What makes a watch iconic? Is it the movement inside? Is it the special complications it has? Or is it design?
For us, you have to be able to look at a watch and just know what it is in order to consider it iconic. It stands alone. It inspires other watch designs that take from it but just can’t recapture that same magic. So here are nine timepieces that set the bar for design and can rightfully be called iconic watches.
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak
Just a quick glance will identify the Gerald Genta-designed Royal Oak. With its octagonal bezel and screws, integrated bracelet construction, and patterned dial, nobody could ever really match the Royal Oak’s disruptive 1970s design. It was also the first stainless steel sports watch, making the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak the sire of every steel sports model that came after it. Iconic watch? No question.
Bell & Ross Aviation Collection
Rectangular watch cases are not a novelty in the watch industry. But the Bell & Ross Aviation line broke the mold with its large, square designs inspired by aeronautical instruments. Bell & Ross made legibility a top priority, so the numerals and hands are oversized to make the time easy to read at a glance. It’s not an obvious choice among the classics on this list, but it deserves its place as a modern icon nonetheless.
The Breitling Navitimer is arguably the pilot’s watch. Essentially, the watch dial houses a flight computer with many useful functions like a chronograph and aviation slide rule. Those complex features plus the dial layout make the Navitimer easily identifiable. Truly, no other watch on the market really attempts to replicate the Navitimer’s unique layout, which makes it an unmatched, iconic watch.
Ah, the wristwatch that started it all. Cartier’s Santos began life as a pilot watch, but it’s evolved into a dressy timepiece with a lot of character. The curved but still very square shape and the exposed screws set it apart in design, and it remains a crowd favorite to this day.
When it was first introduced in the early 1960s, the Heuer Monaco was the world’s first square automatic chronograph and square water-resistant case. These facts alone make it deserve the “iconic” label. But a lot of the Monaco’s cache comes from its association with Steve McQueen. While filming cult classic Le Mans, McQueen donned a Monaco and forever cemented its racing credentials. This, despite the fact that Heuer never intended it to be a racing watch.
Hublot Big Bang
Whether you like it or not, Hublot’s Big Bang really changed the game for modern watches. The Big Bang’s design is bold, industrial, and unlike any other watch on the market. In terms of sheer size and material, the Big Bang occupies a league of its own, which qualifies it for watch icon status.
Introduced in the 1930s, the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso was a true innovation of design and function. Its reversible dial protected the dial from damage during polo matches. And, the caseback proved an ideal canvas for personalized engravings. Many of today’s Reverso models have two dials, often two different colors and designs. But the rectangular case shape, the classically-designed dial, and the unique reversing function make this watch iconic.
With its long-standing history with the seas, Panerai designed its watches with divers in mind. The Panerai Luminor, specifically, features the patented protected crown guard. This, along with the unique rounded square case shape, makes it easy for people to quickly identify it as a Panerai.
With Rolex, almost every single one of its watches is an icon in its own right. And at this point, you don’t even have to be a watch enthusiast to recognize a Rolex on someone’s wrist. But the Day-Date is in a league of its own. So how does it come by its icon watch status? For one, the fact that it’s a Rolex. Plus, it has a simple, elegant design, and it counts several U.S. Presidents and other prominent world figures among its fans.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on March 18, 2015. We have updated it for clarity.