Top five iconic watches for men

Five iconic watches for men from the 20th century cruise into the 21st century with their hereditary traits intact. 

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak watch in yellow gold

The term “iconic” is bandied about with far too much laxity in the realm of luxury watches, and the temptation to couple the adjective with a newcomer on the watch scene is hard to resist. However, there is one excellent standard that works across the board to test whether the watches in discussion really have obtained the status of iconic watches, and that is the test of good old Father Time.

History is the true arbiter of icons and here is our round-up of five timepieces, all designed in the last century and still going strong today, which truly occupy a podium place in the temple of iconic watches for men.

Cartier Tank watch from 1919, inspired by the boxy Renault armoured tank. Photo: Cartier Archives.

​For many, Cartier is esteemed as one of the world's grand jewellery houses, but the Maison has produced some of the finest and most iconic watch designs since the early 20th century. Inspiration, as in the case of Louis Cartier, could be found in the most unlikely places. Towards the end of World War I, Louis Cartier became fascinated by the boxy profile of the Renault armoured battle tank and decided to model a watch on its clean, rectilinear design, giving birth to the Cartier Tank wristwatch in 1917.

Unlike the fashion of the times, which emphasised twirls and twists, the Tank pioneered a new formal rigour in watch design. The first prototype was presented as a gift to General Pershing and is still one of the most popular Cartier watches today. The myth of the Tank watch is still going strong and features in Cartier’s permanent collection with its rectangular case, classic Roman numerals, “railroad” minute track, blued-steel hands and sapphire cabochon in the beaded crown. This Tank model in yellow gold features a handy date window at 3 o’clock.

Rolex Submariner, released in 1953, and worn by Sean Connery in the Bond film Dr No.

The launch of the Rolex Submariner in 1953, a professional dive watch capable of fathoming depths of 100 metres thanks to its screw-down caseback, bezel and crown, opened the hatch on a new underwater world waiting to be explored. Jacques Cousteau and his Calypso team took to the abyss with the Aqua-lung and a Rolex Submariner and, a few years later, the rugged timepiece caught Ian Fleming’s eye as the ideal watch for his spy. Rolex watches were therefore crowned with the honour of being the first James Bond watches.  

Although most of us will remember Ursula Andress emerging from the Caribbean in a white bikini in the 1962 film Dr No, watch buffs recognised the Rolex Submariner on Sean Connery's wrist. Connery wore it throughout his seven 007 appearances and the watch became so associated with Bond that collectors today still refer to this model as the James Bond Submariner. Fifty plus years later, the Rolex Submariner, like the James Bond character, is still going strong and has been beefed up for even more extreme action. Still the reference among dive watches, this virile 40mm stainless steel Submariner with a green dial and a date window will take you from the beach to the boardroom in impeccable style. Water-resistant to 300 metres, this resilient diver features a rotating 60-minute bezel with a green scratch-proof Cerachrom ceramic insert, and superior long-lasting blue luminescence and legibility even in the darkest depths.

Faithful to its original, the only change to the Omega Speedmaster 57 is that it now beats to a Co-Axial chronograph calibre.

From the abyss to the Moon, our next candidate in the realm of iconic watches is the Omega Speedmaster chronograph. Ever since that epic day in July 1969 when the Apollo 11 Lunar Module touched down on the surface of the Moon with a 1957 Speedmaster strapped to Buzz Aldrin's wrist, these iconic Omega watches earned the nickname "Moonwatch". Still bearing the distinction as having participated in all six lunar missions, and as the first watch to have accompanied an astronaut on the pitted surface of the Moon, these men's watches are perennial favourites among collectors. The rugged good looks of the 42mm Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch Professional remain unchanged with its hallmark black dial, tachymetric scale, white counters and green luminescence. What is even more extraordinary is the watch keeps time with the same manual-winding movement worn on the Moon and visible through the transparent sapphire caseback.

Panerai's Radiomir 1940 3 Days Automatic Acciaio PAM655 in a crisp white dial with vintage beige luminescent material.
Panerai was a top military secret for decades and didn't surface until the early 1990s. The Italian watch brand, established in Florence in 1860, forged its reputation in the first half of the 20th century by providing the Italian Navy with robust, luminous instruments that would evolve into a waterproof watch designed for an elite commando of frogmen on their underwater stealth missions. The first luminescent dive watches were trial-run by the underwater human torpedoes in 1936, glowing in the dark thanks to the radium paste patented as Radiomir by Panerai.

Panerai watches, renowned for the XXL military-inspired models, re-edit the Radiomir and Luminor icons every year. The latest Radiomir 1940 3 Days Automatic Acciaio PAM655 is decked out in a crisp white dial with vintage beige luminescent material instead of the more characteristic green glow that we associate with the brand. The 42mm polished stainless steel case - acciaio in Italian - is slightly smaller than your average Panerai watch and comes with a robust 3-day power reserve.

Audemars Piguet, banking on the return of yellow gold, presented the Royal Oak in a sumptuous yellow gold case. 

The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak made its debut in 1972, smack in the middle of the quartz tempest that literally decimated Switzerland’s mechanical watch industry. It was a radical proposal and is still one of the most recognisable watches in the world thanks to its striking octagonal bezel with exposed screws.

Designed by Gérald Genta - who, in turn, was inspired by the old-fashioned diving helmets that were attached to a suit with screws - the Royal Oak turned the tables on the prevailing concept of a luxury sports watch. Instead of packing a sporty watch inside a fancy gold case, these Audemars Piguet watches were touted as having “a body of steel and a heart of gold”. Clad in robust stainless steel armour and retailed for a price far above that of a similar gold model, the Royal Oak has gone down in the annals of history. For 2016, Audemars Piguet is reversing the equation and has fitted the 37mm automatic version with a sumptuous yellow gold case and matching bracelet.

It is reassuring to observe how the original blueprints are still showing in these five iconic men’s watches in the 21st century. 

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