07/10/2024
 6 minutes

7 Watches That Changed the Watchmaking Industry

By Aaron Voyles
7-Watches-that-change-the-industry-2-1

7 Watches That Changed the Watchmaking Industry

The world of watchmaking is in a constant state of flux. Things are always changing; styles are always evolving, techniques are always improving, technology is always progressing, aesthetics are always trying to remain fashionable, and so much more. So, all of that naturally begs the question: for an industry that is always on the move, what watches have had the most significant impact? Strictly speaking, it’s tough to say. We can apply plenty of metrics to each watch to try and quantify how it has changed the industry in its own way. So, instead of just naming one watch, I thought I would explore a handful and explain why their contribution to watchmaking was so significant that we can say they changed watchmaking.

1. Rolex Submariner

Introduced in 1953, the Rolex Submariner is often hailed as the archetypal sports watch, but I would be willing to take that a step further. I believe the Submariner is the archetypal watch, full stop. If you asked 100 people on the street to design a watch, they would draw something that resembles the Submariner more often than any other watch. While it was one of the earliest fully-fledged dive watches (let’s not ‘dive’ into that argument), its impact on watchmaking is through the ubiquity that its design has attained through virtually every brand offering a watch that is either inspired by it, a homage to it, or their own version of it while trying to stay in their own lane just enough to have plausible deniability.

It's the archetypal (sports) watch, the Rolex Submariner.
It’s the archetypal (sports) watch, the Rolex Submariner.

Its robust construction, rotating bezel, iconic blend of luminescent hour markers and Mercedes hands have set the standard for dive watches and all sports watches alike for over 70 years. The Submariner’s influence extends beyond its functionality; it has become a cultural icon that has permeated popular culture in its totality, adorning the wrists of James Bond and countless other celebrities, enthusiasts, and members of the general public worldwide.

2. Cartier Tank

Since its debut in 1917, the Cartier Tank has been synonymous with elegance and sophistication. Inspired by the Renault tanks used in World War I, its rectangular case and clean lines have made it a classic that has remained as timeless as the day it was conceived by Louis Cartier himself. In the same vein that the Submariner’s design has changed sports watchmaking, the Tank has changed dress watchmaking. Thanks to how successful the Tank was for Cartier, its design has influenced many high-end brands, each creating their own versions of this iconic watch without much differentiation.

Cartier Tank stands for elegance and sophistication.
Cartier Tank stands for elegance and sophistication.

Without listing every brand, the vast majority of high-end watchmakers have created their own take on the Tank over the years. And, as they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and the Tank wouldn’t be deserving of all that flattery if it wasn’t a watch that changed the industry.

3. Audemars Piguet Royal Oak

Introduced in 1972, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak revolutionized the watch industry by blending the apex of luxury with a casual sportiness that had never been done before, at least not by a high-end brand within the Holy Trinity. Designed by Gérald Genta, its distinctive octagonal bezel, integrated bracelet, and exposed screws and rubber gasket were groundbreaking due to just how avant-garde all were as design choices.

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak is another watch that had a huge impact on the industry.
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak is another watch that had a huge impact on the industry.

Launched in a bid to drive some demand AP’s way on the back of the onslaught that the Quartz Crisis had created, the Royal Oak effectively saved Audemars Piguet and created a new category of high-end sports watches that spawned watches like the Patek Philippe Nautilus, the Vacheron Constantin 222/Overseas, the IWC Ingenieur, the Girard-Perregaux Laureato, and many more. Books have been written about just how influential the Royal Oak was, so it is safe to say that it certainly left its mark on watchmaking.

4. Seiko Astron

Next up, we have the watch that created the need for the Royal Oak, the Seiko Astron. Launched in 1969, Seiko introduced the Astron as the world’s first quartz watch. A technological marvel offering unprecedented accuracy, reliability, significantly lower maintenance costs, and state-of-the-art technology, the Astron outperformed mechanical watches in almost every aspect. While plenty of other brands were trying to create quartz movements to put in their own watches, the Astron sparked the quartz revolution thanks to it being the very first.

The Seiko Astron made accurate timekeeping accessible to the masses.
The Seiko Astron made accurate timekeeping accessible to the masses.

