Which Watches Will Be the Classics of Tomorrow?

GENEVA — When is it time to turn the page?

Even though their resale values have slid from recent supercharged heights, demand continues to be strong for Patek Philippe’s Nautilus, Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak and Rolex’s Daytona — designs that have been around for half a century or more.

Before many of today’s collectors were born.

So brands “don’t have to make something new,” said Manuel Emch, the longtime watch industry executive now leading the Swiss brand Louis Erard. “This is why we see most of the design creativity in the 21st century — several of the future classics — among the independents, as they design something from scratch.”

And what makes a design a likely classic? According to collectors, designers and other watch experts, characteristics such as recognizability, wearability, innovation, experimentation and disruption all come into play. A world first, classic inspiration or bit of craziness can’t hurt either.

Here are nine models introduced in recent years that just might create the buzz in 2070.


The Ressence Zero, introduced in 2011, has one of the most distinctive designs that’s been created for a mechanical watch in recent years. Its separate discs and rings for hours, minutes and seconds rotate on their own axes, making complete revolutions around the dial every hour.

The novel mechanical movement — combined with tapered indicators painted onto the discs and rings, in lieu of traditional hands — drew special interest at the 2011 Geneva Time Exhibition, where the Belgian brand won the first of several prizes.

Axel Kufus, professor of design at the Berlin University of the Arts, was on the jury at that show (and, for full disclosure, I was its chairman). Recently, Mr. Kufus said the Zero Series and its successors, which feature design improvements like a curved case and movement, hidden crown, and an oil-filled dial that improves readability, are still among his favorite watch designs of the 21st century.

“I love that the whole dial is moving, and it is fantastic to see how you can use old symbols and still create something completely new,” Mr. Kufus — himself the designer of two watches for the German brand Nomos Glashütte — said during a video call from Berlin.


For its fashion-oriented universe, Cartier in 2007 introduced the round Ballon Bleu, featuring a metal hoop to protect its sapphire-capped crown.

When Jessica Owens started collecting watches in 2013, the New York City resident said she often saw the Ballon Bleu on wrists around town. “It is one of the early watches considered unisex, but you still find it mainly on women,” she said. “I am sure the bracelet on the early models is part of why it has become a modern icon.”

According to Ms. Owens, the Ballon Bleu followed another contemporary unisex classic: the J12 from Chanel. The extremely scratch-resistant sports watch, known for its three-row bracelet and unusual ceramic shine, continues to be made in black and white today.

The J12 was introduced in 1999, but seemed to take almost a decade to achieve mainstream approval. “Between 2008 and 2012, the J12 was the ultimate status watch, even beyond Rolex and Cartier for fashion watch women,” said Ms. Owens, one of the new generation of young collectors who has turned her passion into a full-time career. In her case, she became a marketing coordinator with the online Swiss watch magazine Watchonista.

For something to become an enduring classic, Ms. Owens said, “it is all about recognizability and wearability” — and some amount of disruption. “I truly believe a classic should lack complications and be wearable on an everyday basis. Why? People like simplicity and clean dials,” she said. “Just look at older classics like the Nautilus, Royal Oak, Tank and Submariner: date only, no other complications.”


In 2003, Urwerk all but took wrists into outer space with the UR-103, a combination of retro style and futuristic design that proved to be pivotal for the fledgling brand, founded in 1997 — as well as for the independent watchmaking scene, which was still in its infancy at the time.

The avant-garde, sci fi-inspired case of the UR-103 organically merged a square with a circle, and had a chunky crown protruding from the top of the case.

“This phenomenon, where two different geometrical shapes meet, is called durchdringung and schnittlinie in German, and it makes the watch look more complex than it is,” the chief designer and co-founder of Urwerk, Martin Frei, said during a conversation early last month at Geneva Watch Days. “When I designed the UR-103, I thought it would be possible to produce it by hand. But it turned out the case shape was so complex that it forced us to work with CNC (computer numerical control) machines, which since then have been a crucial design tool for us — and we tend to push the limits for what is possible to make with such machines.”


Before the UR-103 came on the scene, another innovative take on retrofuturistic design had appeared in 2001: the Richard Mille RM 001 with a tourbillon escapement.

The timepiece — a new interpretation of the traditional tonneau, or barrel shape — was a technical feast and a material exploration made very visible. The architecture of the movement provided extreme shock resistance, something previously unheard-of in sensitive tourbillons. The first 11 of the 17 RM 001 watches made employed a PVD (physical vapor deposition) coating on the movement, which is made of German silver, whereas the last six used titanium for the visible main plate.

