Sport Watch Evolution

Here’s a question: what is a sports watch? Or to put it another way: how can the slimline, beautifully sophisticated Royal Oak fit in the same family as a Richard Mille?

A working definition might be: a sports watch is a luxury watch that’s capable of withstanding the shocks and strains of sporting activity. It’s a timepiece that has an active role to play in the sport itself—like a chronograph. It’s a bulky, look-at-me watch that shares its design cues with some of the great watches in history. It’s anything with subdials, on a rubber strap.

Or, it’s none of the above. After all, a sports watch is a sports watch if the manufacturer tells you it is. Particularly if that manufacturer does the telling by paying a high-profile sports person to wear their luxury watch. And a luxury sports watch doesn’t even have to look sporty. Consider the A. Lange & Sohne Datograph, or the Patek Philippe Nautilus. Yes, they have solidity and heft. But they’re not exactly kitted out with the oversized muscles you’d expect from, say, a Hublot Big Bang or a Royal Oak Offshore.

So, what is a sports watch? Well, every luxury watch story has to begin somewhere. And the story of the sporting timepiece begins, fittingly enough, with a horse race.

Nicolas Rieussec and the first sports chronograph

King Louis XVIII loved horse racing. So much so, in fact, that he wanted to know how long each race lasted. Being a king, he was able to commission a horologist to make his wishes come true. And so Nicolas Mathieu Rieussec, watchmaker to the King, was tasked with the invention of a device that could be started and stopped in order to measure a specific period of elapsed time. The result was a chronograph, which is basically a stopwatch. It’s operation is—well, let’s leave the first-ever description of the first-ever sports chronograph to the people who were there at the time. In the minutes of a meeting of the French Academy of Sciences, October 15, 1821, the Rieussec chronograph is described as follows:

When the Chronograph is operating, … [a] … dial makes one revolution per minute …A small window next to the hanging ring reveals a number, which is replaced by another number with each revolution of the dial and indicates the minutes; the Chronograph can run about three-quarters of an hour without stopping.

You’ll notice I have referred to Rieussec’s chrono as the ‘first sports chronograph’. Until 2013, Rieussec was thought to be the inventor of the chronograph. Then new information came to light. So far as we know, the first actual chronograph was developed by Louis Moinet in 1816, for the purpose of measuring time during astronomical observations.

(If the Rieussec name seems familiar, that’s because Montblanc cleverly used the King’s watchmaker as inspiration for its Nicolas Rieussec collection, a series of upper-mid-range luxury watches that incorporate monopusher chronos into classically-inspired designs.)

In luxury watch terms, the purpose of a chronograph is to measure intervals of time defined by the wearer, while the operation of the hours, minutes, and seconds remains uninterrupted. The sporting applications are obvious. If you’re the King of France, you can time your horse race. And if you’re a referee or an umpire, you can time the duration of a game or match—stopping the chrono every time there is an interruption in play.

If you’re an average watch nerd, the chances are you prefer to wear your chrono on the wrist than cart it around in a big box (a la the Rieussec chronograph). The first chronograph wristwatch came almost 100 years after Moinet and Rieussec created their timing devices. It was the 13.33Z calibre built by Longines in 1913, a single-pusher chrono accurate to 1/5 second. Longines also had an answer for the problem of how to time multiple events within a race, like laps. In 1936, the brand released the world’s first flyback chronograph. A flyback is capable of interval timing without the need to stop and reset the chronograph mechanism: you press the flyback button and the chrono ‘flies’ back to zero to instantly start the next period of measurement.

Other brands, of course, were busy creating chronograph movements at the same time—notably Breitling, which along with Longines would go on to become the grand master of aviation chronos. But it was Longines that got there first, both times. And with the invention of the wristwatch chronograph, the brand created one of the elements that would be woven into the modern sports watch: complications that have a direct application to sporting endeavour.

The field watch: a new fashion is born

Prior to WWI, wristwatches were an oddity. And men, by far the largest target market for the modern luxury watch industry, barely wore them at all. In part, this was due to the early marketing of wristwatches. Wrist models tended to be made for women—the assumption presumably being that anything worn on a bracelet was jewellery, and that men of the time just didn’t go in for that sort of thing. If it wasn’t a signet ring, they didn’t want to know. And anyway, watches were supposed to be worn in pockets. That’s why your waistcoat had a watch pocket, old chap.

Durability—a prerequisite for a sports watch—was also a problem for early wristwatches. The manufactures creating the first wristwatches had puzzled out how to insert the delicate mechanism of a pocket watch into a small, wearable case, but the question of how to make that case shock-proof had yet to be answered. And then WWI happened, and the world’s horologists were forced to get busy in a hurry.

