Feature: The best watches from 10 brands
Here’s ten top luxury watch brands, and ten watches that I think are the absolute best they offer. Some of the choices might not be what you expect, especially the last one.
If you were to ask someone what they think the best Rolex is, chances are they might say Submariner or Daytona or something equally wrong. Why is that wrong? Because there’s a watch that not only flies under the radar for Rolex, that can actually cost less used than new—it’s also the most complicated and impressive watch the brand makes.
I’m talking about the Rolex Sky-Dweller, a watch that’s sat relatively unloved in the catalogue for over a decade despite being such a powerhouse. In the same sized case as an Explorer II at 42mm, and with a price starting at just a pinch more than a Daytona, it’s not only impressive, it’s the bargain of the collection.
It’s the complication that makes it what it is. Ringed around the centre is a dual time zone indicator, like a GMT Master II bezel but set into the dial. But the jaw-dropping part is one you can barely see. Around the hour markers are little windows, with one in red. That’s the month indicator, because this is an annual calendar. Yes, like the $50,000 Patek Philippe 4947.
The crazy thing is the whole watch is set by the crown, with each function—time, GMT and calendar—selected with the rotating bezel.
There have been a lot of terrible Breitling watches, and in recent years a lot of great ones, but the one that stands out above the crowd continues to be the one that made it famous: the Navitimer. Breitling jumped on the aviation bandwagon about as quick as the first planes got into the air, seeing a great opportunity to seed its chronograph watches into the industry.
Breitling actually set up a subsidiary called the Huit Aviation Department for its eight-day aircraft clocks and chronographs, and it was this aviation persuasion that got the minds of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association ticking.
You see, Breitling would try and flog a chronograph whichever way it could. If you were the captain of the aircraft you’d have your Huit Aviation instruments, and if you were the passenger in the back you’d have your Breitling Premier. But what about the casual aviation enthusiast?
Back in those days, a lot of mid-flight calculations were done with complex and cumbersome slide rules, and it just so happened that Breitling had a slide rule watch called the Chronomat, aimed at scientists and engineers and other eggheads. But the AOPA persuaded Breitling to recalibrate that watch for aviation use, and in 1952, the Navitimer was created.
Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Chronograph Calendar
There’s a reason no one’s really heard of Jaeger-LeCoultre. That’s because instead of focussing on the sale of its own watches, it’s been too busy making incredible watches for other people. Not only did Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin all rely on Jaeger-LeCoultre to get them through the quartz crisis, Jaeger-LeCoultre also almost nearly sold off the rights to one of its most famous watches, the Reverso. To who? Patek Philippe. As if they didn’t get enough help from Jaeger-LeCoultre.
So, whilst the brand doesn’t get to sun itself alongside the big three, for those in the know it is still a goldmine of delicious watchmaking. Take, for example, the Master Control Chronograph, which is to Jaeger-LeCoultre what the statue of David is to Michelangelo. It’s not just an exercise in engineering, but sculptural beauty as well.
The 40mm case may boast the calibre 759 with its solid gold rotor weight and chronograph calendar complication, but let’s face it, we’re all here for the way this watch looks. Sometimes beauty only needs to be skin deep.
There’s a delicacy and complexity to the Master Control Chronograph Calendar that makes a butterfly’s wing look like a ping pong bat. From the tachymeter scale ringing the dial to the twin day and date windows under the branding, every part of it looks to have the fragility of a China doll. Of course, being made by Jaeger-LeCoultre, the master of overengineering, it’ll likely survive most anything.
So, the story goes that the great Omega Speedmaster was developed alongside NASA to make it the perfect accompaniment to an astronaut’s spacewalk, but it turns out the whole story is hooey. Omega actually had no idea that NASA was even considering the Speedmaster as its watch of choice, and only discovered that it had become official supplier to the space program when the pictures of Ed White wearing one on a spacewalk were released.
So, the choice to stick with Hesalite instead of sapphire, the move to stick hands over broadarrow, the change from silver bezel to black—those are all changes Omega made because, well, they made sense. The watch was more usable that way and NASA agreed, selecting a reference to test that had those amendments.
Still, that watch, with or without NASA’s feedback, was the one that made it to the moon to be worn by Buzz Aldrin as he took his first steps on the lunar surface. Omega could make a watch that literally turns dirt into gold and it still wouldn’t top that.
IWC Portuguese Perpetual Calendar
The International Watch Company was one built not of style or romance, but of a cold-hearted need to make better watches. So committed was founder Florentine Ariosto Jones that he upped sticks from the US and set sail for a little Swiss town called Schaffhausen, where he employed the American way of producing watches but with a cheaper, Swiss-German workforce and incentivised by local government tax cuts.
He was so dang committed that the business went bankrupt several times, producing a greater volume of high-quality watches than even he had anticipated. Once a business mind was able to focus his incredible engineering achievements, the watchmaker was resurfaced and continued on to great success.
One of those successes was in the ability to produce incredibly accurate movements that were much smaller that their competitors’, which led two Portuguese travelling businessmen to request a wristwatch made with IWC’s best chronometer movement. And lo and behold, the Portuguese was born, a watch that embodies the mantra of form follows function entirely, looking absolutely stunning as a result.
Today’s perpetual calendar variation of the Portuguese in 42mm is, I think, the greatest incarnation of engineering complexity wrought with design simplicity in the industry. The ability to track days, months, years and even leap years in a watch that looks no more complex than a chronograph is a sight to behold, and once more as a by-product, an absolute beauty.
Tudor Black Bay Fifty Eight
Pretty much known as the default choice and the watch for people with no ability to choose for themselves, the Black Bay Fifty Eight has earnt the crown for the least imaginative watch on the face of the planet. And that’s a good thing.
