Buying a fine mechanical watch is a bit like buying a car. You may know which brand you want but, once you get in the showroom, you realise the models – and variations thereof – are practically limitless. And, just like your first car, you probably don’t plan to be wearing the first real watch you buy in a few decades' time. In fact, you probably hope to have expanded your metaphorical garage to include gorgeous pieces from a few of your other favourite marques by then.
And who are we to disagree? A well-rounded, thoughtful watch collection is a thing of beauty. We would point out, however, that should you choose that first timepiece carefully there’s no reason not to still be wearing it in years to come. Just like Porsche has the 911 and Jaguar has the XJ, each fine watchmaker has a signature timepiece that just gets better with age. From one of the world’s most popular Rolexes to a Breitling that first made its debut in 1952, these are the finest classic watches to add to your collection now.
The archetypal diving watch – and the second best-selling Rolex of all time – the Submariner made its debut in 1953 as the first divers’ wristwatch waterproof to 100 metres. In 1969 a date function was added and, since then, the simplicity and functionality of this quintessential sports timepiece has seen it become the watch of choice for active pursuits, leisure, business and everything in between.
Despite this, Rolex has stayed true to the core features which made the original so great. Just two references – the Submariner and Submariner Date – are available, with both featuring the unidirectional bezel, luminescent markers and hands, and COSC chronometer certification that mark out a great diving watch. The case, too, comes only as a 41mm option (although Oystersteel, yellow gold and white gold versions are offered) with a classic Oyster bracelet and black, green or blue dials.
Vacheron Constantin Traditionelle
Brace yourself for some properly sophisticated watchmaking – and the prices that go with it. The Traditionelle line was founded to bring together the nearly-three centuries of watchmaking expertise that Vacheron Constantin possesses and undoubtedly offers the purest forms of haute horlogerie you’ll find outside of limited editions and novelties.
Built-up over decades, with just one or two new pieces added each year, the current collections spans from a relatively simplistic self-winding timepiece to high jewellery creations that are weeks in the making. What each does promise, however, is an elegantly refined aesthetic behind which lies some of the most impressive complications in watchmaking. Think ultra-slim movements, tourbillons, minute repeaters and perpetual calendars. Just don’t be surprised when the till rings up a price equivalent to a small house.
Tag Heuer Carrera
Viewed by many as the original racing chronograph, the Tag Heuer Carrera sped onto the scene in 1963, inspired by watchmaker Jack Heuer's discovery of the legendary Carrera Panamaricana car race. Said to be Heuer’s favourite creation (a tall order given the house’s illustrious history), the Carrera has been worn by driving icons, such as Jo Siffert and the Scuderia Ferrari team, as well as celebrities including Leonardo DiCaprio and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Over the years the design has been tweaked and refined, with the movement also updated to incorporate modern advancements, but the racing pedigree of this classic timepiece remains evident. The latest additions to the collection came in 2020, when Tag Heuer introduced four new models, as well as two limited editions, to celebrate its 160th anniversary. Each of the new models hides a sophisticated calibre Heuer 02 automatic movement within its 44mm steel case, powering complications including a 30-minute counter, 12-hour counter, small seconds subdial and date window.
Blancpain Fifty Fathoms
Another diving watch to make it into the annals of watchmaking history, the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms was introduced in 1953 by then Blancpain CEO – and avid diver – Jean-Jacques Fiechter. Taking its name from the British measurement of depth (equivalent to around 90 metres and, at the time, the deepest diving technology would allow), the first model featured a number of patented innovations, including a lockable bezel and double O-ring crown seal to improve water resistance. The watch soon caught the attention of serious divers, become the official watch of the Frogmen unit of the French Navy and being worn by Jacques Cousteau when filming Oscar-winning documentary The Silent World in 1955.