In a New York Times article dated July 9, 1916, the following text is found:

The telephone and signals service … have made the wearing of watches by soldiers obligatory. The only practical way in which they can wear them is on the wrist.

For those who have never had the misfortune to be on a WWI battlefield: the signals service carried vital information about the location and time of manoeuvres up and down the front line. In order to ensure that these manoeuvres occurred at the correct time, it was necessary for soldiers to wear watches. And those watches had to be consulted with both hands free (the hands, of course, being occupied with the wielding of a rifle or the fixing of a bayonet). Watches that could no longer be hidden away in the pocket of a trench coat had to be able to withstand the rigours of life in the trenches: knocks against the wooden supports of the trench, exposure to mud and water, the recoil of a firing gun.

Wristwatches for men had actually been trialled a few times, prior to WWI. They’d even seen service on the battlefield. In the Boer War, for example, soldiers had fixed their pocket watches into cumbersome leather wrist straps. And Cartier’s Santos de Cartier, created so legendary aviator Alberto Santos Dumont could check the time while flying, had been around since 1904. But it was in the trenches of WWI that the design really took hold. Unbreakable glass was used as a crystal. Lume allowed soldiers to see the time at night, or in smoky trenches.

In its purely military incarnation, the field watch still exists. And while no-one would look at (for example) a Hamilton Khaki Field and call it a sports watch, there’s no doubt that those original ‘trench watches’ played a significant role in the sports watch story. In fact, they did so in two places at once: in the trenches, and on the home front.

Military historian Peter Doyle, quoted in an article on in 2015, pointed out that the war was used to sell watches at home:

“Everything from 1914 onwards becomes ‘trench this’, ‘trench that’ … it’s kind of a marketing ploy.”

In other words: tell the general public they can buy a watch that’s good enough for the chaps in the trenches, and they’ll buy it in their thousands. It’s a technique that’s still used today, by all the major luxury watch manufacturers. Breitling sells its biggest, most expensive timepieces by aligning them with the military. The IWC Chronograph Top Gun Miramar makes you feel like a USAF pilot. Even Rolex, the slick sophisticate of the luxury watch world, is not above playing the military history card to get sales. Explore the ‘History’ section of the Rolex website for just a few minutes, and you’ll run into the story of how Hans Wilsdorf, founder of the brand, personally guaranteed replacement watches for Allied PoWs whose Rolexes had been taken from them.

The combination of marketing and extreme field testing changed the landscape of luxury watches forever. After WWI, the wristwatch was seen, and sold, as a masculine tool. And marketing would go on to play a vital role in the history of sports watches. Indeed, you could almost say that the transition from field watch to sports watch happened when the PR people told the public that the new heavy-duty timepieces were the ‘choice’ of sportspeople: invaluable timing companions for the Herculean labours of gods among mortals. It’s no coincidence, either, that luxury watch brands make a big deal out of being selected to time legendary events. Omega, for example, has been the official timing partner of the Olympics since the 1930s. And that means every Omega chronograph in the world has direct sporting links with the ultimate test of skill and athletic prowess.

Technically, it was Rolex that came up with the first use of a sporting ambassador when it used Mercedes Gleitze, the cross-channel swimmer, to sell its Oyster. It was not until the early 1970s, however, that the most obvious form of product endorsement got going—ushering in, with a single image of a man with steel-blue eyes strapping a luxury watch to his wrist, the modern age of the sports watch. The man was Steve McQueen. The watch was the Tag Heuer Monaco.

The racing watch and the age of advertisement

In 1970, Jack Heuer (great-grandson of Heuer's founder, Edouard Heuer), received a phone call from a Hollywood prop master. The prop-man, Donald Nunley, was working with Jack Heuer to create a product-placement deal for luxury watches—at the time, an unheard-of proposition. And Nunley was about to start work on a little movie called Le Mans.

It’s helpful at this point to understand a little but of Heuer history. Heuer’s background was heavily automotive: the company created a dashboard chronograph in 1911, and in 1933 it updated its auto-chrono with the Autavia, a modern chronograph used in both planes and cars. In the 1950s and 60s, Heuer became more and more involved in auto racing, developing a heavy-duty reputation as a timekeeper and instrument-maker of superb quality and skill. So it was quite natural that Nunley was able to place Heuer on the props list for Le Mans: just as Rolex had been used as props in James Bond movies since 1962. The difference? Rolex had never actively gone after the placement of its luxury watches in movies. They’d just been picked as props because they were the right luxury watches for character and situation. Jack Heuer’s Monaco, on the other hand, was propelled onto the big screen in a big way.