From the launch of the Heritage series, starting with the Heritage Chrono, through to the introduction of the Black Bay and the eventual appearance of the refined Black Bay Fifty Eight, the whole process, while iterative and perhaps even predictable, is evidence of something that rarely happens in the industry: listening.
Yes, Tudor not only heard the feedback of the watch-buying public, it went against every tradition of the watchmaking business to put what it heard into action. The original Black Bay was a bit too big, a bit too thick, and featured a date that cluttered the dial. The Black Bay Fifty Eight corrected all that and added some fancy vintage colours and an in-house movement, too.
You could say it’s pandering, but then sometimes when enough people want something that strongly, the best thing to do is just give it to them. And that’s what Tudor did with the Black Bay Fifty Eight. At 39mm, and comfortably slim, it’s not only a very attractive watch but a universally wearable one, too. And with a price point that remains unbelievably competitive for a well-known Swiss watchmaker, it was not only a default purchase, but has basically become my default recommendation as well.
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Tourbillon
Say what you like about Audemars Piguet cashing in on the Royal Oak, it is a very handsome watch. With a design as functional as a paper mache submarine, it should have by all rights been sent to design hell, but somehow the cheeky little details like the slotted hexagonal bolts that don’t turn and octagonal case that adds nothing simply make the watch more endearing.
There have been many other iterations of the watch since. Bigger as the Offshore, in blue ceramic with a perpetual calendar, open worked with twin balances and of course with a dial like a 1980s laserdisc. But, to me at least, the Royal Oak that tops them all is the one with the complication that best matches its design: the tourbillon.
Think about it: this is a watch whose existence is completely pointless. It clings on to an extinct technology by virtue of a design that functionally achieves nothing. So, what better to fit it with than a complication that, in a wristwatch, should be extinct because it functionally achieves nothing.
It’s a marriage made in heaven, held together only by steel screws and charm. It’s like a steam-powered record player, as fun as it is redundant, and all the better for it. Keep your laserdiscs and blue ceramic. This is the one to have.
A. Lange & Söhne Triple Split
We all once thought a chronograph was just a chronograph, but it’s not. There’s chronographs and then there’s chronographs. You’ve got your basic chronograph, start, stop, reset. Breitling came up with the genius idea of having a separate pusher for reset, and that’s where the craziness started.
Next was the flyback, where reset could be used while the chronograph was running, so it bounced back and restarted all in one press. Then came the split second, which added another second hand and a pusher which could pause and catch up independently.
And that gave A. Lange & Söhne an idea. What if they could split a minute? And so came the Double Split in 2004 that did just that, splitting both the seconds and the minutes. And that gave A. Lange & Söhne an idea. What if they could split an hour? An entirely pointless feat of course, because in what circumstance would that be needed—but a dare is a dare, and A. Lange & Söhne doesn’t back down.
So in 2018, A. Lange & Söhne gave us a limited-run series of the Triple Split, a watch that cracked seconds, minutes and hours in two. They make it look so simple, but basically this watch is packing a chronograph complication and then an extra chronograph complication for each of the split units. With 567 parts, the original $147,000 price could almost be considered a bargain.
A passing glance at Panerai’s ungainly Luminor will quickly tell you it is the by-product of an overenthusiastic imagination looking to do things differently. And with it being Italian, yeah, you could well believe that. But the reality is far removed from the idea of an Italian designer drawing big, swooping lines on an A3 pad, because the Luminor’s design is actually what you get when you don’t want to spend any money.
Panerai was original known for selling watches and painting military equipment with a luminous, radium-based paint called Radiomir. The Italian Navy bought a lot of this stuff, and inevitably asked for a watch as well, one that could be used at night, underwater.
Panerai didn’t actually make watches at the time, just sold them, so they got on the phone to a then unknown player in the game that was making a bit of a splash with its waterproof watches: Rolex. To meet the size and water resistance criteria, Rolex took a sealed art deco pocket watch it had, soldered some lugs onto it, fitted Panerai’s glowing dial and called it a day. It couldn’t have been cheaper.
But there was a problem. The water resistance of this watch relied upon a screw-down crown, but given the hand wound movement needed topping up every day, the crown tube threads were taking a hammering and failing very frequently.
This was around the time radium was being replaced with tritium and so Radiomir become Luminor, and it was also around the time Rolex had introduced its automatically winding, Perpetual movement. But that was expensive, so instead of fitting that, Panerai took out the screw thread and fitted a lever-based compression seal instead—the famous crown guard we all know and love today.
Patek Philippe 5960
If you were to classify the quintessential modern Patek Philippe, what would you pick? The ever-popular Nautilus? The 5327 with its luscious perpetual calendar? The 5270 for its obscenely complex and traditional look? For me, no. It’s the 5960, because while we consider Patek Philippe to be a fiercely traditional brand, its history is actually paved with forward-thinking ideas—and I think the 5960 represents that perfectly.
From the first winding and setting crown to the first electronic clock, Patek Philippe is always challenging the standards of watchmaking. Even now, experimenting with things like silicon and compliant mechanisms, it’s doing stuff that’s very un-traditional.
The 5960 combines Patek Philippe’s annual calendar—which was famously more complex than its perpetual—with a chronograph in a layout that blends traditional watchmaking with modern sportiness. The separation of the calendar elements over the three windows up top and the chronograph compressed into a single sub-dial keeps the look clean, whilst the steel case and bracelet plus the pop of colour gives it a modern, casual vibe. Simply put it’s the best of everything Patek Philippe does in a single watch.
What watches do you think represent the best of each brand?