There have been beloved watches throughout history, watches justly celebrated for design and technological innovation. However, very few timepieces reach a level so iconic that they achieve horological immortality and change the face of watchmaking. Here are ten historically important watches that have stood the test of time.
Zenith el Primero
The Zenith el Primero, which means the first in Spanish, debuted in 1969, and makes this list for one important, even monumental reason—its movement. Zenith gave the el Primero the world’s first automatic chronograph movement. Other automatic chronograph movements were introduced in roughly the same time period, but the el Primero prototype was the first, and operated at an astounding 36,000 vibrations per hour, for unprecedented precision.
Omega Speedmaster Professional “Moonwatch”
There’s iconic, and then there’s iconic. The Omega Speedmaster Professional was worn during the first American spacewalk, and by an astronaut walking on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. Originally designed as a racing and sports chronograph, the Omega Speedmaster was the only watch to pass NASA’s rigorous qualification testing, and journey into space making it a truly out of this world timepiece.
As with many of the other historically important watches on this list, the technological advances that make it so iconic were designed for a specific purpose—in this case to be worn by pilots, and enable them to make all necessary flight calculations at a glance, without need of a slide rule. The Navitimer was soon a part of every pilot’s wardrobe, before finding its way to the wrists of watch aficionados in every walk of life.
IWC First Pilot’s Watch
Another timepiece originally designed for the aviation industry, IWC’s first pilot’s watch was a groundbreaking achievement. It was able to withstand the high pressure and rigors of early cockpits while still keeping reliable, accurate time to the millisecond. The clean, bold design of the watch dial remains sleek and stylish while also easily readable. A true classic.
One of the first truly great timepieces crafted for divers, the Rolex Submariner, was introduced to the world in 1954. It included a rotating bezel, a feature of utmost importance to divers, and was rated for a depth of 100 meters. The Submariner’s iconic status was assured, however, when both Sean Connery and Roger Moore wore the watch in several James Bond movies, from Dr. No through Live and Let Die One could say that the Submariner left the watch world shaken, and stirred.
Tag Heuer Monaco
“The Monaco” is another watch made famous with an iconic appearance on the silver screen, in this case gracing Steve McQueen’s wrist in Le Mans, the 1971 film set in the world of high-performance racing. It was no surprise to see the Tag Heuer Monaco there—after all, it was named for the celebrated Monaco GP Formula One Grand Prix. The Monaco was one of the first automatic chronographs on the market, and was the very first square cased chronograph. A legend on the track and off.
Seiko Quartz Astron
On December 25th, 1969, Seiko unleashed a shot across the bow of the watch industry with the release of the Quartz Astron, the world’s first quartz watch. Seiko eventually opened the patents, setting a new standard and the explosion of quartz timepieces caused a reckoning for the watch industry now known as “the Quartz Crisis”. The Astron continues to be a force for technological innovation—in a later iteration it would become the world’s first GPS solar watch.
Blancpain Fifty Fathoms
The military has ultimately been the source of many technological leaps, and this is true of Blancpain’s Fifty Fathoms—the French military in this case. The Fifty Fathoms was conceived for the Nageuers de combat—the French equivalent of the US Navy SEALS. This quintessential diving watch was designed with a double O-ring seal in the crown, lockable bezel and a black dial with luminescent hour markers and hands for enhanced readability. At a depth of fifty fathoms (nearly 300 feet), those attributes are of paramount importance.
Many of the watches on this list carry the weight of history with them, but none more so than the Breguet Tourbillon. On June 26th, 1801, Abraham-Louis Breguet received a patent for a new type of regulator, the Tourbillon. This invention, which ingeniously counteracted the forces of gravity for more accurate timekeeping, forever changed watchmaking. In 1806 the first commercially available Tourbillon was introduced at an exhibition in Paris and was an immediate sensation among Europe’s elite.
Grand Seiko “Snowflake”
The newest timepiece on this list, the Grand Seiko “Snowflake” is celebrated as a modern classic, a perfect distillation of what Grand Seiko is best known for. The glowing, blue steel second hand glides over a textured, snow white dial inspired by nature. The perfect design is complemented by one of Grand Seiko’s most precise, innovative movements. What the Speedmaster “Moonwatch” is to Omega, the “Snowflake” is to Grand Seiko.