A selection of props, including several Heuer watches, was delivered to the Le Mans crew. Steve McQueen elected to wear a Monaco on his wrist, and the Heuer emblem on his racing overalls. This is the point at which the modern cult of celebrity endorsement, in luxury watch terms anyway, was born. And it was monumentally effective. We’re still buying the watch, nearly half a century later. TAG Heuer even released a special version of it in the 21st century: incorporating the original Calibre 11 chronograph movement, and featuring the historic Heuer logo beneath the 12 o’clock marker.

McQueen isn’t the only racing legend (bear in mind, the King of Cool was a genuine racer as well as a movie star) to have worn a Heuer. Ayrton Senna’s face still appears under the TAG Heuer tagline ‘Don’t Crack Under Pressure’, on internet marketing campaigns and city billboards. In the IWC stable, you’ll find Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. Felipe Massa races wearing his Richard Mille.

Drivers, cars, watches. They go together so well. Because racing is all about speed, and speed is all about time. Modern luxury sports watches are so often, in the words of Richard Mille, ‘racing machines for the wrist’—machines designed and developed to compartmentalise and track time to the finest degrees of precision. They are defined by their ability to start and stop timing events with hair-breadth perfection, using jump-free chronograph mechanisms so as to give the most accurate mechanical readings possible. And they’re also defined by their simplicity of application, their versatility. Because these racing machines for the wrist don’t just give wearers the ability to time start-stop events. They’re also directly capable of measuring speed.

The tachymetric scale is the ultimate example of sports watch design. This superlatively useful bit of kit uses no mechanics other than the chronograph hand. And it enables the wearer to calculate any speed they need to, mph, kph, whatever you like, using only one other quantity: a known measurement between two points.

When you hit the first point, you start your chronograph. When you hit the second point, you stop it. The elapsed time isn’t what you’re interested in. You’re looking, instead, at the numbers on the scale—which is usually on the bezel, or printed around the edge of the dial. If you know the distance between the two points you just travelled, you’ll be able to convert the measurement to speed. So, say you placed two flags one mile apart. If your chrono hand is pointing halfway around the tachymeter when you hit the second flag, that means you’re doing 120 miles per hour.

Perhaps the greatest example of the racing chrono is the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona. This legendary timepiece is defined by its tachymetric scale, which on modern examples is engraved in a beautifully shiny Cerachrom bezel. Early examples of the Daytona fetch huge prices at auction, particularly if they sport rare ‘Paul Newman’ dial variations. And they are, like all racing watches, definitive precursors to the modern luxury sports watch. They have star power. They’re associated with legends of sport and screen. And they’re built to perform. They are the classics, from which modern sports watches either take, or break, nearly all of their design cues. And the biggest break of all came nearly 10 years after the Daytona was released—and just two years after Jack Heuer had managed to get his Monaco on the silver screen.

The Royal Oak: 1972

1972. A man receives a phone call late one afternoon. The man was Gerald Genta, watch designer without equal. The phone call was from Georges Golay, MD of Audemars Piguet. I’ve told the story of the design of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak many times before. If you’re interested you can read it in full in my Genta profile. For now, let’s just leave it at this: Gerald Gentawas asked to revolutionise the world of the luxury sports watch. And he did. In one night.

The Royal Oak blew people’s minds because it had a revealed architecture. Not in the sense that it was skeletonised—skeletonisation in sports watches would come later—but because it elected not to hide the screws that fixed the bezel to the watch case. It was a tool, visibly and unashamedly, as far away from the slick sophistication of the Rolex Daytona as you could get. And, in a move that would literally define the design of luxury sports watches for 30 years, it had a non-standard bezel shape.

Now, the octagonal bezel of the Royal Oak is a commonplace sight in a room full of luxury watch nerds. Back in 1972, it was a true-blue sensation. This was a luxury watch that had plenty of boardroom suaveness, but it was angular and muscular and decidedly different. So much so that if you look at modern sports watches, you can trace every tic and peculiarity of each design back to the Royal Oak. You either look like it, or you are it, or you so obviously don’t want to look like it that you can only be fully understood in relation to it. The Hublot Big Bang, for instance, rounds the Royal Oak’s angled lugs and bezel to give the smooth case and ‘porthole’ bezel so beloved of hip-hop megastars. And the revealed spline screws on just about every Richard Mille are a direct homage to Genta’s revolutionary watch face.
After the Royal Oak came the Nautilus, another Gerald Genta design. The Nautilus was similar in look and feel, but slightly less aggressive. It was, in other words, a Patek Philippe. A sports watch inspired by the Royal Oak, but reined in enough to appeal to the sober consumers of the world’s most prestigious luxury watch brand.

