You might have forgotten, or maybe you never knew, but many timepieces that are now known as luxury watches were originally designed with specific purposes in mind. Pretty much every diving watch, pilot’s watch, and stopwatch that’s now marketed as a luxury item had its start as a useful tool. Manufacturers then used early successes to weave exciting stories into the lore of their products. In this article, we’ll take a look at three different watches that have made the journey from simple timepiece to expensive luxury accessory.
Omega Speedmaster Ed White – From Outer Space to Mainstream Luxury
An astronaut in the limitless expanse of outer space – when Ed White became the first American to walk in space in 1965 with an Omega Speedmaster Ref. 105.003 on his wrist, no one would have guessed the cult status the watch would take on. But indeed, this turned out to be the birth of a legendary watch. Today, almost 60 years later, it’s hard to imagine that Ed White’s Speedy was a flawless and highly modern watch back then – a potentially life-saving tool for professional timekeeping. At the time, a mechanical chronograph was the only tool available for determining the average speed needed to cover a certain distance.
The “Ed White” Speedmaster, as it’s now known, was produced between 1963 and 1965. It is the last Speedmaster to have straight lugs, and also sports a “dot over 90” tachymeter scale and a step dial. Compared with the Speedmaster Professional Moonwatch of 1968, the Ed White has a relatively small diameter of 39.7 mm. But the most important part of this watch can be found inside. Ticking at its heart is the legendary Omega caliber 321, which Omega used for its Speedmaster models between 1957 and 1968. Starting in 1968, the 321 was discontinued in favor of the 861 and later the 1861. While all of these calibers build on each other, the 321 as Ed White wore it in outer space disappeared from the world for 50 years.
Eventually, Omega recognized the huge cultural and commercial potential of such a popular caliber and re-released it in 2019. Omega fans celebrated and wondered what awaited them. A modest tool watch in the style of the much sought-after original? Not exactly!
After the Speedmaster 318.104.22.168.99.001 – a 42-mm luxury platinum Speedmaster listed for $59,400 – Omega came out with the reference 322.214.171.124.01.001 in 2020. This model meets all collectors’ criteria, including a diameter of 39.7 mm and a stainless steel case and bracelet. The only downside is its price: At the time of writing, this model is hard to find for under $20,000.
This makes the Omega Speedmaster “Ed White” a prime example of what was once a purely functional tool watch turning into a luxury good for watch enthusiasts with big budgets. While barely anyone has a need for the actual purpose of the watch, its story and precious materials take center stage. The pinnacle of this phenomenon is the Speedmaster 3126.96.36.199.01.001, a 38.6 mm Speedmaster made of Canopus Gold and listed at $81,000.
Cartier Santos – The Pilot’s Watch for Fine Dining
No less than Louis Cartier himself designed the legendary pilot’s watch, Santos in 1904. Cartier was a friend of the Brazilian aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont at the time. The South American pilot was having difficulty reading the time on a pocket watch while undertaking daring flights. It was Cartier’s groundbreaking idea to create an easily readable watch for the wrist. The Santos became the first pilot’s watch and men’s wristwatch of all time. The Santos was and is the only watch line in the Cartier catalog to be named after its original wearer. At a time when instrumental watches simply didn’t exist in airplanes, the Santos was a tool watch par excellence.
Today, almost 120 years later, the Cartier Santos is a luxury accessory for fans and connoisseurs of high-end wristwatches. The basis for its design has hardly changed over the decades. Some of the elements that all of its references have in common are a square case with integrated lugs, dials with Roman numeral index markers, and a railroad minute track. Also noteworthy is the bezel with its eight screws.
What has changed, however, is the number of variations on offer. Today, you can buy the model in stainless steel, yellow gold, rose gold, and platinum – this goes for the Santos women’s watchas well. Want it diamond-encrusted? No problem! And while Alberto Santos-Dumont once used his steel watch to aid his efforts in the air, today you’re more likely to see the Santos worn as a status symbol and conversation-starter at dinner parties.
The Triple Edition, limited to just 50 pieces, is a great example. This variant is covered in jewels and costs around $200,000 for a set of three. Rare models like the Santos Skeleton Iced Out will also cost you. The skeletonized model with rose gold and diamonds goes for over $100,000.
The Cartier Santos is thus another example of a model that was once a pure tool watch climbing the ladder of luxury.
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak
We’ll start by admitting that the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak was never conceived as a tool watch. However, it still very much fits this list in its journey from the world’s first stainless steel luxury sports watch in a simple three-hand model to a glamorous timepiece made of precious metals.
Many of you already know the story of this legendary watch. For those who don’t, a quick summary: When Audemars Piguet introduced the first Royal Oak (Ref. 5402) in 1972, the watch industry was confused. Up until then, luxury watches were made with precious metals like gold and platinum – stainless steel was reserved for the bread-and-butter watches of the lower segment. But it wasn’t just its material that garnered attention in the higher price segment. The watch’s design, the work of star designer Gérald Genta, also became the stuff of conversation and head shaking. Genta took inspiration from portholes, a look that remains central to the Royal Oak aesthetic today.
Then comes the octagonal bezel with eight screws and an integrated bracelet. This was a novelty at the time, when watches were either round or, better yet, rectangular. And finally, there’s the size of the Royal Oak, which Audemars Piguet took to an extreme. The first model had a diameter of 39 mm, which was huge at the time.
The first Royal Oak was conceived of as a luxury watch from the start. But with just two hands for hours and minutes and date display, the original model was very simple. The model enjoyed success, and so over the next 50 years, Audemars Piguet transformed the Royal Oak from a modest luxury watch into a powerful status symbol. A wristwatch for the rich and famous and everyone who aspires to be.
Whereas 39 mm was seen as too big for a wristwatch in the 1970s, today the series boasts chronographs with case sizes of up to 44 mm. If precious metals like yellow gold or platinum are involved, it’s clear to everyone that the watch’s owner means business. Not to mention complications like tourbillons or diamond-encrusted models.
There’s perhaps no better example of how a once modest sports watch could morph into a showy, kitschy watch monster than the Royal Oak Double Balance Wheel Openworked Ref. 15417OR.ZZ.1267OR.01. The 41-mm case and bracelet of this model are made of rose gold and overloaded with white diamonds. The dial is skeletonized, and the index markers are also made of diamonds. On Chrono24, the watch cost over $3.2 million in November 2022.
So, in the context of this article, Audemars Piguet takes the cake when it comes to bringing a once simple and functional watch to Godzilla-level proportions.
The watches and series we looked at here are just three examples from a very long list. Pretty much every luxury watch brand has a flagship watch in its catalog that brought it to fame – a fame that usually derived precisely from its role as a functional tool of measurement. Pleasing designs and high quality made those watches interesting for a wide audience. The watch manufacturers reacted quickly, releasing variants of their most popular models at a variety of price points. And since some budgets seem to be limitless, manufacturers are coming out with more and more superlatives to match. The minimalist original or its dressed up counterpart – which model would you go for?