The 28 Most Iconic Watches of All Time and the Case for Each

The 28 Most Iconic Watches of All Time and the Case for Each

The definition of an iconic watch is, of course, highly subjective, and a consensus on what makes a watch iconic is just about impossible to achieve. However, most of us likely agree on several key points. An iconic watch should be timeless in its appeal, influential in its design, and impactful in its market presence. Ideally, an iconic watch should also be one that has remained true to its original conception throughout the years and recognizable by even the most casual of watch enthusiasts. Often, a watch becomes iconic when it becomes associated with a celebrity or other historical figure, and some achieve iconic status simply by being the trailblazer for a certain complication or now-ubiquitous function or element. Our team took all of these factors into account while tackling the bold and frankly somewhat intimidating task of listing the world's most iconic watches. As you'll note upon reading the list, each watch we chose is defended with its Case for Icon Status based on the above criteria. Scroll down to read the list, which includes one iconic movement (you can probably guess which one) and four timepieces that might be a bit too new on the scene for definitive inclusion but which we can confidently call the Icons of Tomorrow. Of course, any listing such as this is guaranteed to generate opinions, which we encourage you to share in the comments section at the bottom.

A. Lange & Söhne Lange 1

A. Lange & Söhne Lange 1

History: Even though the Lange 1 has only been on the scene since 1994, the watch, and the company that makes it, trace their roots much further into history, specifically to 1845, when Ferdinand Adolph Lange established the original A. Lange & Cie. watchmaking factory in the German town of Glashütte in Saxony. As I explore in greater much detail here, the entire German watchmaking industry was devastated by World War II and the subsequent Cold War. With German reunification came that industry’s revival, led by a reconstituted Lange firm that included Adolph’s great-great-grandson Walter Lange on the management team. The Lange 1, introduced in 1994, was the clear flagship of the modern collection, with its unconventional layout of large and small overlapping subdials with ancient German-designed fonts; analog power-reserve indicator with German-language “auf” (up) and “aub” (down) indications; and large date display in double windows that took historical inspiration from the clock at Dresden’s Semper Opera House. The in-house movement also bore the influence of Saxon watchmaking traditions, like the three-quarter mainplate made of untreated German silver and decorated with Glashütte stripes, Germany’s variation on the Swiss “Geneva waves” motif; hand-engraved finishing on the balance cock; and the “swan’s neck” regulating device. The Lange 1 is today the foundation of a versatile collection, incorporating high complications from dual-time indications to perpetual calendars.

The Case for Icon Status: Quite simply, no other timepiece comes close to embodying both the renaissance of German high watchmaking and the pinnacle of asymmetrical yet harmoniously balanced dial design.

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak

History: Audemars Piguet began making watches in 1875, but its most historically significant timepiece made its debut nearly a century later. Designed by the visionary Gérald Genta, the Royal Oak made its debut in 1972. The Ref. 5402, fondly nicknamed “Jumbo” due to its large-for-the-time 39mm case diameter, featured an unprecedented, octagonal-shaped bezel with exposed hexagonal screws at each of its corners (meant to resemble a diver’s helmet), a dial enhanced with a checkerboard textured guilloché pattern known as “grand tapisserie,” and a case that integrated smoothly into a meticulously designed, tapering bracelet with alternating finishes on its outer and inner links. Genta intended the watch to embody a nautical aesthetic, hence the dive-helmet elements and also the name: Royal Oak, a reference to the British naval warships named after the oak tree that sheltered King Charles II during the English Civil War. The watch contained what was at the time the world’s thinnest mechanical watch movement with a date indication, Caliber 2121, which measured a mere 3.05 mm in height. The original model was made of stainless steel rather than gold, unthinkable for a high-priced luxury watch at the time, though that model has since spawned an entire family of Royal Oak models that encompass an array of complications and materials. 

The Case for Icon Status: The Royal Oak’s position in the pantheon of horological immortals is fairly indisputable. Though it was far from an overnight success, the Royal Oak had essentially ushered in the style we now know as the “luxury sports watch.” Its most groundbreaking design elements, like visible screws, octagonal bezels, textured dials, and integrated bracelets, would be emulated by legions of watches in the decades to come.

Blancpain Fifty Fathoms

Blancpain Fifty Fathoms

History: Founded in 1735 in Villeret, Switzerland, Blancpain is the oldest luxury watchmaker in the world, but its most famous timepiece in this modern era began its life as a tool watch for military divers in the (relatively) recent year of 1953. Jean-Jacques Fiechter, who headed Blancpain at the time, was an avid diving enthusiast who had long wanted to develop a watch that would be ideal for his hobby. Fiechter worked with Captain Robert Maloubier, a French naval officer, to design a reliable, mission-ready timepiece that Maloubier’s elite combat diving team could wear. The watch’s 42mm steel case — exceptionally large for the time — was water-resistant to 91.45 meters, or 50 fathoms, the maximum depth recommended for scuba divers. Its dial was black and its numerals were luminescent for greater legibility underwater. It was the first divers’ watch with a self-winding movement, the first with an antimagnetic case, and the first to employ the patented, double-sealed crown that Fiechter had developed. Most notably, the Fifty Fathoms was the first watch to include a lockable bezel with dive-time scale that rotated in only one direction. This practical and potentially life-saving innovation prevented a diver from accidentally jarring the bezel in the wrong direction for an inaccurate reading of how much time he’d spent underwater and thus miscalculating how much oxygen he had left in the tank. The original, military-only model ushered in civilian versions, including one famously worn by Jacques Cousteau in his award-winning undersea documentary, The Silent World. Read the full story behind the Fifty Fathoms here. 

