Iconic: Designs That Changed Watch History

This is Article 4 of our 4-part series on Design & Innovation. TAG Heuer Monaco. Rolex Submariner. Omega Speedmaster. Breitling Navitimer. Hamilton Ventura. Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. Lange 1. Over the previous 3 articles, I have argued why design is the only realistic hope the watch industry has to draw new consumers and shift preferences. I explained why the heavy investment in new movements, in-house movements, and material science are neat but don’t have the power to actually draw new consumers. Finally, in the previous article, I explained what makes a watch icon and why icons have defined watch history and encouraged watch companies to turn towards design to make new icons. In this final article, I’ll write about the watches that were icons and what them an icon, showing how much of that focused on design. These weren’t icons because of some massive revolution in them telling time better, or some genius new material. They were icons because of design. And while these designs continue to capture consumer imagination, it’s time for another bold step in design from the watch companies. Who will make the leap?

Watch history is littered with safe designs that look like what’s already out there. Not convinced? Look at all the “me too” dive watches that copy the Rolex Submariner. Omega has been successful in creating an aura around its Seamaster collection, but most other dive watches follow the same basic principles that Rolex pioneered: rotating ceramic bezel, clean dial, luminous hands and hour markers, stainless steel construction, and waterproof to depths no average buyer will ever go.


Yet watch history also has a few icons that defined the industry and made a watch so unique that many other companies followed their success. It is important for us to draw an important distinction between the watch-as-tool and watch-as-art. Before the quartz movement, the mechanical watch was all there was. Once the quartz watch came around, the Swiss did a very good job redefining the watch as a piece of art (much thanks to Jean Claude Biver). As a result, there is a clear line for watches whose design was tool-focused versus aesthetic-design focused in their becoming an icon. For example, the Speedmaster is an icon today and a beautiful watch, but it originally became an icon because it was an effective tool and used on the Moon Mission and became the “first and only watch worn on the moon”. This is contrary to the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak which has no functional advantages over similar peers, yet it has an aesthetic design element that made it an icon. Therefore, I classify these icons into two categories: the Icon-as-Design and the Icon-as-Tool categories (even though the icons-as-tools have grown their own unique aesthetic following — the point is they weren’t originally bold aesthetically speaking, but have become their own “look” today).


Note: in the previous article I wrote about two iconic people who’ve influenced the industry. They were Gerald Genta and Jean Claude Biver, and I covered their iconic designs including the Patek Philippe Nautilus, Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, and the Hublot Big Bang series.

Heuer Monaco

Heuer introduced the need for speed with the Monaco….kind of. Actually what they introduced was an Art Deco inspired watch that was influenced by the design aesthetic of the late 1960’s, which was deeply influenced by the shapes and lines of the Art Deco movement. If you are unsure as to what Art Deco is, read my article on Art Deco design.


(Source: author’s photo)

This watch was originally introduced in 1969 and was a bold move with its square shape and square subdials. It became the symbol of movie star Steve McQueen, who wore it as a legendary racecar driver in the movie Le Mans. So much of our imagination with watches has been defined by round symmetry, yet the Monaco turned that on its head by making something that is normally round into a square watch. It was bold (and controversial) enough that few have copied even elements of the design, leaving TAG Heuer as the sole producer of this look of watch today. Jean Claude Biver, whom I wrote about in the previous icons article, reintroduced the Monaco upon his assumption of CEO of TAG Heuer. This is no surprise as Mr. Biver has no problem making bold moves to create icons. (Note: this watch also broke barriers using a movement that was the first automatic chronograph)


TAG Heuer Monaco today (Source: Ferengi – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

A Lange & Sohne Lange 1

The original design for the Lange 1 (photo credit: TimeAndWatches.com)

The original design for the Lange 1 (source: TimeAndWatches.com)