Since then the Fifty Fathoms has remained a core part of the Blancpain offering, with remarkably little changing in terms of design. The bezel may have slimmed down and the case expanded but many of the details, down to the font used in the date window, remain. And, while the full Fifty Fathoms collection is now vast – spanning from dressed up timepieces with tourbillons and sunburst dials to the X Fathoms (the most high-performance mechanical diving watch ever produced), for us it will always be the simple, and true to the original, Bathyscaphe that wins our vote.
From the deepest depths to the highest heights, the next classic watch to add to your collection began life in 1952 as a cutting-edge pilot’s timepiece. Designed by Willy Breitling as a commission for the US Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the Breitling Navitimer integrated the logarithmic slide rule seen on the earlier Chronomat with a rotating bezel, enabling pilots to perform complicated calculations about speed, distance, fuel consumption and rate of climb or descent using just their wristwatch.
Of course, both plane and watch have come a long way since then and, while the Navitimer remains a favourite among pilots, it was also taken up for its aesthetic appeal – with Miles Davis, Jim Clark and Serge Gainsbourg all confirmed fans. Today, the Navitimer remains at the heart of the Breitling watch family, with new interpretations of the original routinely added to keep the collection fresh. One of the most recent, 2019’s Navitimer 1 Automatic 41, did this by virtue of an understated, clean design aimed at the modern traveller in need of a watch that’s as at home in the boardroom as it is in the cockpit.
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak
Designed by Gérald Genta, a man considered by most to be the 20th century’s greatest watch designer, the Royal Oak made its debut in 1972 as the world’s first luxury steel sports watch. Beyond this, its history becomes a little hazy. Legend has it that it was initially a flop, with only 1,000 pieces sold in the first four years. Audemar Piguet’s in-house historians dispute this, saying that 2,000 pieces had been sold by 1975 – but that most of these remain unaccounted for. At the time the brand was making around 5,000 watches per year, and the watchmaking industry itself was in turmoil over the quartz crisis, meaning the Royal Oak would have been regarded a success from the off.
Whichever story you believe, the Royal Oak is now the cornerstone of the Audemars Piguet house, and one of the most elegant and coveted watches on the market. Its sleek integrated bracelet, tapisserie dial and octagonal bezel stand out from the crowd as much now as they did in the 1970s and have made the Royal Oak the perfect base from which to incorporate skeletonised dials, ultra-thin movements and precious metals. However, if you’re thinking of buying one you may want to hold off for now. The Royal Oak celebrates its 50th anniversary next year and if there were ever a timepiece destined for a seriously special anniversary edition, it’s this one.
Tudor Black Bay
Introduced in 2012, the Tudor Black Bay is something of a modern classic – but a classic nonetheless. If you find that date a little unsatisfying, however, take solace in the knowledge that the modern Black Bay is, in fact, based on the brand’s Submariner design which hails from 1954, and much of the contemporary watches design language hails from the earliest timepieces. Take, for example, the signature ‘big crown’ which has become an emblem of the Black Bay. This comes directly from the 1950s Submariners, which were made without crown guards and with oversized crowns for easier use and better water resistance.
Today there are 11 references in the Black Bay collection, with each connected by their deep black face and luminescent snowflake hands. A range of strap options and bezel colours are available while the newest addition, 2021’s Black Bay Ceramic, saw the watch created with a black ceramic case for the first time.
The first iteration of the IWC Portofino dress watch was introduced in 1984 – and is about as far from shoulder pads and nylon tracksuits as a watch is likely to come. Featuring a large case, slim profile, long slender hands and, most notably, a bold moon phase subdial, the Portofino was almost stately in appearance. Which, naturally, is exactly what IWC had intended. Launched towards the end of the quartz crisis, the house hoped to reinvigorate the mechanical market with a ‘pocket watch for the wrist’, with the Portofino taking its design cues from a pocket watch the brand had created in the 1970s.
Nearly 40 years on, the Portofino has remained a constant of IWC watchmaking and now offers a vast array of references for both men and women. The moon phase can still be found on many, while the rest of the line oscillates between minimalist timepieces and complicated, highly functional chronograph styles. Whichever you prefer, you’ll be hard pressed to find a watch that’s going to look better with a suit and tie.