The Case for Icon Status: Unlike the better-known Rolex Submariner, which debuted shortly after it, the Fifty Fathoms disappeared from the market for a while, and thus wide recognition (i.e., beyond the watch-geek community) for its historical significance has been relatively recent. However, for pioneering the unidirectional rotating divers’ bezel, a feature now nearly universal throughout its category, it is rightly lauded as the first “modern” dive watch. (The association with Cousteau doesn’t hurt, either.)

Breguet Type XX

Breguet Type 20

History: The Breguet Type XX collection of luxuriously styled aviation watches pays tribute to the watchmaking Breguet family’s historical link to the advancement of flight, as forged by founder Abraham-Louis Breguet’s great-grandson, Louis-Charles Breguet, who started Breguet Aviation in 1911. That company, which supplied aircraft to both military and civilian clients, ordered the original Type 20 watch from the Breguet watch firm in 1952. The watch, in a 38.5mm steel case and equipped with a manual-winding Valjoux 222 flyback chronograph movement, took its cues from the “Type 20” specifications for pilots’ watches established back in the WWII era by the French Ministry of War. The Aeronavale models from 1958 were worn by French Navy Pilots until the 1980s. The modern Montres Breguet (now out of family hands, owned by the Swatch Group) brought back the Type 20 in 1995 and built it into a distinct and luxuriously appointed product family in the 2000s and beyond, eventually swapping out the Arabic “20” for the Roman “XX.” The most recent iteration of the Type XX goes back to the 1950s roots, with a 42mm steel case, fluted bezel, luminous Arabic numerals and hands, and an in-house automatic movement with a flyback chronograph function.

The Case for Icon Status: As the first military-targeted pilot’s watch with a flyback chronograph caliber, the Type XX family joins the Breitling Navitimer and IWC Big Pilot’s Watch as one of the most impactful timepieces to make a mark on aviation history.

Breitling Navitimer

Breitling NavitimerHistory: The story of the Breitling Navitimer really begins in 1940, when Breitling unveiled the Chronomat, the first timepiece equipped with a logarithmic scale on its dial that could be used to make vital calculations and conversions. Based on the E6B slide rule that enabled users to convert between standard miles, kilometers, and nautical miles, the most important units for aviation, the scale could be used in conjunction with the watch’s chronograph function to determine factors such as fuel consumption, distance traveled, and climb and descent rates. In 1952, Breitling unveiled the Chronomat’s successor, the Navitimer, which derived its name from a portmanteau of “Navigation” and “Timer.” What set the Navitimer apart from its ancestor was its increased utility for pilots, with the slide rule scales applied to a bidirectionally rotating bezel with a beaded edge that a pilot’s gloved hands could easily operate. The original Ref. 806 established the model’s now-familiar three-register arrangement: elapsed hours, elapsed minutes, and running seconds displayed on subdials at 3, 6, and 9 o’clock, respectively. At 12 o’clock on the earliest Navitimer models was the stylized airplane-silhouette logo of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), an advocacy group established in 1932, to whose members the first Navitimers were marketed. In 2010, Breitling started equipping the Navitimer, which with its in-house Caliber B01, which features an integrated column-wheel chronograph function and a substantial power reserve of 70 hours. 

The Case for Icon Status: The Breitling Navitimer, now available in dozens of iterations, is the quintessential pilot's chronograph watch as well as one of the most instantly recognizable Swiss watches in the world. A handful of other pilot’s watches have adopted the slide-rule bezel but none have made it as much of a stylistic signature as the Navitimer. 

Cartier Santos

Cartier Santos

History: Cartier has enjoyed a worldwide reputation as the “King of Jewelers and the Jeweler of Kings” since its founding in Paris by Louis-François Cartier. The company is also responsible for some of the most iconic and influential timepieces in history and continues to build on that legacy to this day. One of those icons sprung from a request by pioneering aviator and bon vivant Alberto Santos-Dumont to his friend Louis Cartier, grandson of the founder, for an easily readable watch he could wear during his flights in steerable balloons over Paris. The wrist-borne watch that Cartier made in 1904, which inspired today’s Santos collection, addressed Santos-Dumont’s most pressing issue with the pocket watches he’d been wearing on his flights, namely that it was too difficult to keep both hands on the controls while keeping track of time simultaneously. It was the first wristwatch made specifically for a male wearer as well as the first watch purpose-built for aviation, and Santos-Dumont’s fashionable reputation moved Cartier to make more of the square-cased watches for sale to the public. Today’s models retain the original’s signature elements, including the square bezel with visible screws, elegant sword hands, and a radiating Roman numeral hour track that legend has it was inspired by a street map of Paris.

The Case for Icon Status: What could be more important to horological history than the very first timepiece built expressly for aviation as well as the first wristwatch made to be worn by a man? As far as Cartier models go, the Tank is probably more ubiquitous, but the Santos is the progenitor of all the Cartier men’s watches to follow. 

