch straps, and instead seamlessly uniting case and bracelet.
They defined and dominated a new market sector occupied by high-priced, exquisitely crafted, sporty steel timepieces. As historian and head of complications at Audemars Piguet’s manufacturing facility, Michael Friedman researches the evolution of the watchmaker’s complex movements.
“The 1972 stainless-steel Royal Oak created an entirely new category. The luxury sports watch, which is thriving today and stronger than ever before,” he says. Friedman believes that the Royal Oak’s “design is immensely powerful and recognisable, and has become among the most iconic of all of Gérald Genta’s designs, which is why it remains relevant and contemporary even nearly 50 years after its premiere.”
Over the years, numerous competing integrated-bracelet watches have been launched, offering an array of alternatives for those lacking either the patience, funds or inclination to purchase a Nautilus or Royal Oak. The past 12 months have been especially action packed, with myriad new models introduced in the integrated-bracelet, luxury sports watch category.
H Moser & Cie’s Streamliner Flyback Chronograph Automatic is probably the most innovative among them. Moser CEO Edouard Meylan says the Streamliner is one of a kind thanks to its singular curvaceous design and its supreme ergonomics—“the integrated bracelet fits the largest as well as the smallest wrists like no other,” he says—and “the quality of the details, the perfect integration of the bracelet: these make the Streamliner unique, with a dial like no other’s, especially the colour”. He says the case and bracelet work so beautifully together because “We started with the bracelet and designed the model around it”, whereas generally the reverse is true, with the case taking precedence.
While the Streamliner draws its cues from aerodynamic 1930s locomotives, Chopard’s new Alpine Eagle is inspired by the eye of the great bird of prey its moniker references, and the active lifestyle enjoyed in the Swiss mountains. The BR05 from Bell & Ross, meanwhile, aims to satisfy the needs of the metropolitan adventurer. Boasting B&R’s signature aviation-inspired circle-within-a-square aesthetic, according to the company’s creative director Bruno Belamich the model possesses “a graphic style that is both striking and modern”.
Best of Both Worlds
The first serial-production steel watch from Germany’s A Lange & Söhne, whose timepieces are generally of a more formal nature, the Odysseus was created to allow Lange aficionados to sport their favourite marque while at play.
“Our customers would say to us, ‘I love Lange, but the problem is I can’t wear your watches during the most important time of the year, my holidays’—that’s what they wanted,” says Anthony de Haas, the company’s director of product development.
“So to fulfil those wishes, we knew certain things. We had to make a watch that was 120 metres water resistant, with a bracelet. Recognisable as a Lange, but new. Sporty, but it must be discreet, not bulky.” An integrated bracelet was chosen, de Haas says, because it “gives the watch a certain sense of strength, sturdiness, robustness, while remaining elegant.”
Bringing things full circle, Bulgari’s new Octo Finissimo Automatic Satin-polished Steel is the descendant of a watch designed by Gérald Genta and first issued via his eponymous manufacture, which was acquired and absorbed by Bulgari. Most models in the three-year-old Octo Finissimo line have been cast in avant-garde materials such as black carbon fibre and matt-grey sandblasted titanium.
This new iteration, says the director of Bulgari Watches’ Design Center, Fabrizio Buonamassa Stigliani, “has the potential to shake up the watch industry”. Its steel finishes, following the conventions of the most popular watches in the segment, make this “a watch that can attract the devotees of the luxury integrated-bracelet steel sports watch genre.”
In contrast to previous Octo Finissimos, “The new satin-polished finishing is more suited for an everyday watch, combined with the same slimline case and bracelet of the previous iterations,” says Buonamassa Stigliani. Indeed, powered by the super-slender BVL 138 Finissimo Automatic calibre (just 2.23mm thick), there’s no thinner time-only automatic watch on the market. With this fresh Finissimo priced favourably compared to its legacy Genta-designed brethren, competition in the luxury steel sports watch category just got a lot hotter.
See also: 5 Luxury Watch Brands Are Developing Precious Metal Alloys To Make Exquisite Timepieces