What does a new crop of luxury watches tell us about the direction of travel in this most stately of industries?

The world of luxury watches can be bemusing to follow from afar, with its never-ending talk of hyped-up fashion collaborations, tourbillons and titanium at one end, and intense technical jargon at the other. It helps, I find, to consider everything on a spectrum from tradition to modernity: every watch brand is engaged in a constant dialogue with its past while fighting to stay relevant in a rapidly changing world.

Slick overhaul

A good example is one of the biggest stories in the watch world this year, the 50th anniversary of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. As both the single most influential design of the last half-century and one of the most in-demand watches right now, Audemars Piguet was never going to overhaul it drastically, instead playing it safe with a range of new designs that delighted purists, while introducing a new automatic movement as a reminder that substance, as well as style, has a part to play.

Ploughing a similar furrow is Vacheron Constantin, which stole the show at ‘Watches and Wonders’ in Geneva in April with a revival of its 1970s icon Historique 222 in period-correct yellow gold.

This left all eyes on Patek Philippe, whose Nautilus is commonly bracketed alongside the Royal Oak and 222 as part of a ‘holy trinity’ of 1970s designs that melted the divide between high-end luxury and sporty, practical design. Last year Patek discontinued the Ref 5711 Nautilus, before stoking demand to new heights by releasing limited-edition ‘end-of-run’ models, most notably in collaboration with Tiffany’s.

A new Nautilus design was widely expected to be announced in Geneva, but fans were left waiting as the brand instead chose to focus on introducing a more youthful, playful aesthetic to some of its other lines, with a strong focus on travel time and chronograph complications. The 5326 Calatrava Annual Calendar Travel Time is classic Patek Philippe given a new spin, with a charcoal grey dial described as reminiscent of vintage camera bodies, while the Ref 5470 1/10th Second Monopusher Chronograph is a stunning reminder that this most idolised brand is first and foremost an engineer of incredible watchmaking rather than merely a vehicle for social media activity.

Venerated classics

A renewed focus on the staple genres of tool watches – after a year of headline-grabbing limited editions and collaborations – was evident at the more mainstream brands, too. Rolex and sister brand Tudor both led out with GMT models; the opinion-splitting left-handed GMT-Master II for Rolex, and the Black Bay Pro for Tudor, while the same idea prevailed at Longines with its handsome Spirit Zulu Time, and at Seiko with its Grand Seiko range (there are many similarly impenetrably-named models, but the Spring Time GMT Ref SBGE283 is a highlight, with its steel bezel and deep blue dial).

From the big-name chronograph brands has also come a crop of updates to venerated classics: new Autavia chronographs from TAG Heuer line up alongside Breitling’s refreshed (and much more colourful) Navitimer collection and Omega’s latest Speedmaster ’57 in the ranks of entirely modern takes on designs from a misty-eyed golden era of chronograph creation.

Deep dive

It is with dive watches – that most simple horological template – that we have seen a real flurry of modern, high-tech approaches, however. Montblanc has dipped a toe in the water for the first time with the 1858 Iced Sea, a solid diver that stands out with its fine dial representing glacier ice.

Panerai’s latest Submersible models continue its commitment to recycled steel, or eSteel, as it calls it. And some of the biggest names in underwater watches have pushed to new depths. TAG Heuer’s Aquaracer Professional 1000 Superdiver will take you down to 1,000m without complaint, and boasts a nifty new crown-protection system, while Omega’s Planet Ocean ‘Ultra Deep’ range is rated to a phenomenal 6,000m of pressure.

Into the future

One watch launch, however, has dominated the news so far this year like no other: a collaboration between stablemates Omega and Swatch that saw the look of a Speedmaster Moonwatch carried onto a chunky, bioceramic-cased, quartz-powered Swatch. Released in 11 different colours (each one named for a body in the solar system), it was announced in March to the kind of fanfare usually reserved for Apple ‘drops’ – watch fans slept on the streets of London, Tokyo or New York to have a chance at buying the ‘Moonswatch’, as it was christened.

Some couldn’t understand the hype over a £200, non-limited edition watch; others felt this particular balancing act between tradition and modernity was a little off, but within 24 hours, millions had heard about it and all available stock had sold out worldwide. If anything represents the future of watches, this is probably it.

Words: Chris Hall