Cartier Tank

Cartier Tank MC 

History: Louis Cartier created the Tank watch in 1917, deriving its rectangular, curvilinear case shape as well as its name from a French military vehicle used during the First World War. Perhaps fittingly, the recipient of the first Cartier Tank watch was U.S. General John “Black Jack” Pershing, a commander of the Allied forces; later, it was famously worn by President John F. Kennedy. The Tank has been a coveted style object ever since, in a variety of sizes, colorways and materials designed to appeal to men and ladies alike. Taking some cues from the Santos, the Tank is instantly recognizable for its rectangular ring of Roman hour numerals, interior rectangular minute track, blued sword hands, and beaded winding crown with a blue sapphire cabochon. The Tank in the modern era is offered in numerous variations and sizes, like the Tank MC (for “Manufacture Cartier”), distinguished by a silvered flinqué dial with the hallmark hands and numerals as well as a date window at 3 o’clock and a small seconds subdial at 6 o’clock. The case’s sapphire back displays the movement, the automatic Caliber 1904 PS-MC, and the decorative Geneva waves that adorn its rotor and plates.

The Case for Icon Status: Be honest: every time you see a dress watch with a cushion or square case, especially with a Roman-numeral or retro-style Arabic-numeral dial, you refer to it as Tank-style, right? Along with the Reverso, the Tank carries the Art Deco idiom into the 21st Century while still being truly timeless in appeal. 

IWC Big Pilot’s Watch

IWC Big Pilot's Watches

History: Founded by New England watchmaker Florentine Ariosto Jones, IWC is the first and still only Swiss watch firm founded by an American, and one that grew its stature by selling to countries throughout Europe and North America. In 1936, the company veered from its specialty of making complications and dress watches to produce one of its most historic pieces, the Special Watch for Pilots, which was notable for early innovations like a rotating bezel for recording short increments of time, large, high-contrast numerals and hands, and an escapement resistant to magnetism and temperature variations. That watch begat the timepiece IWC produced for the German Luftwaffe four years later in 1940, simply called the Big Pilot’s Watch. It lived up to its name at an enormous 55 mm in diameter, and with only about 1,000 pieces made it remains one of the rarest vintage watches out there. Like similar watches made by competitors in both Switzerland and Germany, its design was based on those of so-called observation watches and would influence the design of many pilots’ timepieces that followed: large sans-serif numerals, a protruding “onion” crown easily grasped by gloved hands, and a military-style inverted triangle with two dots at 12 o’clock. When big, military-style watches returned to vogue in the early 21st Century, IWC  re-introduced the long-dormant Big Pilot’s Watch in a more manageable but still hefty 46-mm steel case. That watch now anchors a burgeoning and ever-expanding series of Pilot’s models that are now at the forefront of IWC’s modern portfolio.

The Case for Icon Status: While some will point out that a slew of brands made a similar style of “Flieger” watches during the World War II years, it is clearly IWC’s watch that is at the vanguard of the genre’s 21st Century revival.

Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso

Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso

History: Jaeger-LeCoultre, established in 1833 in the heart of the Vallée de Joux in the Swiss Jura Mountains, has been called “The Watchmaker of Watchmakers,” and the maison has worked hard to earn the reputation, producing more than 1,242 in-house calibers over its long history — and for much of that history supplying some of them to other major heritage brands like Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin. Jaeger-LeCoultre’s signature dress watch, the Reverso, was originally designed as a sports watch. Its reversible swiveling case made it a practical timekeeper for polo players, who wore it during a match to protect the crystal from being struck by errant mallets and balls. In production since 1931, the Reverso is now available in numerous variations, some at the highest level of complications, but the core three-handed Reverso Tribute model, which faithfully echoes the classical Art Deco look of its ancestor, remains a perennial favorite.The rectangular case sports the model’s emblematic clean lines and gadroons, the sunray dial (here in a warm burgundy red) features Dauphine hands, trapezoidal applied hour indexes, and a small seconds subdial at 6 o’clock, and the back side of the case offers a clean metallic canvas for personalization. Jaeger-LeCoultre’s manually wound manufacture Caliber 822, rectangular-shaped to fit the case’s dimensions, beats inside. 

The Case for Icon Status: The Reverso is one of those historical timepieces that has been occasionally imitated but never really equaled in its unique, unisex appeal. It is the most prominent and enduring example of Art Deco design in the 21st Century watch world and one of the first and most successful examples of a tool watch that transcended its utilitarian origins to become a style object.

Omega Speedmaster Professional “Moonwatch”

Omega Speedmaster

History: As related in far more depth in my article on the history of the Moonwatch, the Omega Speedmaster was launched in 1957 and originally intended as a wristwatch for timing motorsports. In the 1960s, however, the watch was submitted as one of a handful of chronographs tested by NASA to endure the rigors of space travel. After emerging victorious in the competition, the Speedmaster was the sole timepiece certified as “flight qualified for manned space missions” and became part of the government-issued equipment for the Apollo space missions. The Speedmaster that aced NASA’s testing gauntlet was actually discontinued by 1966 and superseded by the now-famous Ref. ST105.012, whose 42mm case featured an asymmetrical build with crown guards and wider-set chronograph pushers on the right side. This is the watch that entered the annals of history on July 21, 1969, when astronaut Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the surface of the moon while wearing it on his gloved wrist. After the crew returned to Earth, and the subsequent advertising blitz by Omega touting its watch’s spacefaring cred, the Speedmaster’s reputation as the Moonwatch was secured, and its original identity as a racing watch left in the lunar dust. Best of all for traditionalists, the contemporary version of the watch is still more or less identical to the one that Aldrin rocked on the Apollo 11 mission more than 50 years ago, with a hesalite crystal over the tricompax dial, luminous hands and markers, and the trendsetting tachymeter-scale bezel that speaks to the Speedy’s origins as a watch for auto racing. It’s even equipped with a modern version of the hand-wound movement that powered the original, Omega Caliber 1861.