The Lange 1 is a bold move, and when it was introduced in 1994, it was bold then too. Yet this look has come to define one of the most luxurious brands out there. It is so bold and unique in its aesthetic that I’ve heard many people dislike the asymmetrical design, while others call it a masterpiece. That means this design was not a safe move, rather audacious and defining. A. Lange & Sohne was founded near Dresden, Germany in 1845. However, following WWII the company ceased operations under the soviet-controlled East German government.

first als lange 1 watch in gold

(Source: TimeAndWatches.com)

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Lange family restarted operations with the help of the International Watch Company (IWC). When the company re-introduced itself, they had to demonstrate their ability to compete with other titans such as Patek Philippe or Vacheron Constantin. As Time and Watches recounts “in order to make a successful return, it was essential to present to the world something truly unique and special, a timepiece that could surprise and receive unanimous support from watch experts.” The Lange 1 has become instantly recognizable as a symbol of A. Lange & Sohne. It has been a watch icon since it’s introduction in 1994, becoming one of the few icons that instantly solidified its position in watch history.  (To read more about the development and history, read Time and Watches great summary article)


Hamilton Ventura

(Source:  Museumsfoto – Deutsches Uhrenmuseum, CC BY 3.0 de)

This watch is not as popular today as some of the other icons, but it definitely deserves iconic status. It goes without saying that it is an icon because it was the first electric powered watch when it was released in 1957. However, it has become an iconic design throughout its history due to its Art Deco design, which in this case gives it an odd triangle shape. Design Museum’s “50 Watches that Changed the World” notes “the visual language of the Ventura — the asymmetry, the smooth curved bezel and the nod to Art Deco styling — is reminiscent of much post-war American industrial design.” There is no question as to what watch someone is wearing when they see the Ventura.

Elvis Presley Hamilton Ventura

Elvis Presley wearing a Hamilton Ventura in Blue Hawaii  (Source: Oracle of Time)

The sleek curves, retro feel, yet also futuristic look gave (and still give) it a bold edge that made it an icon.It’s popularity was almost instant, but as 50 Watches notes “while the Ventura was immediately popular, its appearance in the 1961 film Blue Hawaii, as worn by Elvis Presley, helped generate even more interest in this unusual design.” Hamilton still produces the Ventura today, although you can get it in either quartz or automatic movement.



Rolex Submariner

The Rolex Submariner has become the gold standard (despite its stainless steel construction) and the measure which all other dive watches are measured against. This is for good reason — most other dive watches have been followers of the Rolex design lead ever since the watch was introduced in 1954. It is the one watch that everyone seems to know and recognize and is arguably Rolex’s most iconic watch, if not the most iconic watch among all watches. However, the design aspects that made the watch an icon originated in function: it was waterproof to 100 meters and it had a unidirectional rotating bezel which made it functional for use in diving. Rolex developed the Submariner with the explicit goal of making something that was functional but also elegant. For a full history, visit Fratello Watches.

Rolex Submariner

Rolex Submariner (Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/callmewhatever/22082979120; licensed under CC)

Rolex has continued to evolve this icon and other brands have continued to follow. The watch has grown in size, they have added the famous Mercedes-style hands, a ceramic bezel has been added, and it’s waterproof rating has increased. Yet none of these improvements have drastically changed the original icon.


(Sources as noted; aggregated by Watch Ponder)

Omega Speedmaster

Some of the Omega Speedmasters worn in space (Source: By Sandstein - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11104684)

Some of the Omega Speedmasters worn in space (Source: By Sandstein – Own work, CC BY 3.0)

This watch is an icon not so much for its looks, but the combination of its design, function, and what it represents. There is no doubt the Speedmaster is iconic in its design, but what is even more impressive is its cult following. In fact, it even has it’s own day of the week (#SpeedyTuesday) thanks to Fratello Watches founder Robert-Jan Broer. First, function was important — the watch became an icon when it was the first watch certified for space flight and was worn by all three astronauts on the Apollo 11 mission awarding it the title of “First and Only Watch Worn on the Moon”.

omega speedmaster professional

(Source: By Torsten Bolten – Own work, Public Domain)

Second, it’s black and white chronograph design with tachymeter was relatively novel (though not nearly as bold as some other examples). Its purpose was to allow 1/5 second timing for auto racing, the watch’s original identity. Yet, the Speedmaster’s position as a precision tool transformed it into the design of the next frontier. “The Moon Watch” became (probably) the most successful watch marketing campaign of all time (as it’s still in use) and resulted in numerous Speedmaster spin-offs. Sadly, today this watch design is one of the most copied designs by other manufacturers. Omega still regularly refreshes this line and it’s what the company is most known for.