Its release led to a dramatic shift in the watch industry, as it made accurate timekeeping accessible to the masses. Granted, the Astron itself was an incredibly expensive 18kt yellow gold watch, but the technology inside it quickly spread and formed one of modern watchmaking’s three foundational movement types: automatic, manual-wind, and quartz.

5. Swatch

Introduced in 1983, the Swatch was pivotal in saving the Swiss watch industry from the quartz crisis. The Swiss watchmaking industry’s response to the Quartz Crisis up until that point was to put quartz movements inside their typical watches or to experiment with unusual designs and fit them with quartz movements. All valiant efforts at battling a relentless enemy, Swiss watchmakers were not as successful as their Japanese counterparts at achieving mass-market success due to one main reason: they were unable to shift their focus from creating long-lasting timepieces to making disposable fashion statements.

Swatch watches are affordable and fun - and this makes them so special. Copyright: Swatch
Swatch watches are affordable and fun – and this makes them so special. Copyright: Swatch

Noticing this glaring weakness in the industry’s strategy, Nicolas Hayek created the Swatch watch as a means of producing affordable, stylish, and fun watches that resonated with consumers worldwide. The innovative use of plastic and bold designs made the Swatch a fashion statement. Swatch not only revived interest in Swiss watches but also made them accessible to a broader audience, a new tactic for Swiss watchmaking, ensuring the survival and resurgence of Swiss watchmaking as a whole.

6. Patek Philippe Calatrava

I must admit, there was a handful of Patek watches that I thought I could mention in this list, like the ref. 1518 or ref. 2499, but while they might be way more complicated, it is hard to argue that they have changed the industry more than the Calatrava. In the same way that the Submariner and Tank have both defined their respective market segments, the Calatrava has defined the classical dress watch category since its introduction in 1932 with its Bauhaus-inspired minimalist design, characterized by clean lines and an elegant round case, which has set the benchmark for elegance and sophistication in watchmaking.

Another icon of a dress watch: the Patek Philippe Calatrava.
Another icon of a dress watch: the Patek Philippe Calatrava.

Additionally, the Calatrava’s release was a last-ditch effort to save Patek’s faltering finances at the time, so this model also benefits from the same status as the Royal Oak whereby its existence allowed its respective maker to continue existing, so it deserves a place on this list simply because it had a hand in everything that Patek released after it.

7. Apple Watch

Last but not least, we have a watch that many don’t even consider a watch: the Apple Watch. Launched in 2015, the Apple Watch has redefined what a watch can be. While some purists might argue that it’s more of a gadget than a traditional watch or a wrist-worn computer (this writer included), its impact on the watchmaking industry is undeniable, for better or for worse.

We leave it for you to decide whether the Apple watch is a 'real' watch or not. Copyright: Apple
We leave it for you to decide whether the Apple watch is a ‘real’ watch or not. Copyright: Apple

The Apple Watch has introduced a new generation of wristwear to the industry, combining timekeeping with fitness tracking, communication, and a host of other functionalities that traditional watchmaking cannot even dream of ever competing with. Sure, its launch has created a category of watchmaking that brands like Louis Vuitton, Hublot, TAG Heuer, Montblanc, and others are competing with, but its impact on horology is twofold. The Apple Watch has an incredible ability to suck sales away from lower-priced brands, but it has also proven itself to have the power to bring watches back into mainstream consciousness as people once again fill the empty void on their wrists that mobile phones had created through making the act of time-checking on a wristwatch obsolete. While it might not create an immediate impact, the Apple Watch has done wonders for traditional watchmaking as Apple Watch wearers graduate from their gadgets to real watches en masse.

Conclusion

Like any industry, horology has been shaped by numerous innovations, iconic designs, and incredible watches over the decades. Whether you’re drawn to the ruggedness of the Rolex Submariner or the cutting-edge technology of the Apple Watch, these timepieces offer a glimpse into the artistry and ingenuity that define the world of horology, and each of them has had their very own impact on horology in unique and wonderful ways.


About the Author

Aaron Voyles

I love everything about watchmaking, from the artistry of their design to the engineering hidden within their movements and the history that breathes life into their stories.

Read more

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