It seems like ancient history now, but gentlemen of sufficient means used to own two or more types of watch and wore them for different occasions: waterproof tool watches for leisure, classic pieces for the office and dress watches for dinner. The fashion now is for one watch to rule them all, and invariably it is a sporty steel timepiece, preferably a Rolex Submariner or GMT or, the even more pricey Audemars Piguet Royal Oak or Patek Philippe’s Daytona or Aquanaut. Customers will have more luck finding rocking horse shit (we call them unicorn watches), so in the certain situation that you cannot offer them to your best clients, WatchPro has created this handy guide to gorgeous alternatives.
The market for luxury steel watches is red hot right now thanks to overwhelming demand and underwhelming supply for certain models. Watch enthusiasts who simply don’t want to wait are beginning to cast a much wider net in their search for viable alternatives. Fortunately, there’s an abundance of good options to be found, if you only know where to look.
In the early 1970’s, Audemars Piguet’s then-Managing Director, Georges Golay, commissioned celebrated watch designer Gérald Genta to create a new watch. Something unexpected. Something bold. A watch capable of challenging the status quo and propelling the company out of a severe sales slump brought on by the Quartz crisis.
Reportedly conceived in a single night in a fit of inspiration, this watch would become the Royal Oak, one of the most iconic and commercially successful models in modern history. It would also lay the foundation for a new category in watchmaking: the luxury steel sports watch.
Now, almost 50 years on, luxury steel sports watch have become the hottest commodity going around. Impressively, the Royal Oak – largely unchanged since its introduction in 1972 – still occupies a place near the top of the wish list of many collectors, passionate enthusiasts, and of course profit-seeking flippers, along with all the other usual suspects. Meaning just about any steel sports Rolex, and any Patek Philippe watch with the words ‘Nautilus’ or ‘Aquanaut’ in its title.
Demand far outstrips supply many, many times over and the probability of being able to buy any of these popular models at retail is so miniscule it can’t be measured accurately.
Put another way, you’ve got about as much chance as finding a talking unicorn. Although most sought-after brands have remained typically hush on the topic, Patek Philippe president Thierry Stern made it abundantly clear in a recent interview with Hodinkee’s Joe Thompson that supply of steel watches would not be seeing a notable increase any time soon.
“I am going up with the production, but drop-by-drop. As it is a percentage [of total production], it’s a slightly higher number,” he said.
That doesn’t seem to be discouraging people from still trying though. I know many a dedicated watch enthusiast/collector, with their name down on at least one mythical ‘list’ for a sought-after model. You’re possibly even reading this and having a little chuckle about having done the exact same thing.
Maybe it’s the Rolex Pepsi GMT-Master II or the Patek Philippe Nautilus Ref 5711/1A. Whatever your poison, you will be waiting a long while for that phone call. If it ever comes at all.
That doesn’t mean you can’t have any fun in the meantime though. That’s why we’ve put together this list of five Genta-esque luxury steel sport watches you can buy and enjoy right now while you’re waiting for your holy grail to come in. But don’t think for a minute that just because these watches aren’t in scarce supply it means their less desirable or of inferior quality. N
othing could be further from the truth. Rather, the reason for their apparent abundance is largely attributable to the different business models the brands that make them, which favours the production of certain types of models and metals over others.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, onto the list:
Bulgari Octo Roma
The Octo Roma is one of Bulgari’s most recognisable and popular watch designs. It’s often miss-attributed as a Genta-original due to being first commercialized under the Gerald Genta name with the Bi-retrograde. (Bulgari acquired the Gerald Genta manufacture in 2000.)
In reality though, the Octo was conceived in-house by Bulgari’s Roman design department. Its distinctive octagonal shape takes its inspiration from Ancient Roman architecture, such as the octagonal motifs adorning the Basilica di Massenzio. The 41mm case features a round bezel and no less than 58 facets, emphasising the complexity and angular nature of the design.
Worn on a steel bracelet or a leather strap it is an ideal daily office companion, or you can dress it up for a night out on the town. Inside is the self-winding manufacture Calibre BVL 191 Solotempo movement.
Bell & Ross BR05
Unveiled last month, Bell & Ross describes its new BR05 collection as the time measuring instrument for urban explorers. In making this not so subtle move into the highly commercial world of the steel sports watch, the brand has been careful to keep its brand DNA intact.
An evolution of sorts of the square BR03 aviation-inspired family, the steel case features a more octagonal base that widens towards the watch’s partially protected crown. The polished and brushed integrated steel bracelet only serves to add to the strong 70s aesthetic that is so popular right now.
Rated waterproof to 100m, the 40mm watches house the BR-CAL.321 movement. The sunray dial comes in black, blue or grey and displays hours, minutes and seconds, plus a date at 3 o’clock. There’s also an 18ct rose gold version if you’re feeling extravagant.
Chopard Alpine Eagle
Hot off the presses, the new Chopard Alpine Eagle collection is the latest example of yet another brand diving head first into the luxury steel sports watch arena.
This is not some rushed hatchet job without any precedent though. Rather, it’s a long overdue reinterpretation of the St. Moritz, the first watch created in 1980 by Karl-Friedrich Scheufele, now co-president of Chopard.
Inspired by the spirit of the Alps and the lofty power of the eagle that reigns supreme there, the case of the Alpine Eagle is crafted from an exclusive, ultra-resistant and light-reflecting metal named Lucent Steel A223. An integrated steel bracelet and a Chopard chronometer-certified movement complete the offering.
If Gerald Genta himself designed a watch for Chopard back in the 1970’s, this might well have been the watch he would have made.
Despite being born in the same era as the Royal Oak and the Nautilus, the Vacheron Constantin Overseas model is sometimes overlooked by newcomers not familiar with its rich heritage.
Yet the Overseas 4500v, now in its 3rd iteration, offers some modern updates that make it an attractive alternative to the other “big two”.
For a start, the 41mm steel case features satin-brushed and polished finishes and an eye-catching bezel with six notches, evoking the Maltese cross that forms part of Vacheron Constantin’s identity.
Then there’s the clever in-built extension system in the integrated steel bracelet which allows you to easily adapt it to your wrist size. Or you can quickly switch to a rubber strap thanks to its versatile interchangeable strap system that doesn’t require any tools.
True to its original vocation as a luxury sports watch, the Overseas 4500v is water-resistant to 150 metres and can withstand magnetic fields of up to 25,000 A/m thanks to the soft iron casing ring.
IWC Ingenieur Automatic
In 1976, IWC unveiled a new iteration of its anti-magnetic Ingénieur collection, complete with five exposed screws on the bezel.
The feature, a direct contribution from Genta, ensured the model was instantly recognisable on the wrist.
Long since re-designed by IWC, the new Ingenieur Automatic is now more reminiscent of earlier models from the 1950’s, offering a conventional round case with a smooth bezel. It’s still an undeniably good-looking watch on the wrist though, and comfortable too, with the integrated bracelet and nicely shaped lugs ensuring a snug fit.
The 40mm case measures just 10.3mm thick and is water resistant to 12 bar. Inside is the self-winding 35111 Calibre, offering a power reserve of 42 hours.
About the author: Tom Mulraney is a 10-year veteran of the watch industry. He is the publisher and editor of The Watch Lounge, a digital magazine with a unique take on the world of luxury watches. www.thewatchlounge.com