Ambassadors of Time

As someone passionately involved with vintage watches every day, I have often been asked the question: “What is it that makes a watch truly iconic?”

 The truth is that there is no simple answer to that question. Generally speaking, if something is “iconic” it needs no introduction – it speaks for itself, and represents something bigger and something enduring. Of course, the horological world is a surprising one, and there are many exceptions to the rules.

 If you’re looking for a short answer, you might say that if you don’t need to mention the brand name before the model, then it’s an iconic watch. Some examples are the Speedmaster, the Royal Oak, and The Daytona. Of course, there’s a lot more to it than that, and I would like to take this opportunity to review some of the most iconic watches and some of their most recognizable and memorable features in this article.

The test of time

One of the things that define a timepiece as iconic is that it is still well-known many years after its original introduction. A watch passed on from generation to generation, and which still functions perfectly, and is still desirable to wear, would certainly fit the bill.

This angle is actually used by Patek Philippe, in advertising their, which reads in part: “You never actually own a Patek Philippe, you merely hold it for the next generation.”

In my opinion, the simplicity and elegance of the Calatrava is a good example of longevity and durability. It has been copied by many watchmakers, but that only makes the original so much more appealing to me.

A good back-story

Some of the most memorable watches are the ones involved in the events and the people that shaped history. Watches involved in a good story tend to stand out, and they are remembered in popular culture. The first watch on the moon (Omega Speedmaster), the first water resistant watch (Oyster), or a watch that was worn by famous world leaders (such as the Rolex ‘Presidents Watch’) are all examples of this.               

 Many timepieces become iconic because of their place on the silver screen. Who can forget the debonair Sean Connery with the unmistakable Rolex Oyster on his wrist, as James Bond?  Steve McQueen made the Tag Heuer Monaco famous in the movie ‘Le Mans’. The distinctive square case of the watch on the wrist of the dashing hero left a mark on the minds and hearts of many people and ensured that the Tag Heuer would not be easily forgotten. The trend continues today. When Angelina Jolie appears with a Cartier Tank (another icon) on her wrist, you can be sure that its popularity will increase. I might add that I don’t know which of the two I prefer – but I’m leaning towards the watch! The old saying goes: “It’s not so much what you know but who you know,” and this is true when it comes to wristwatches too. Famous watches are sometimes famous simply because of who displayed it on their wrist.

It was manufactured for the first time in 1932, as the reference 96, and the design has changed very little down to the present. Today the case diameter is a little bigger, reflecting the growing popularity of bigger watches, and the movement has been replaced with the self-winding caliber 324SC, but the design is almost identical to the original. Everything is clean and simple, elegant and refined. In my opinion, the Bauhaus style design will still be appealing many years from now.

Sometimes it is innovation and quirkiness that make a watch unique. The Jaeger-Lecoultre Reverso is a great example. The story goes that British officers stationed in India were upset when one of their wristwatches suffered damage during a Polo match, and this led to the idea to create a fashionable watch that could be protected from shock – thus the Reverso was conceived. The square art-deco design helped establish this model as a lasting – and practical – legend in its own right. In the regular position, the artistic dial can be seen, but the entire case can be flipped, providing a tough steel back that can take a knock while playing Polo.

Good Investment Value

Another important aspect in the reputation of a timepiece is its resale value.  In the years that I have been an enthusiast, I have noticed the top ten brands in terms of resale value have remained quite constant. Rolex, Omega, and Patek Philippe, not surprisingly, are always on the list, but once again there are always exceptions to the rule.

In an article in Forbes magazine, Ariel Adams listed some of the top brands, in terms of resale, and it was interesting to note that a number of smaller manufacturers also have a sizeable niche following. These include A. Lange & Söhne and Glashütte Original. According to Ariel: “Like the more popular brands, these have a rich history and a wide group of collectors.”

I find it interesting that watches made from steel often sell for much higher than gold or silver. It all depends on the model’s scarcity and the demand. Models like the Patek Philippe Nautilus, in stainless steel, as well as the Rolex Daytona in black steel, are quite hard to find, and this makes their resale value increase. There are long waiting lists for many of these models, and it might take up to a year to get a particular Rolex sports model, for example.

The market value of a timepiece is driven by the market, rather than the producer. It is a very strange thing, considering what people find valuable and what they don’t. Prices are going up on older models, especially those from the early 70’s and older, and of course, the rarer the watch, the higher the value.

This also reminds one that these fine watches were made to last. Unlike a lot of today’s new technology, that is only worth something for a short time, these timepieces were crafted in such a way, that with the right care and attention they can last more than a lifetime. That’s why it is so important to keep them in top condition, and to hang on to the original packaging and paperwork, if possible.

In conclusion I can say that only a handful of the finest watches can really claim Iconic status. It isn’t all just about fame, or about being known. If that were true, one could say that the Casio G-Shock or even a Swatch is an icon – and perhaps in their own way, that may be true.

For me, though, what makes a watch stand out as an ‘Ambassador of Time’ is a certain quality that isn’t going to fade. As the years continue to march on, the finest watches will endure because there is something timeless about them. There is a reason that they have stood the test of time, and their stories and histories cannot be unwritten, and more than that – they will continue to grow in value, both financially and historically.


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