The Case for Icon Status: First watch worn on the moon. First wrist chronograph to put the tachymeter scale on the bezel. Virtually unchanged from its earliest design, including the manual-wind movement. The model from which an entire collection sprang. Case closed?

Omega Seamaster

Omega Seamaster Diver 300

History: In 1948, the 100th anniversary of its founding, Omega launched the first Seamaster, which was not a “dive watch” as we know it in the modern sense — the category didn’t really exist yet — but was instead marketed as a watch for “town, sea, and country,” a dress watch for gentlemen distinguished from its competitors by its adoption of an innovative, O-ring-gasket waterproofing system that Omega had developed for its World War II-era military diving watches a few years before. In 1957 (yes, the same year as the Speedmaster), the first “professional” Seamaster 300 debuted, a full-fledged diving watch that boosted its dressy predecessor’s water resistance to 200 meters (though Omega was confident that the watch could handle pressures as deep as those at 300 meters, hence the name) and embraced the era’s growing masses of recreational divers. The 1990s saw the addition of the tool-oriented but stylish Seamaster Diver 300M (above), which incorporated a helium-release valve and a wave-pattern dial, and the Seamaster subsequently expanded into an even more diverse family since then, adding the dressier Aqua Terra line, the more boldly sized Planet Ocean, and even modern revivals of the 1948 and 1957 models, all with modern Omega in-house calibers. 

The Case for Icon Status: The original “dress” Seamaster’s revolutionary waterproofing system might not be quite enough to qualify it for the list, but the 300M Diver model’s longtime role as the cinematic “James Bond Watch” tips the scales for the Seamaster model family.

Panerai Radiomir

Panerai RadiomirHistory: Tracing its roots to the 19th Century but bursting on the cultural scene on the cusp of the 21st, Panerai is an overnight success more than 100 years in the making, and it all started with a watch developed for Italian Navy divers and named after the luminous substance that distinguished its dial. Giovanni Panerai opened a watchmaking and retail shop in Florence in 1860 and his grandson Guido expanded the business into a provider of precision instruments for military divers. In 1935, with World War II on the horizon, Panerai developed the now-legendary Ref. 2533 watch, which used a waterproof Oyster case from Rolex, a modified Swiss Cortébert 618 Caliber, and a two-layered "sandwich” dial with a generous helping of Radiomir, a luminous substance the firm developed to make vital equipment visible in the dark or underwater. By the 1940s, Panerai had developed the recognizable cushion-shaped case with welded wire lugs that it retains in the modern day, as well as the dial layout with perforated Arabic numerals and bar indexes. The watches, assembled by Rolex, with Panerai supplying the luminous dials and military modifications, became standard issue for Italian Naval Commandos throughout World War II and its aftermath.

The Case for Icon Status: The Radiomir’s status as one of the very earliest wristwatches developed for diving would alone merit inclusion in the pantheon, but as the granddaddy of the entire Panerai model family, its immortality is assured.

Panerai Luminor

Panerai LuminorHistory: The Radiomir was the first, but when most of us think of Panerai, we think of the Luminor. While the Radiomir was indisputably historic, it had some technical issues that had become evident by the end of the 1940s. The water-resistance of its cushion-shaped case was too often compromised by winding crowns that were either worn down from repeated screwing and unscrewing or insufficient tightening; and the radium-based Radiomir paint was emitting levels of radioactivity that were harmful to both watchmakers and wearers. With the development of the Luminor in 1949, Panerai dealt with both of these issues. The first innovation was the new luminous paint that gave the watch its name — Luminor, a substance based on tritium, whose low radiation emissions were benign compared to those of radium-based Radiomir. (You can learn more about the watch industry’s transition from radium-based to tritium-based luminous paints here.) The other and more impactful development arrived in the 1950s — a bridge-shaped crown protection device that uses a locking lever to press the screw-down crown securely into the case, ensuring a higher level of water resistance. The Luminor was the watch that Sylvester Stallone wore in the 1995 movie Daylight, putting the Panerai brand, which had been dormant for years, on the radar of a whole new generation of enthusiasts.

The Case for Icon Status: With helping hands from Stallone, and also Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1996’s Eraser, Panerai, and the Luminor in particular, almost single-handedly ushered in the early-2000s trend of massive, military-influenced watches as luxury objects.

Patek Philippe Calatrava

Patek Philippe Calatrava

History: Since its founding in 1839 in Geneva, Patek Philippe has been a leader in high watchmaking, pioneering many complications and design elements that are now seen widely throughout the watch industry. In 1932, brothers Jean and Henri Stern acquired Patek Philippe and the same year launched the watch that would become its signature, the Calatrava, inspired by the ancient Calatrava cross that had served as the maison’s logo since 1887. Today’s Calatrava collection is vast, comprising numerous high complications, but the basic time-only dress version remains the gateway drug for many a budding Patek enthusiast. The recently released Ref. 6119R, noteworthy for its hobnail “Clous de Paris” bezel, first used on the classic Ref. 3919, features all the Calatrava’s hallmark elements — round, meticulously polished case, harmoniously balanced dial with Roman hour numerals or applied indexes, dauphine-style hands. This model’s recessed small seconds subdial at 6 o’clock and railroad minute track evokes the original, classic Ref. 96, the first Calatrava. As with all Patek Philippe watches, the movement inside is made in-house; in this case, it is Patek Philippe’s manually wound Caliber 30-255 PS, with a power reserve of 65 hours and a host of high-end finishes.

