Watch Report: The Legacy Conundrum

While many watch brands have flagship models that shine above all others, some are at pains to discourage trademark timepieces.

Article by Luke Benedictus

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Ironically for an industry with a vested interest in hours, minutes and seconds, watch brands have a deep fascination with timelessness. The holy grail for any watchmaker is to dream up a model that never goes out of style yet is identifiable with the merest flash of the wrist. And while a distinctive aesthetic is valuable for brand recognition and all- round cachet, a truly classic design has the versatility to be adapted in different directions without — and this is the really tricky part — losing its soul.

In 2021, for example, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Reverso celebrated its 90th birthday. The original timepiece came about in 1931 when British polo players in India requested a watch that could be protected from damage amid the galloping hooves and flying mallets. The solution was the Reverso’s trademark swivelling case that could flip around to shield the face. It’s fair to say the market for this specific purpose would have been decidedly niche. Thankfully for Jaeger-LeCoultre, the Reverso has since inspired multiple incarnations.

“Very quickly,” says the company’s CEO, Catherine Rénier, “the Reverso became a timepiece not only for polo players, it turned into an icon of design and creativity with a lot of colour dials and models that were not just masculine, but also feminine.”

Over the past year alone, the rectangular Art Deco design has been the vehicle for the fiendishly high complications of the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Hybris Mechanica Calibre 185 Quadriptyque, a watch with four (!) functional dials that required 12 new patents. At the same time, the Reverso Tribute Small Seconds was released in a range of eye-catching colours, each coming with a matching calfskin strap made by a polo bootmaker in a nod to the watch’s origin story.

In yet another limited edition run, the watch provided the backdrop for the artistic feats of the Reverso Tribute Enamel Hidden Treasures, a trio of watches released to showcase Jaeger-LeCoultre’s artisanal skills with enamel and miniature painting. Such chameleonic flair has guaranteed the Reverso’s relevance for nine decades. “With its blank surface, the Reverso very quickly became a canvas for personalisation,” Rénier says.

Other watch designs have gained iconic status in horological circles less for their flexibility than for their singular looks. Since the TAG Heuer Monaco first gained fame as the watch on Steve McQueen’s wrist in “Le Mans”, it has been freshened up with a variety of colours, materials and tie-ins. Whatever the guise, however, the chronograph’s retro- futuristic visage is unmistakeable. The Monaco may have launched more than 50 years ago, but there’s no midlife crisis here — this square- cased watch will never lose its edge.

Some watches are considered legacy pieces for their trailblazing feats. The Omega Speedmaster, for example, will forever be associated with being the first watch on the moon. The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak was a celebrated frontrunner for very different reasons. On the night before 1971’s Basel Fair, Audemars Piguet’s managing director purportedly asked Gerald Genta, a freelance watch designer, to create “an unprecedented steel watch”. By the next morning, Genta had sketched out the prototype for the Royal Oak, the first watch with an integrated bracelet to provide a seamless connection with the case.

In fact, whether it’s IWC’s Big Pilot or Chanel’s ceramic J12, many watch brands have one unofficial hero piece, a flagship model they’re implicitly associated with and whose halo effect beams onto the rest of their collection. But not everyone is so enamoured with that idea.

On paper, Patek Philippe’s Nautilus seems like the ultimate legacy piece. Designed by Genta (again) in 1976, it enjoyed a steady growth in sales until its popularity exploded in the past decade as the craze for steel sports watches took off. Yet in early 2021, Patek Philippe caused uproar when the company president, Thierry Stern, announced that the brand was going to discontinue production of the modern Nautilus (Ref. 5711).

To most onlookers, this seemed like a kamikaze decision, the equivalent of Hermès ditching the Birkin bag. The Nautilus 5711 was, after all, arguably the hottest watch on the planet. How hot? Well, prospective buyers already faced a waiting list of about a decade to get their hands on one. Prices on the secondary market had become so demented that, in July, the 5711’s final olive-dial iteration (RRP: $49,350) sold at a Monaco auction for $637,984. In short, the Nautilus was the watch world’s version of the goose that lays golden eggs. With yolks made of 24-carat diamonds.

So why was Stern killing this model, a watch that 45 years after its creation was still inspiring boggle-eyed lust? His decision ultimately stemmed from a different interpretation of legacy — one that hinged on something greater than one pan-generational watch. Stern was painfully aware that the hype around this one timepiece was growing exponentially and starting to overshadow Patek’s image as a whole. “There has been so much noise around this Nautilus. My God,” Stern told The New York Times. “We cannot put a single watch on top of our pyramid.”

The dangerous thing about any object that becomes too fashionable is that the pendulum can swing and it can go out of style. Stern therefore believed that it was in Patek’s long-term interest to try to spread consumer demand more evenly across the brand’s range of 140 models, thereby engineering a more stable return. The iconic Nautilus became the fall guy of this diversification policy.

This big-picture vision perhaps makes more sense in the context of the dynamic that’s baked into Patek’s very core. The brand’s famous tagline is, of course: “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.” Stern was brought up with this idea of passing the torch. Ultimately, Patek is a family business, of which Stern took the reins in 2009 when his father, Philippe, handed over control. In this household, the heirlooms aren’t the watches. They pass down the entire company instead.

Discontinuing the Nautilus was therefore a decision entirely based on the notion of legacy and putting long-term security over short-term gain. “I am protecting the company for the future, for my children,” Stern explained. “They have to learn, just as my father taught me: when you have a fantastic brand like Patek, you have to protect the brand and not just one product.”


Image Credits: Top row, from left: Omega Speedmaster Professional, $9,575; TAG Heuer Monaco, $9,200; and Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Tribute Blue Small Seconds, $12,600. Centre row, from left: Cartier Tank, $19,400; Patek Philippe Nautilus, $49,350 (discontinued); Chanel J12 Calibre 12.2 Edition 1, $17,650; and IWC Big Pilot’s Watch 43, $12,600. Bottom row, from left: Hublot Classic Fusion Titanium, $10,800; Audemars Piguet Royal Oak 34mm Black Ceramic, $70,100; Longines Lindbergh Hour Angle, $7,225; and Rolex Day-Date 40mm, $51,550.