We round up the finest watches released in 2020 – and look ahead to 2021, which may prove to be as unpredictable a year as the one that has just passed…
Where to begin? No walk of life has been exempt from the impact of the coronavirus, and while it may seem, as you flick through the following pages, that the world of luxury watches remains as well-stocked with finely polished playthings as ever, it has not been a smooth ride. In fact, as I discuss in my predictions for the future (normally a somewhat irreverent affair), the worst may be yet to come as the pandemic continues into 2021.
The makers of expensive watches have proven resilient – in line with their clientele – but times remain tough for those tasked with selling them, especially in the UK. As Business Traveller readers will appreciate, airport retail is well down, as are the volumes of visitors to London’s premium shopping districts who keep watch boutiques and department stores busy. The pandemic has hastened the watch world’s engagement with e-commerce – a welcome development for anyone not located within close reach of Bond Street. It seems likely that the way we buy watches could be quite different in the future, with try-before-you-buy schemes and same-day delivery already on offer from some online stores. Some may look at a celebration of expensive watches as inappropriate in such times, but I’d argue that continuing to take an interest in life’s luxuries doesn’t preclude us from caring about the bigger picture. Everyone needs their passions and, if watches are yours, hopefully they can provide a welcome distraction. On the product front, it has been a mixed year; several of the biggest players quickly decided to keep their powder dry or postpone their major launches, so we have seen little from Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, Vacheron Constantin, Omega or Tudor. It has also been a very quiet year from Switzerland’s many high-end niche brands; one hopes they will all live to fight another day.
The bulk of what we have seen has been as expected – watches are designed and brought to market over a period of three to five years, so the extent of any knee-jerk reactions will simply have been to put certain models on ice until things return to normal. Certainly, I was not short of candidates for our round-up of the year’s best watches – the following pages are, as ever, a medley of mechanical ingenuity and aesthetic panache passed…
WATCHES OF 2020
Best Overall Watch
- Piaget Altiplano Ultimate Concept (pictured above)
I last wrote about Piaget for these pages in 2018, when I sang the praises of its record-breaking Altiplano watch, the thinnest automatic in the world at the time (at 4.3mm thick). Today, that feels a little like congratulating Roger Federer on his first grand slam; justified at the time but somewhat eclipsed by subsequent events. For this year, Piaget presented a watch that, in its totality from top to bottom, caseback to crystal, measures just two millimetres thick. Yes, you read that right – a fully functioning, series-produced (a very limited series, but still), automatic-winding wristwatch that’s even thinner than a pound coin. It’s phenomenal. To look at it, you can’t imagine putting it on for fear of bending the case or snapping the crystal (which is just 0.2mm thick), but thanks to Piaget’s use of an entirely new cobalt-based alloy, such fears are unfounded. There are more complicated watches, and there are mechanical developments in watchmaking history that have had a greater significance, but as an achievement of engineering and design this is right up there with the best of them. piaget.com
Best Alternative to a Rolex Submariner
- Jaeger-LeCoultre Polaris Mariner Date
We may have been graced with a new Rolex Submariner in 2020, but I regret to tell you it will be all but impossible to get your hands on. It is also very much the margherita pizza of dive watches; fundamental to the entire category and appealingly pure of purpose, but there is undeniably more flavour to be had elsewhere. Which brings me to the Polaris Mariner Date. Jaeger-LeCoultre doesn’t even begin to boast of a dive watch pedigree like Rolex, but it did make some much-loved models in the late ’60s, and its watchmakers know their way around a workbench as well as anyone. The Mariner Date is recognisably its own beast, unlike many other dive watches that struggle to escape Rolex’s shadow. It’s defined by its twin crowns, the second of which operates an internal rotating bezel, an essential component for any true dive watch. At 42mm, it is a shade bigger than the new Submariner, and as befits a brand whose pitch is traditionally associated with elegant, high-end watchmaking, both the dial and case are finished in a more refined manner. jaeger-lecoultre.com
- Frederique Constant Highlife Perpetual Calendar Manufacture
Eyebrows may be raised – a Frédérique Constant for seven and a half grand as my value pick? Indeed so; not only is it a bona fide Swiss Made in-house perpetual calendar movement, but whereas previous models have been a tad fusty, it now comes packaged in a genuinely attractive design. frederiqueconstant.com
Best Tribute to the Glorious Past
- A Lange and Sohne 1815 Rattrapante Honeygold
Utterly gorgeous watchmaking from a brand that is one of the best in the business, made in honour of F A Lange, who established the first watch company in the German hamlet of Glashutte in 1845. This “honeygold”-cased split-seconds chronograph, resplendent from front to back, will make 100 collectors very happy indeed. alange-soehne.com
- Audemars Piguet Code 11.59 Flying Tourbillon Chronograph
Audemars Piguet got a skewering in 2019 for the Code 11.59 – a design that many felt did not warrant the fanfare with which it was announced (to put it mildly) – but this year it has added a number of models that make good use of the intricate case construction and wide dial space. Chief among them is this tourbillon chronograph, a maximalist effort that combines colour, complications and texture very effectively. With the blue lacquered inner bezel framing the openworked mechanism, there is a great sense of depth and detail to the watch that matches its case, with its hollowed-out lugs and multifaceted sides. Time always improves one’s perspective, and with a year under our belts, the Code 11.59 has grown into a collection that feels much more at home at Audemars Piguet. The name, for me, still feels difficult to love (am I buying a watch, or an airport thriller in the best traditions of Tom Clancy or Lee Child?) but, to be honest, that’s unlikely to deter you from buying one if you have the motivation and the means – likely more than six figures. audemarspiguet.com