The Case for Icon Status: As the “entry-level” model to the elite and complex world of Patek Philippe, as well as one of the oldest models continuously in production, the Calatrava is a classical dress watch on many collectors’ bucket lists. Its influence can be seen on dress watches throughout the industry, at all price points.

Patek Philippe Nautilus

Patek Philippe Nautilus

History: Patek Philippe helped usher in the era of the luxury sports watch with the release of the Nautilus in 1976. Designed by Gérald Genta, the same visionary who had developed the Royal Oak several years earlier, the Nautilus, defined by its smooth octagonal bezel, integrated bracelet, and horizontal-grooved sunburst dial, went on to become one of the most coveted timepieces in the world, even more so since Patek’s recent decision to discontinue its core reference 5711. The original Nautilus was 42mm in diameter — enormous by the day’s standards — and had an unusually shaped, exceptionally water-resistant (to 120 meters) steel case with two unusual, ear-like projections on either side. Also huge at the time was the price, north of $2,000 in steel. For Patek Philippe, until then known exclusively for precious-metal dress watches, a chunky, steel sports watch with an eye-popping price tag was impossible to ignore. The watch garnered the nickname “Jumbo” (yep, like the Royal Oak) among collectors and spawned a slew of other versions over the subsequent decades, including chronographs, annual calendars, and even a perpetual calendar.

The Case for Icon Status: The Nautilus followed the Royal Oak chronologically but has never been in its shadow, arguably establishing an even more influential presence over the years. Like its predecessor, which redefined the identity of its parent brand, the Nautilus took Patek Philippe from its elegantly dressy roots into an entirely new “sport-luxury” realm.

Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendar Chronograph

Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendar Chronograph

History: Combining perpetual calendars with chronographs is a Patek Philippe specialty, and one that few other watchmakers even attempt. Patek was the first to merge these complications in a wristwatch, with the Ref. 1518 all the way back in 1941. From this groundbreaking design sprung all of the perpetual calendar-chronograph models that followed, including the one whose look most famously defines that grand complication, the classic Ref. 5970 (pictured), introduced in 2004. Its successor, Ref. 5270, came in 2011 and featured a similar dial layout but a slightly larger 41mm gold case. The opaline dial hosts gold leaf hands, day and month in windows below 12 o’clock, subdials at 3 and 9 o’clock for elapsed minutes and running seconds, and a combined analog date display/moon-phase at 6 o’clock, accompanied by day-night and leap-year indications. The dial is busy yet eminently readable, with a tachymeter scale occupying the periphery. Like all Patek Philippe watches, it features a manufacture movement inside, Caliber CH 29-535 PS Q, which packs a complex split-seconds chronograph along with an ultra-thin calendar mechanism. 

The Case for Icon Status: While it will remain out of reach for many, and it can’t be pigeonholed into one reference or model, Patek’s perpetual calendar chronographs embody better than any other model the manufacture’s two specialties: multiple high complications and elegant design. 

Rolex Datejust

Rolex Datejust

History: The Rolex Datejust, unveiled in 1945, was the first Rolex watch to combine the company’s two signature innovations up to that time — the waterproof Oyster case and self-winding Perpetual movement. The watch, the first with “Oyster Perpetual” on the dial, was also the first to feature the now-ubiquitous date display at 3 o’clock, the first automatic watch with a quick-change function for that date display, and the first to be mounted on Rolex’s now-famous five-row Jubilee bracelet. A few years later, in 1948, came the first Datejust with the bubble-shaped “Cyclops” lens directly above the date aperture, which magnified the date numeral by a factor of 2.5 for greater legibility at a glance. Rolex filed for a patent on the Cyclops lens in 1952. Legend has it that Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf came up with the feature after his wife lamented to him how difficult it was for her to read the date on her watch, and that the idea came to him after a droplet of water fell onto his watch’s crystal over the date window while he was washing his hands in the bathroom. The first Datejust (Ref. 4467), established the familiar aesthetic of the Datejust models, most notably the fluted bezel and clean, elegant dial with triangular indexes. The Datejust has been a mainstay in the Rolex collection ever since, retaining its 36mm case size and upgrading over the years to more advanced movements as Rolex continually upgrades its technological savoir-faire. 

The Case for Icon Status: So many firsts in one classic watch. The Datejust is the seed from which the entire Oyster Perpetual collection grew. 

Rolex Submariner

Rolex Submariner

History: Rolex developed its pioneering, waterproof Oyster case in 1926, but took its capabilities to the next level in 1953. That year, in which the popularity of Scuba diving was on the rise and watchmakers strove to fill the need for watches that could withstand deeper underwater pressures as well as track immersion times, Rolex unveiled the Submariner, which was touted as the first commercial watch that was waterproof to 100 meters — a significant claim, as the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, which had preceded it to market, was tested only to the 91.44 meters that matched up to its name. Subsequent references of the Submariner, starting with the Ref. 6205, added the familiar Mercedes handset and even more robust water-resistance ratings — 200 meters and eventually 300 meters, which is the standard for the model today. The first Submariner, Ref. 6204, established the template: 37mm steel Oyster case, black dial with inverted triangle at 12 o’clock, alternating circle and bar indexes at the hour markers, and a rotating bidirectional bezel with a 60-minute scale that a diver could set to keep track of his time underwater. In 1979, the Submariner adopted the unidirectional diver’s bezel which Blancpain had introduced years earlier for increased security, a feature that continues to define the Submariner models of today.