“This very three-dimensional, mechanical depth reminds us that time is the fourth dimension,” Mr. Kufus, the Berlin design professor, said. “And I like how it is not skeletonized, but it is staging the main mechanical structures on the main plate in layers — and a similar art of layering is also used on the external parts of the case.” The watch’s design laid the foundation for a brand that now is estimated to be seventh among Swiss watch brands by sales, according to the annual report released in March by Morgan Stanley and LuxeConsult.


Speaking of sales, no list of future classics from the 21st century would be complete without the Apple Watch.

In its seven-year existence, this smartwatch has rocketed beyond the traditional timepiece: In 2021, Apple Watch sales were estimated to have hit 38.2 million, according to the industry analyst Counterpoint, while Switzerland exported 15.7 million watches, according to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry.

“The most iconic watch product in the 21st century is definitely the Apple Watch,” Mr. Emch of Louis Erard said.

Benoît Mintiens, the industrial designer who founded Ressence, said that at least the smartwatch has young people wearing something on their wrists. If you had never worn watch, it “would feel awkward if you want to have a mechanical watch at a later stage in life,” he said. “That’s why I don’t agree with watch industry people who say things like, ‘You cannot say Apple and watch in the same sentence.’ If that is your approach, then who will buy your watches in 10 years?”

World first

The A. Lange & Söhne Zeitwerk is digital in the classical, horological sense of the word, showing the time in digits rather than with hands.

When, in 2009, the German house introduced this chunky yet elegant design, it featured a world first combination in wristwatches: both jumping hours and minutes. Mr. Kufus explained: “It is based on a genius idea of three discs circling behind the apertures. But I find its thickness and heaviness somewhat anachronistic. It is a bit of an SUV for the wrist.”

Mr. Emch agreed that the Zeitwerk has one of the strongest dial designs of the 21st century. “But to be a real classic, it should also have a new case,” he said, “while this is merely a slight design development for the Lange 1 case — which to me is a true icon.”


“To me,” said the freelance watch designer Eric Giroud, “one of the most iconic watches of the 21st century is the Chronomètre Bleu by F.P. Journe.”

Mr. Giroud, who has created most of MB&F’s designs and worked for many large brands, said this timepiece, released in 2009, “appears simple, yet this is high-end watchmaking in every sense of the word.”

The case is made of tantalum, a rare blue-gray metal that resists corrosion. Its design, which features an off-center small seconds dial between 7 and 8 o’clock, “has a strong inspiration of classical watchmaking with a complement of very modern details, such as the hands and this mirror-lacquered blue dial, which is very contemporary,” Mr. Giroud said. “It is the tension between the different inspirations that give this watch its unique elegance and a magical touch where you feel, ‘Wow, cool, I need one,’ without really knowing why.”


The Bulgari Octo Finissimo Automatic, introduced in 2017, is a monochromatic matte gray, multifaceted, sharply angular watch — a ménage à trois of round, square and octagon shapes that is so complex that it is rarely copied, despite its huge success.

It also managed, at 5.15 millimeters thick, to take the record as the world’s thinnest automatic watch at the time that it came on the market.

“The Octo Finissimo Automatic was a milestone,” said Fabrizio Buonamassa Stigliani, Bulgari’s executive director of product creation and the designer of the Octo Finissimo series. As well as, he said, “a bit of Italian craziness.”

Which of these watches will eventually enter the horological pantheon? It is too early to say, but auction trends could be an indicator.

“The F.P. Journe Chronomètre Bleu has performed well, and earlier models from Journe have been skyrocketing,” said Mikael Wallhagen, the European head of watches at Sotheby’s. “This makes sense if you look at the design, the quality and the fantastic level of watchmaking. All F.P. Journes have a touch of contemporary design, combined with an obvious flirtation with old wall and table clocks.”

Mr. Wallhagen also noted that “A. Lange & Söhne is coming up more and more at auction. We have sold a few Zeitwerks lately, but I must say the brand’s earlier models from the 1990s are performing much better.”

“Richard Mille has had a few years of rising prices, but these have slowed down a bit,” he added. “And the various models of Bulgari Octo Finissimo are starting to climb.”

But then, Mr. Buonamassa Stigliani pointed out: “If you don’t evolve the design, you end up with a vintage product. And if you don’t respect the past and go too far, people don’t find the connection with the past, nor with the future.

“As a designer,” he added, “you have to respect the past to find solutions for the future.”

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