Best Watch Nerd Choice
- Doxa Sub 300T
A key player in pioneering the very first dive watches back in the early 1960s, Doxa today is a minnow beside the likes of Rolex, Seiko or Omega, but that adds to the appeal: the newly reissued Sub 300T is the credible dive watch that no one’s heard of. Get it with the “beads of rice” bracelet and orange dial for the proper look. doxawatches.com
- Oris X Momotaro Divers Sixty-Five
Co-branded collaborations have produced some of the most interesting and enjoyable watches of recent years. This one won out for me not because I have an ardent passion for connoisseur-grade Japanese denim, which is Momotaro’s scene, but because I put it on and really did not want to take it off. Sometimes it’s that simple. oris.ch
- Glashutte Original Alfred Helwig Tourbillon 1920
Awards for understatement aren’t always readily on offer in the watch business, especially since the modern trend is to flaunt every aspect of your watchmaking ability with openworked dials that completely reveal the movement beneath. But this limited-edition model is a masterpiece of restraint. It celebrates a somewhat arcane invention: 100 years ago, German watchmaker Alfred Helwig (also a distinguished professor and former technical director of the Glashutte watchmaking school) created the “flying” tourbillon – one that needs no metal bridge on top to anchor it in place. The tourbillon already being a delicate, extremely finely poised device (intended to mitigate against the negative effects of gravity on timekeeping by rotating the balance wheel over a given interval, usually one minute), allowing it to spin around with little support and still perform its function with accuracy is a feat of horological showmanship. These days, although tourbillon watches are decidedly more common, flying ones remain less so, and this is a particularly well made example. Hardly any watch brand can resist the temptation to show off such a device through a hole in the dial, but Glashutte Original has played it cool, and for that it stood out among the crowd. Of course, you can still see the tourbillon in all its glory through the caseback… glashuette-original.com
Best First Watch
- Longines Heritage Classic Tuxedo
The name, and that two-tone dial, may have you reaching for the shoe polish, shawl-collar jacket and cummerbund, but the truth is that this is a watch to wear day in, day out, all year round. It’s a perfect size – 38.5mm – and as uncomplicated as they come, without even a date window to distract from that evenly balanced dial. longines.com
Best Chronograph Design
- H Moser and Cie Streamliner Flyback Chronograph
At times, I am almost evangelical about H Moser’s ability to buck the trend and yet follow it; to run with the pack and poke fun at its foibles. So I’ll just say this – the Streamliner combines a sensational chronograph movement with a case and bracelet design that is as sophisticated in its concept as it is in its execution. h-moser.com
- Bamford Casio G-Shock 5610
George Bamford’s creations never fail to raise a reaction – earlier this year he collaborated on a watch with a dial made from, I kid you not, coffee grounds – but nothing has tickled the fancy of watch collectors young and old like this G-Shock limited edition, executed in his trademark black and blue. The ultimate nostalgia trip for the horological in-crowd. bamfordlondon.com
Best Sartorial Decision
- Cartier Santos
Svelte, suave and serene, Cartier’s latest addition to the Santos range is the most knowingly stylish watch I came across this year – an artful reimagining of a 1980s icon that, despite the austere colour scheme, doesn’t take itself too seriously. Don’t believe me? No one else would put steel rivets in a rubber strap just for the sake of it. cartier.com
PREDICTIONS FOR 2021
Rough seas ahead
The disruptive effect of a global pandemic on watchmaking will manifest itself fully, as delays in supply chains that span Asia, Europe and the Americas have an impact on manufacturing. Mainstream watch companies rely on a relatively small network of suppliers for components – anything from sapphire crystals to dials or strap buckles – and exist in an ecosystem where lead times and production capacities leave little margin for error. If any of these companies should go under, it will make life tricky for dozens of brands, and the retailers that rely on them.
Environmentalism to the fore
Watchmaking’s association with sustainability used to begin and end with photogenic charitable initiatives aimed at saving marine life; laudable in their own right but irrelevant to the core issues of production and manufacturing. There are signs of a shift in mentality, with brands such as IWC leading the way on sustainable business practices, and projects from Breitling and Panerai to increase their use of reclaimed material (Panerai is working on a project to create the world’s first 100 per cent recycled watch, but it is likely to launch only as a limited proof-of-concept). I think 2021 will be the year that Switzerland really wakes up to sustainability, but, as ever, the pace of change will not be fast enough.
Entrepreneurs will rise
Crisis usually breeds creativity and I expect the coronavirus to be no different. Whether it concerns the way we buy and sell watches – new, pre-owned or vintage – the materials they are made from, or the way we congregate to share our affection for this anachronistic obsession, 2021 will probably see some bright sparks bringing new ideas to the world of watches. Not before time.
A bumper year
Much as we are generally hoping that 2021 will make up for 2020 on a sporting, artistic, cultural, gastronomic and, dare I say it, political level, I would like to think that we will see an outstanding array of watches hit our boutiques, websites and Instagram feeds, as what went unreleased in 2020 can wait no longer. And although I am free from the obligation of predicting a new Rolex Submariner – we finally got one! – is it sacrilege to ask that in 2021 it releases something ever so slightly more interesting?