The Case for Icon Status: Nearly every luxury divers’ watch on the market today owes some stylistic debt to the Submariner, which remains to many collectors the gold standard of the category. The Submariner’s association with James Bond, which stems from its being worn by Sean Connery in the first three Bond movies, doesn’t hurt its case either. 

Rolex GMT-Master

Rolex GMT-Master II

History: Like the Submariner that had preceded it a year earlier, the Rolex GMT-Master, introduced in 1954, was both trend-setting and genre-defining. It was the first watch capable of displaying the time in two separate time zones by means of a fourth, central 24-hour hand and a bidirectional rotating 24-hour bezel. The initials in the watch’s name signify “Greenwich Mean Time,” the system of world timekeeping based on the calculation of mean solar time from the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London. Notably from an aviation history perspective, its dual-time functionality was an innovation devised for, and developed in cooperation with, the original watch’s intended users: pilots for Pan American Airlines, who wanted a tool watch that enabled them to track the time on long-haul and international flights in both their home city, and their flight’s destination city, anywhere in the world. The first-generation GMT-Master, Ref. 6452, had a bezel divided into two equal sectors of red and blue, a clever and eye-catching visual shorthand to identify daytime and nighttime hours on the 24-hour scale. This red-and-blue “Pepsi” bezel would herald other popular colorways with pop-cultural nicknames, like the red-and-black “Coke” bezel in 1983 and the blue-and-black “Batman” bezel in 2013.

The Case for Icon Status: While other watchmakers, before and since the introduction of the GMT-Master, have established various ways of displaying and tracking two or more time zones, it is Rolex’s design that has proven the most impactful and enduring, and the one most emulated by other brands looking to entice world travelers. Just look around at the number of bicolor 24-hour bezels out there if you’re not convinced.

Rolex Explorer

Rolex Explorer

History: Yet another milestone Rolex model from 1953, the Explorer is known chiefly as the watch that was worn by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on their historic expedition to the summit of Mount Everest that same year. The watch that Rolex actually provided for the mission was the “pre-Explorer” Ref. 6098, equipped with the automatic Caliber A296, which was never produced commercially, but the worldwide fame garnered by the successful summit provided all the marketing juice that Rolex needed for the launch of the mountaineering-themed timepiece that it released that year, Ref. 6350 (above), the first “official” Rolex Explorer. (Much more detail on the watch and its origins can be found here.) It was the preceding Ref. 6150 that established the emblematic Explorer dial layout: inverted triangle at 12 o’clock, numerals at 3, 6, and 9 o’clock, Mercedes-style hour hand and pencil-shaped minute hand, and bar indexes at the other hour positions. The Ref. 1016 that followed shortly thereafter is the longest-lasting of the Explorer references, and as of the most recent version in 2021, the Explorer is once again available in its original 36mm case size.

The Case for Icon Status: The Explorer is Rolex’s much-admired and much-emulated contribution to the popular “field watch” genre, and stands today as many collectors’ entry-level Rolex. Its connection to Hillary’s Everest expedition cements its role in mountaineering history, even though some have posited that it was actually another watch worn on the summit.

Rolex Cosmograph Daytona

Rolex Daytona two-tone

History: Rolex became official timekeeper of the Daytona 500 stock car race in 1962, and one year later it released the Ref. 6239 Cosmograph, nicknamed the “Daytona” (though the name had yet to appear on the dial), its now-famous racing-inspired chronograph watch. The watch was notable for its three-register dial and engraved tachymeter bezel. Rolex had dabbled in wristwatch chronographs in the 1950s with similar looks but none of these “pre-Daytonas” generated the mass appeal of Ref. 6239, and part of the reason for that was the star power bestowed upon it by its most famous wearer, actor Paul Newman, who embarked upon a successful second career as a racing driver after starring in the 1969 movie Winning. The model he wore, and which is now nicknamed for him, is one of the rarest collectible timepieces on the secondary market, with an off-white-and-black “panda” dial layout, square-tipped hash marks and Art Deco-style numerals. Like a high-performance race car upgrading to more powerful engines, the Daytona continued throughout its decades on the market to stay on the cutting edge of chronographic excellence. The original Valjoux movement in the original references eventually gave way to the Rolex Caliber 4030, a heavily modified version of Zenith’s legendary high-frequency El Primero (you can learn more about it here) in the late 1980s. That movement was superseded by the in-house Rolex Caliber 4130, with a column-wheel chronograph mechanism and a host of Rolex-patented technical details.

The Case for Icon Status: You can thank the late Paul Newman for the massive waiting lists and incredible secondary-market markups on modern Daytonas; the model has been immensely popular ever since he wore it on the racetrack, and demand regularly outstrips supply.