Breitling Navitimer

Breitling has made a big move into in-house movements

(Source: author’s photo)

The quintessential pilot watch. I spent many years in the aviation community and will testify that many pilots consider the Navitimer as the gold standard for pilot watches. Just like a cockpit has many instruments and dials, so does the Navitimer. Breitling left no mistaking who the watch was meant for — the very first 1952 model featured the logo of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (aka the AOPA).

Breitling pilot statue in their NYC store

(Source: author’s photo)

Breitling earned significant street credit for becoming a pilot’s watch when it was worn in space on the second manned spaceflight by Astronaut Scott Carpenter on the Aurora 7 mission. Carpenter and NASA didn’t choose Breitling because they liked how it looked, rather it was accurate in many environments. The watch has also always contained a slide rule, which before the digital era, was used by pilots multiple times per flight. Pilots still use the slide rule and I definitely learned how to use one in flight school. While the busy dial and slide rule have become popular design elements in pilot watches, the Navitimer originally became an icon because it was a tool that worked for pilots and astronauts alike.


Let Design Lead, but you must have a great follow-on marketing campaign

I would be remiss if I didn’t note the importance an effective marketing campaign adds to an iconic design and even helps make the design. I spent the better part of article 2 pointing out how much of the watch industry has been propping itself up on marketing. I still stand behind this thesis. I am not suggesting that marketing isn’t important either. Rather, design must lead, followed by a cohesive marketing plan. For too long in recent history, the watch industry has been almost exclusively marketing with little design advancement. Let design lead, then let marketing follow; not the other way around. Here are the marketing campaigns that went along with these watches that made them so successful as icons:

Heuer Monaco = Steve McQueen wore it in the movie Le Mans

A. Lange & Sohne Lange 1 = the first release of a watch company in half a century

Hamilton Ventura = Elvis Presley wore it in the movie Blue Hawaii

Rolex Submariner = Sean Connery wore it in James Bond & Rolex also did public depth tests on submarines

Omega Speedmaster = the Moon Watch campaign. No one else gets to claim their watch was worn on the moon

Breitling Navitimer = Scott Carpenter wore the watch on the Aurora 7 mission to space, making it not just a pilot watch, but a space watch too


Call to Action

Watch companies, the ball is back in your court. I have presented a case for why current “innovations” are not going to change anything; I’ve provided historical examples of bold design moves that significantly changed watch history, and lastly, I’ve made a recommendation on some potential schools of design that could provide inspirations that are bold yet have a strong potential. “The customer wants to be a part of your narrative but they don’t want to tell the designers what is bold — they want to discover. They want to be informed about what they are buying, but they also want to feel; to go out on a limb and be able to choose something new that they feel could be iconic” says jewelry designer Amir Karimpour. That means the watch designers are going to have to get busy designing and experimenting with bold moves. Karimpour continues: “We don’t know what consumers want, we just know they aren’t as excited about the status quo as they used to be, therefore it’s up to designers to discover something new.”

Watermark Art by G.A. Parker; Modifications by Watch Ponder. innovation in the watch industry is like tilting at windmills

Watermark Art by G.A. Parker; Modifications by Watch Ponder

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I have a passion for watches and am a collector of luxury watches. I write opinion-based articles that try to bring the business lens to my writing to provide readers with a view of the business, marketing, and strategies of the watch industry companies I look into. In addition to Watch Ponder, I do speaking, freelance writing, and publish in other watch blogs and magazines. I do this as a hobby and because of my passion for watches. I am also a member of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors.

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