The Enduring Appeal of the Oyster and Its Descendents
New York Times, March 24, 2011
The watch industry does not apply a precise taxonomy to its products, but an obvious point of differentiation rests on a simple question: Is the timepiece dressy or sporty?
Until the early 20th century, the distinction was moot because the only watches on the market were pocket watches — dress styles by definition.
The invention of the chronograph, by Nicolas Rieussec in 1821 (according to most sources), paved the way for watches to be used at sporting events where time measurement was a necessity. It was not, however, until Rolex introduced the Oyster, the first truly water-resistant timepiece, in 1927, that the modern sports watch was born.
Since then, the category has grown into one of the watch industry’s biggest moneymakers. Despite the present vogue among prestige manufacturers for thin, classic timepieces, the brash, oversize sports style, epitomized by the Big Bang by Hublot, the Royal Oak Offshore by Audemars Piguet and any chronograph exceeding 45 millimeters, or 1.77 inches, in diameter, remains a top seller.
The category’s staying power is remarkable in light of its disconnection from the practical uses for which sports watches are intended.
“If you do extreme sports, you don’t want a mechanical watch,” said Fabien Tref, director of Exquisite Timepieces, a watch salon in Naples, Florida. “You want the watch to go with the car and the house. It’s about lifestyle.”
As the industry adjusts to a new economy and a shifting balance of power between buyers in the West, the traditional market for prestige timepieces, and those in the East, where a new breed of luxury consumer now accounts for more than 40 percent of Swiss watch exports, some have wondered how the sports watch will evolve.
“Who is the client for these chunky, ostentatious watches?” said Elizabeth Doerr, a freelance watch journalist based in Karlsruhe, Germany. “The American. Who are these slender looks going to appeal to? The Chinese.”
Predicting the future of the sports watch may be helped by a careful reading of its past. After Rolex’s Oyster ignited interest in the category, demand for sports styles soared again in the 1950s, a reflection of postwar optimism and the dawn of the leisure lifestyle.
Then, in the 1970s, the Swiss mechanical watch industry succumbed to the arrival of inexpensive, Japanese-produced quartz timepieces. Mechanical watches for divers and pilots “became completely superfluous,” said James D. Malcolmson, contributing watch editor at Robb Report, a luxury lifestyle magazine.
Seiko of Japan handily cornered that market with a string of firsts — the world’s first titanium diver’s watch in 1975, for instance — helping to secure quartz’s role in the sports world.
What the Swiss could not then foresee was that by allowing quartz watchmakers to claim a foothold among buyers looking for an inexpensive watch that could legitimately be banged around, the luxury segment would eventually be theirs for the taking.
Much of that seminal marketing shift comes down to one man, Gerald Genta. As the watch industry’s leading designer, he was commissioned by Audemars Piguet in 1970 to create a completely original model. His groundbreaking creation, the Royal Oak, the first luxury watch to come in stainless steel, on an integrated bracelet, was presented in 1972 to great fanfare.
The design, distinguished by an octagonal bezel studded with screws, was “inspired by a memory from my youth: the preparation of deep-sea diver equipment, with visible nuts and joints,” Mr. Genta said. He struck watchmaking gold again with the Nautilus, another stainless steel luxury watch influenced by nautical motifs, designed for Patek Philippe in 1973 and introduced in 1976.
The pared-down elegance of both Genta-designed models gave way in the early 1990s to beefier styles embodied by the Royal Oak Offshore, introduced in 1992, and the oversize models produced by Panerai, designed for the Italian Navy’s elite frogmen and made available to a wider audience in 1993.