TAG Heuer Carrera

TAG Heuer Carrera Glassbox

History: Named for the treacherous Carrera Panamericana road race by its designer, founding family scion, former CEO, and motorsport enthusiast Jack Heuer, the TAG Heuer Carrera made its debut in 1964 and swiftly became a trendsetter in the genre of motorsport-inspired chronograph wristwatches. Among its notable innovations were the dial’s flange, which rose at a 45-degree angle from the periphery and hosted the minutes scale, an element usually found on the main dial, thus improving legibility of the main dial and its chronograph subdials. The latter features were recessed into the dial for depth, imparting a three-dimensional appeal. The flange also served a technical purpose, as an inner tension ring that pressed firmly against the Plexglas crystal to ensure a level of water resistance and sturdiness that made the Carrera robust enough to wear for car racing. Subsequent versions of the Carrera added the engraved tachymeter-scale bezel that has since become part of the model’s signature look. The original models contained the manually wound Valjoux Caliber 72, but swiftly adopted automatic chronograph movements once TAG Heuer and other manufacturers started making them starting in 1969. 

The Case for Icon Status: We're so used to seeing this style of three-register racing chronograph that it’s easy to forget how radical and forward-thinking some of the Carrera’s design elements were back in the early 1960s.

TAG Heuer Monaco

TAG Heuer Monaco

History: The TAG Heuer Monaco made its debut in 1969 — five years after the Carrera — but really ascended to pop cultural icon status two years later, when legendary actor and “King of Cool” Steve McQueen wore the colorful wrist chronograph for his role as a racing driver in the 1971 movie Le Mans. The Monaco, also designed by Jack Heuer and named for the Monaco Grand Prix, was the first wristwatch with a square case that was also water-resistant, as well as one of the first chronograph watches to be equipped with a self-winding mechanical movement, namely the Caliber 11 that was jointly developed by watch companies Heuer (TAG wouldn’t become part of the name until a corporate takeover in the ‘80s), Breitling, and Büren, and movement manufacturer Dubois Dépraz. Its chronograph pushers were placed on the right side of the case while the crown was positioned unconventionally on the left. While the movement has changed — the latest models are outfitted with the in-house Caliber Heuer 02, with an impressive 80-hour power reserve, and its architecture positions both pushers and crown on the right side — the iconoclastic square case, at 39mm, has remained largely the same, as has the dial, with its two squared chronograph subdials that make the watch recognizable from across a room.

The Case for Icon Status: Similarly to the Daytona with Paul Newman, the Monaco’s longtime connection with Steve McQueen and the golden age of automobile racing make it a Grail watch for many despite its very unusual, decidedly retro aesthetic. Oh, and it played a key role in one of the most important TV dramas of the 21st Century.

The Iconic Movement:

Zenith El Primero

Zenith El Primero Caliber

History: Worthy of honorable mention on this list is the El Primero chronograph caliber from Zenith, the sole watch movement (as opposed to watch model) that a majority of watch connoisseurs would likely classify as iconic. Zenith makes plenty of great watches, but the record-breaking, high-frequency automatic caliber it introduced in the seminal year of 1969 is the Swiss brand’s most important contribution to luxury watch history, more so than any single Zenith watch that uses it, currently or in the past. As I delve into in much greater detail here, Zenith’s El Primero was “the first” of the original trio of automatic chronograph movements that hit the market on the cusp of the 1970s, distinguished by Its unprecedented, lightning-quick balance frequency of 36,600 vph (5 Hz), which in practical terms meant that the built-in stopwatch function, driven by a classical column wheel, was capable of measuring elapsed times to 1/10th second. Despite the complexity endowed by its 278 parts, it measured just 6.5 mm in height, meaning watches that contained it could be similarly slim and wearable. The El Primero’s power reserve was nearly 50 hours, well above the standard at the time, thanks to its tungsten carbide rotor that maximized automatic winding. In addition to the numerous Zenith watches that still use it, including most models in the Chronomaster and Defy collections, the El Primero has powered models from TAG Heuer, Hublot, Ebel, and Bulgari — not to mention the most famous example, the Rolex Daytona covered above.

The Case for Icon Status: No single movement better embodies the revival of the Swiss luxury mechanical watch after the Quartz Crisis, particularly since the movement itself was nearly lost forever during that time. Also, Rolex historians will note that the El Primero was the first automatic movement inside the Daytona. 

Icons of Tomorrow:

Grand Seiko Snowflake

Grand Seiko Snowflake

History: In the relatively short time that its watches have been available outside of its native Japan (since 2010) and the even shorter time that it has stood apart from its parent company Seiko as an independent luxury brand (since 2017), Grand Seiko has established itself as an elite watchmaker for many discerning collectors. The same year that it went international, Grand Seiko released one of its most emblematic and collectible timepieces, the Ref. SBGA211, with a case made of high-intensity titanium, a Spring Drive caliber, and the shimmering white, textured dial that lent the model its enduring nickname, “Snowflake.” Its predecessor, Ref. SBGA011, launched exclusively in the Japanese market in 2005 and established the familiar template, with a stamped brass dial whose special, silver-plated finish approximated the look and texture of the fresh snow that blanketed the peaks of the Hokata Mountains that surround Seiko’s Shinshu Watch Studio in Japan’s Nagano Prefecture. The SBGA211 differs from it in one telling and significant detail: it features only the Grand Seiko logo rather than both  Seiko and Grand Seiko logos, speaking to the maker’s independent status. Both these early models are now extremely rare, and Grand Seiko has followed them up with other limited editions, which I cover in more detail here.

The Case for Icon Status: As Grand Seiko comes into its own as an upper-tier luxury brand, its diehard enthusiasts and collectors appear to have rallied around the “Snowflake” as the collection’s chef d’oeuvre. The distinctively Japanese, nature-inspired elegance of its dial has exerted a strong influence on its successors.