Compare the Royal Oak and the Nautilus over the years, and you can see the development of the two main subspecies of the modern sports watch animal. On the Royal Oak branch of the family tree, you’ve got the bold and the brash: your Hublots, your Offshores, your Richard Milles. On the Nautilus side, we find the more sedate brands: the Breguets, the Jaegers. And then we get the brands that have watches on both sides of the divide: like IWC, with its Ingenieur. A standard Ingenieur, like a standard Royal Oak, is a sober and dressy affair. But an IWC Chronograph Lewis Hamilton (for example), with its carbon-fibre dial and tyre-style crown, is as modern as they come.

Incidentally, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg both designed their own Ingenieurs—another great celebrity endorsement put together by IWC’s marketing department. Hamilton specified a carbon-fibre dial, Rosberg a silver-plated, clutter-free face. Hamilton’s watch is presented on a titanium bracelet, Rosberg’s on a rubber strap with an embossed calfskin inlay. If I’m sounding like a spec sheet for an IWC luxury watch this point, that’s good. Because we’re moving on to the final element in the luxury sports watch story. The introduction, and marketing, marketing, marketing, of unusual materials. Welcome to the crazy world of Richard Mille, Hublot, and the 21st-century watchmakers.

Richard Mille, Hublot: into the 21st century and beyond

NTPT carbon. Quartz TPT. ALUSIC. The names of the materials in Richard Mille watches are like Star Trek ship designations, or acronyms for sinister corporations in a Philip K. Dick novel. And there’s a reason for all this sci-fi embellishment, beyond the obvious usefulness of light, strong materials in watches designed to take a beating. They’re a marketing dream.

ALUSIC is a material used in the construction of space craft. Quartz TPT is an incredibly lustrous, superbly hard carbon composite developed exclusively for Richard Mille. Both are emblematic of the bold stroke of genius that took the Richard Mille brand from zero to hero in the space of a few short years. And both are augmented, in timepiece after outlandish timepiece, by materials that are used to make the exhaust boxes of F1 cars, or which are more usually found in the cockpit of a jet fighter. What better way could you have, to sell a six-figure watch to a boardroom action hero?

Essentially, a Richard Mille luxury watch is a sports watch developed to answer questions no-one else would dream of answering. How do you develop a £130k wristwatch capable of taking a direct hit from the serve of a professional tennis player? You create an entirely new material for the bezel. Or you re-purpose the hull of a racing yacht. What you end up with is a machine so daring, so incredible to look at, and so packed with technical wizardry, that no-one can resist your sales pitch.

Sports watches started life on the battlefield. There, in the fires and indignities of war, a lesson was learned that took nearly 100 years for marketing departments to fully filter into the public consciousness: what your watch is made of can be as important as how accurate it is, or how complicated. The materials that get sports watch fans going are not just gold. What use is such a soft metal when you’re battling river rapids, or hurling yourself into the spirit of a survival weekend? The extreme watch owner wants extreme materials: titanium, 904L stainless steel. Carbon. Ceramic. Rubber. Drop down to the spec sheet of any luxury sports watch, on the website of any reputable manufacturer. You’ll find lists of metals and silicons you never knew existed. Gas escape valves. Intricate methods for suspending the movement to protect it from shock.

A modern sports watch has to do much more than simply time an event, or give the wearer an active look. It has to be able to withstand a direct hit from a nuclear bomb.

Richard Mille wasn’t the first luxury watch designer to use crazy materials in his timepieces. Hublot, for instance, gave the world its first natural rubber watch strap, a staple of the modern luxury sports watch, back in 1976. Citizen’s X8 Officially Certified Chronometer, released in 1970, was the world’s first watch with a pure titanium case. The Omega Speedmaster, with its hesalite crystal glass, was the first watch on the moon, one year earlier.

Sports watches are beasts of many colours, and many hides. They may be found in any rough-and-tumble environment, from Centre Court at Wimbledon to the terrifying turns of the Circuit de Monaco to the meeting rooms of city financial districts. They are capable of performing incredible mechanical feats. They turn up on the wrists of victorious athletes in time for the obligatory podium shot. They become beater watches for successful people who wish to reconnect with the pastimes of their youth, or active professionals who like to show their ‘off duty’ hobbies on their wrist. And they’ve come a long, long way from the race-courses of 19th-century France.