A Little History
At a certain point in a man’s career, there often comes a sudden windfall. Maybe it’s an unexpected promotion or the vesting of some in-the-money stock options. Maybe it’s an inheritance, not enough money to change your life but enough to buy yourself an heirloom.
In my family, we were always encouraged to buy things that last when we could afford to, and one of the first major purchases I made as a young man was a good watch.
The watch was a classic Rolex Datejust 36, a simple stainless-steel watch with an automatic movement and a date display in a medium-sized case. I bought it secondhand from an antique dealer in the DC suburbs. A little bit of research when I had it serviced revealed that it was originally purchased at a US Navy installation in the Philippines during the midst of the Vietnam War. It turns out that for many American service members, the Subic Bay Naval Base post exchange was their introduction to fine watches.
It’s not uncommon today to find Rolex Submariners, particularly the model 5513, that can trace their heritage back to the Subic Bay PX. One reason so many remain in circulation: at the time of their manufacture in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a watch like the Rolex GMT Master could be had for as little as $200. With its half blue and half red coloring (referred to by collectors as a Pepsi bezel), these watches are trading today for over $10,000 on the secondary market.
And if you are an eagle-eyed television viewer, you might recognize the GMT Master as the watch worn by Hawaiian private investigator Thomas Magnum as portrayed by both the original Magnum, Tom Selleck, and in its current reboot starring Jay Hernandez.
Today’s watches often build on the functionality and indestructible designs of these classic models, even while coming in a much more refined package. Let’s look at our favorite luxury watches for men and women.
Such is the case with one of the world’s most recognizable luxury watches, the Cartier Tank. Designed by Louis Cartier with a silhouette that resembled the tanks of World War I, it is available in various metals, including pink, white and yellow golds, and in both a Men’s watch and Women’s watch.
The version with a stainless dial and stainless bracelet is Cartier’s best seller. Owned by such style icons as Cary Grant and Andy Warhol, its retail price of $3,750 is at the low end of our luxury scale.
The Omega Speedmaster is one of the most recognizable chronographs in the world. Introduced in 1957, the Speedmaster Professional was worn by astronaut Ed White during the first United States spacewalk as part of the Gemini 4 mission; the long nylon strap he used to secure the watch outside his space suit became a style innovation itself, and Omega markets a number of special editions with nylon straps.
Buzz Aldrin wore his Speedmaster on the moon during the Apollo 11 lunar mission in 1969. Today Omega sells a number of manual winding chronographs with the Speedmaster name, including an entire series with styles influenced by space travel. The stainless steel Speedmaster in the 42-millimeter size is a contemporary update of the watch Aldrin wore, and retails for $5,350.
You can talk about luxury timepieces and not include Rolex watches. The Rolex Daytona Cosmograph was developed specifically for the world of motorsport. Its mechanism is self-winding, unlike many of the Omega offerings, with a movement built around a larger-than-usual mainspring to withstand both the jolts and shocks of auto racing and to keep the watch powered for a longer period of time. The less complicated mechanism allows for a power reserve of up to three days.
Today, the Daytona is one of Rolex’s true centerpieces, available in stainless steel, rose gold, yellow gold, and even platinum. One of its most famous versions, the model 6239 given as a gift to actor Paul Newman by his wife Joanne Woodward, set the record for the most expensive watch ever, selling at auction for over $17 million in 2017. Vintage Daytona models like Newman’s, with fewer markings and a plain white or black dial, typically sell in the low six figures, while contemporary stainless models run a far more “reasonable” $18,000.
One of the oldest watchmakers in the world is the Swiss watch company Vacheron Constantin, which can date its origins to watchmaker Jean-Marc Vacheron hiring his first apprentice in 1755.
The company has been continuously making watches ever since. With a long list of famous customers from Napoleon to Harry Truman to Princess Diana, Vacheron Constantin timepieces are exactly the kind of multi-generational keepsakes you would expect given their premium price.
Their most familiar model, the Patrimony, reflects a classic and minimalist design combined with the mechanical perfection you would expect. While some models cost about as much as an entry-level new car, the most familiar iteration of the Patrimony, a self-winding mechanism in an 18 karat white gold case with a simple black leather band, costs a bit more at around $23,000.
Another Swiss matchmaker Piaget can trace its beginnings to a small firm manufacturing watch movements in the 19th century, but by the early 20th century, they had moved on to manufacturing and selling their own branded wristwatches.
The end result is a line of advanced mechanical watches with some of the thinnest mechanisms possible; indeed, an early design of these ultra-thin mechanisms set a Guinness record for its demure stature. Today that devotion to mechanical perfection in small packages is best reflected in the Piaget
Altiplano, with 31 different models for men beginning at $16,100. But the showcase pieces of the Altiplano line are those with crystals and dials that allow a look inside that thin mechanism, including the Altiplano Ultimate Automatic, with visible gears and a 41mm face, all wrapped in one of the thinnest automatic cases available in the world. The Ultimate Automatic in white gold retails for $28,200.
One of the most recognizable watches in the world, the Breitling Navitimer is a favorite of aviators around the world.
Developed in the 1940s as commercial aviation exploded, the outside bezel includes a circular slide rule for aid in navigation and timing; the watch takes its name from a combination of those two words. One of the original Mercury astronauts, Scott Carpenter, suggested the addition of a 24-hour timing dial for military use, and the classic black and white version of the Navitimer was born.
In recent years, with the explosion of larger watches, Breitling has issued a 46 millimeter-wide version that retains all the functionality of the original, including its chronometer-certified status resized for today’s larger tastes. At $8,680 retail, it’s a classic watch that won’t require a mortgage in order to add it to your collection.
If a watch with a luxury price tag is out of your reach, you can still admire them from afar. The Watch Book Compendium is a fantastic book filled with over a thousand beautiful images from Luxury brands like Cartier, Rolex, Tag Heuer and Patek Philippe.
Yes, a smartwatch can interface with modern technology, and low-end sports watches won’t cost an actual fortune if they become misplaced. You cannot, however, compare the craftsmanship of a watch from a luxury watch brand that has been watchmaking for over a hundred years.
When it’s time to invest in an heirloom piece, a luxury watch is a remarkable investment. If you are lucky enough to own a timepiece from one of these high-end luxury brands, don’t leave it gathering dust in the box. They may not be your typical dress-watch, but they certainly should see the light of day, or the moon, as it were.
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