Hublot Big Bang 

Hublot Big Bang IntegralHistory:  Hublot traces its roots back only to 1980, which makes its high-profile and undisputed position in the luxury watch field all the more impressive.  Hublot’s stock-in-trade “Art of Fusion” began with the very first models from brand founder Carlo Crocco, which raised eyebrows as the first gold watches mounted on rubber straps. This combination of high luxury with sporty practicality proved to be a trendsetter for the entire industry and continues to inform Hublot’s identity today. It was former CEO Jean-Claude Biver, who helmed the brand from 2004 to 2014, who oversaw the release of the emblematic Big Bang, whose bold, aggressive design, anchored by its wide stationary bezel with six visible H-shaped screws, took the brand to the next level. In addition to maintaining its pioneering role in the use of new materials, like high-tech colored ceramics, its proprietary Magic Gold alloy, and even full-sapphire cases, Hublot continues to explore new territory design-wise for the Big Bang, like the skeletonized dials of the Unico models, the angular, artistic details on the Sang Bleu editions, the sophisticated bracelet system of the Integrated models (pictured) and most recently the new Square editions that add yet another distinctive case shape.

The Case for Icon Status: Put away the pitchforks. Yes, the Big Bang is anything but subtle, and Hublot has taken the model to some downright audacious places design-wise. But as the model that doubled down on Hublot’s mission statement of fusing luxurious and high-tech materials, it has had a profound impact on the watch industry for more than 20 years; even Patek Philippe now puts some gold cases on rubber straps, right? 

Tudor Black Bay

Tudor Black Bay

History: Tudor returned to the U.S. market after a lengthy absence in 2013 and the Rolex-owned brand had its first big hit in this modern era with the launch of the Black Bay (originally the Heritage Black Bay), a stylish, sporty divers’ watch, with a plethora of historical details drawn from Tudor dive watches of yore. The aesthetic origin of the Black Bay starts with the Tudor Oyster Prince Submariner, released in 1954, one year after big brother Rolex rolled out its own much more famous Submariner watch. This original version, Ref. 7922, used the same “Mercedes” handset found on many Rolex models and was water-resistant to 100 meters; its successor in 1958, Ref. 7924, upped this rating to 200 meters, which is still the standard for Tudor dive watches today. Nicknamed the “Big Crown” because of its extra-large 8mm winding crown, this model was replaced in 1969 by Ref. 7016,  whose newly designed, distinctive square-themed hands and markers earned it the nickname “Snowflake.” The cleverly curated elements that make up the Black Bay DNA include the “snowflake” hour hand, large screw-down crown with Tudor rose emblem, and the assortment of geometrical hour markers — round dots and rectangles, with a dominant inverted triangle at 12 o’clock — derived from Tudor Submariners from the ‘60s and ‘70s. 

The Case for Icon Status: The Black Bay proved to be just what Tudor needed in its modern era: an emblematic timepiece with a distinctive appeal all its own that gave the brand its own identity beyond being a “me-too” Rolex for fans with lighter wallets.

Ulysse Nardin Freak

Ulysse Nardin Freak OneHistory: Ulysse Nardin has been making timepieces since 1846 but its most game-changing horological invention came just after the turn of the 21st Century with the 2001 introduction of the Freak — a watch that displayed the time with no conventional hands but rather by means of a “flying carousel” system in which a baguette-shaped movement rotates on its own axis with a bridge pointing to the minutes while a mainplate-mounted disk indicates the hours. Ulysse Nardin has subsequently expanded and updated the Freak family of timepieces with new technologies and materials, many of which have found their way into this year’s Freak One, a model intended to bring the family closer to its roots. The watch features the “no hands, no dial, no crown” design of the original, with a case in rose gold and black-DLC titanium; the case's heavily notched locking bezel is used in place of a crown to set the time, which is revealed by the black sunray-engraved barrel cover that rotates as an hour disk along with the bridge assembly with carousel flying tourbillon that tracks the minutes. The open gear train of the dial-side movement evokes 2013’s Freak Cruiser, while the black and gold aesthetic recalls last year’s Freak S. The movement features the silicon components pioneered by its predecessor as well as a DiamonSil (synthetic diamonds grown on silicon) treatment on the escapement; it’s also equipped with the proprietary “Grinder” winding system, whose four-bladed rotor gathers energy from the slightest motions of the wearer’s wrist. Quite Freaky indeed.

The Case for Icon Status: With the first Freak, Ulysse Nardin ushered the use of silicon components into watch movements while at the same time rewriting the rules for the manner in which time could be told on a watch’s face. The watch blazed the trail for all the wildly unconventional time displays that would follow.


Join the Conversation

Sanchito B.

Attainable Icons:
Glycine Airman, Tissot PRX, Seiko Flightmaster SNA411, Longines Master Collection Triple date moonphase, Hamilton Murph, Seiko 5 GMT Orange Dial, Longines Devil Diver. Longines Conquest, Tudor 1926, Sin 556

Joel G.

What a great read! Thank you Teddy

John G.

How about the VC overseas or the Piaget polo

Authorized Retailer

Official Authorized Dealer of over 40+ leading luxury brands.

Customer Support

Dedicated customer service staff ready to resolve any purchase or product issues.

Shipping + Fulfillment

Swift delivery directly from our fulfillment center, no product sourcing or un-stocked consignment.

Curated Collection

We work with leading luxury brands to provide the best selection for discerning collectors.