It’s quite hard to imagine the days when mankind’s only means of telling the time was through the sun’s shadow and the moon’s phases. Our generation is fortunate enough to experience time as an absolute and relative thing. We can now successfully measure every moment down to the last millisecond. All these were made possible through the aid of watches. These timekeeping devices have been part of our history for as long as we can remember.
In that regard, it’s only rightful to look back on all the timepieces that made their marks in the course of human progression. Without much ado, we present to you ’20 of the Most Iconic Watches of All Time’. From the most expensive Rolex to the sturdiest Casio, these watches truly are the greatest, to say the least.
What Makes a Watch Iconic?
From luxury and affluent to the most affordable — underrated, even — these watches surely have the greatest stories behind them. These iconic watches are so timeless that most collectors vie to covet at least one of them. But what exactly makes these watches, well, iconic?
If you’re new to collecting watches, you’re still probably broadening your insights and testing the waters of what types of watches you’d want to keep in your stead for the next in kin to inherit. But a lot of collectors, especially those who have been doing it for a long time, mostly prefer stashing timepieces from one specific brand. Call it an obsession, if you must, but in a good way.
These avid collectors lean more on the brand’s legacy as they accumulate additions to their prized collection. We can’t blame them especially with luxury watch brands’ rich history that spans centuries. Most of these brands saw the rise of mechanical watches, disruptive electronic timepieces, as well as the emerging of quartz watches.
Brand legacy holds so much dominion over the value of a single timepiece. It’s a foundation built through time and literally — by time. It’s not just a mere name plastered over a timepiece, but a seal of excellence that no other brands can surpass.
Most watches carry great stories behind them — from their conception to the circumstances that made them exemplary. Some played a huge part in the further development of watches that we know today, while others played pivotal roles in the very history of mankind. For instance, the Seiko Astron having been the first Quartz watch in the world. Moreover, the Omega Speedmaster Professional also proves iconic as the first watch to ever reach the moon. Every iconic watch is history in itself, much like the timepieces that made on our list.
Watches don’t necessarily need to be expensive or somewhat came from a luxury Swiss brand in order to be included in our list. In fact, a watch’s feature can make a significant difference. Take the Casio G-Shock series, for instance. Watches from this collection don’t even exceed three digits in price yet they’re the most durable timepieces to ever exist. If a watch has disrupted the industry one way or another, it definitely deserves a spot on the list.
20 Most Iconic Watches of All Time
1. Omega Speedmaster Professional
Omega boasts its sponsorship in sporting events like the Olympics. And as the official timekeeper of the event, it’s only rightful for the brand to release a timepiece that provides great accuracy when needed, especially in sporting matches. So, in 1957, Omega introduced the Speedmaster as a racing chronograph. The tachymeter scale bezel of the timepiece gave justice to its namesake. Initially, this watch was launched as a part of the Omega Seamaster line, but due to its massive popularity, it became a distinctive family of watches on its own, alongside the Seamaster and Railmaster.
The earliest versions of the Speedmaster features the Calibre 321 known for its column-wheel-controlled chronograph. It was so iconic that brands like Breguet, Patek Philippe, and Vacheron Constantin used this as base movements for their own chronographs.
In 1946, a decisive change to add protection against magnetic fields and shocks to the movement allowed for the timepiece to later be chosen by NASA for space missions. In 1965, the timepiece became a huge part of various space missions but not with Omega’s prior knowledge. After learning that their watch was worn by Ed White during the Gemini 4 space mission, Omega decided to append the word ‘Professional’ to the product name. Thus, the popular name Omega Speedmaster Professional.
2. Rolex Submariner
In 1926, Rolex introduced the Oyster to everyone. This timepiece proves iconic as becoming the first watch to bear a hermetically-sealed case. In 1931, the brand successfully patented the world’s first self-winding movement with a Perpetual rotor. Thus, the Rolex Oyster Perpetual.
Rolex continued improving the water-resistance of its timepieces and included rotating bezels for divers. By 1954, the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Submariner was launched with a rotating bezel and a depth rating of 100 metres. With continuous research and development for the watch, the Submariner’s depth rating greatly improved to 200 metres by 1959.
Another reason, perhaps, why it’s the most popular timepiece on the list is because of its great affiliation with everyone’s favourite master spy, James Bond. Sean Connery’s James Bond began using the timepiece in Dr. No (1962) and continued the tradition for the next few film installments. That includes From Russia With Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), and Thunderball (1965). Then, in the movie Live and Let Die (1973), Roger Moore’s Bond used a modified Submariner to cut through ropes that tied him down. But more than a film prop, the Rolex Submariner has proven through the years that it is indeed a one of a kind and must-have iconic watch of all time.
3. Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendar Chronograph Ref. 1518
Being one of the oldest watch manufacturers to date, Patek Philippe doesn’t fall short when it comes to iconic watches. But what sets this particular timepiece apart from other watches in its range is the staggering $11,136,642 price tag that it holds. At one point, a Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendar Chronograph Ref. 1518 in stainless steel was the most expensive watch to be sold at an auction, until Paul Newman’s Daytona dethroned it. This timepiece broke the very record that Patek Philippe also held: a stainless steel perpetual calendar watch with a minute repeater and a tourbillon, which hammered at $7.38 million in 2015.
What makes this iconic watch so coveted that its price skyrocketed during the auction? Simple. The Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendar Chronograph Ref. 1518 is the very first timepiece to have a perpetual calendar and a chronograph function in a single timepiece. It’s also the very first one made with such complications. With Patek Philippe also known to manufacture only a limited number of timepieces, the rarity of this timepiece makes it a truly coveted one. In fact, it’s only one of the four steel 1518 ever made. Also, the other 1518s that came in yellow gold and rose gold only had 281 editions.
4. Audemars Piguet Royal Oak
Audemars Piguet’s motto goes, “To break the rules, you must first master them”. And master them they did, as they broke all the rules in creating not only a luxury timepiece but also a sports watch in the form of Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. Designed by Gérald Genta, who also designed the Patek Philippe Nautilus and Universal Genève Polerouter, Audemars Piguet first presented the Royal Oak in 1972 Baselworld, during the height of the quartz crisis.
At the time, the watch brand was looking for ways to survive the crisis through a one-of-a-kind timepiece. After much research, the brand settled with creating a sports watch made of steel — a unique innovation as most timepieces at the time were still made of gold. The Royal Oak proves a success as it’s still a revered model to this day. Its octagonal bezel and exposed screws are a unique design aspect that became an inspiration for many other iconic watches from the succeeding generations.
5. TAG Heuer Monaco
There are no other sports watches out there like the TAG Heuer Monaco, as it stands out for its unique and unparalleled design. Launched in 1969 in honour of the Monaco Grand Prix, the Heuer Monaco is the first automatic as well as the first square-cased chronograph. This collector’s must-have appealed heavily to racing enthusiasts, due to its design that’s truly uncommon at the time. It features a big case, cut at perfectly right angles with a bevelled sapphire crystal.
Among the reasons that this timepiece grew in popularity is its affiliation with Hollywood actor, Steve McQueen. The actor used the TAG Heuer Monaco as an accessory in the 1971 film, Le Mans. McQueen did this to heed the advice of his friend Jo Siffert, a racing driver and spokesperson of TAG Heuer. Monaco, specifically the Ref. 1133, ultimately gained its nickname the “McQueen Monaco”.
6. Cartier Santos
The Santos de Cartier or simply Cartier Santos is one of the brand’s most iconic watches, given its prowess and design. It’s still in production to this day and proves to be the bestselling timepiece from Cartier. For more than 100 years, the Cartier Santos watch has been a favourite among collectors and enthusiasts for its fashionability and capabilities.
Its history traces back to 1904 when Louis Cartier created a timepiece for Alberto Santos-Dumont, a Brazillian aviator and good friend of his. The timepiece was specifically made as the aviator wished for a reliable accessory that can be strapped around his wrist. Publicly launched in 1911, this timepiece is what we know today as the Cartier Santos. The watch was also regarded as the ‘first wristwatch for men’, ahead of other iconic watches from our list. Cartier Santos came in gold and steel back then but today, it comes in various luxurious iterations.
7. Breitling Navitimer
The Breitling Navitimer is one of the most reliable timepieces to date. Known especially in the aviation industry, this proves to be a legend as a chronograph watch with an integrated flight computer. Many pilots still use the Navitimer to this day including Breitling brand ambassador John Travolta, who also owns a Boeing 707 and a Bombardier Challenger 601.
The Navitimer stands for the words ‘navigation’ and, you guessed it, ‘timer’. It’s known to be the successor of the 1942 Breitling Chronomat with a slide rule bezel. Since then, Breitling gained its name as the brand that creates watches specifically for aviators. On top of that, the brand also equipped the United States Air Force for a long time. What started out as a manual chronograph movement with a column-wheel mechanism became an automatic chronograph movement with a column-wheel mechanism and a chronometer certification.
8. Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso
Jaeger-LeCoultre made a truly enchanting watch with one goal: to keep the watch’s face protected during polo matches. In the 1930s, British Army officers partake in polo matches and needed a timepiece that was ready for such a sport. The challenge was to create a timepiece that protects the watch’s dial through a reversing case. This keeps the dial from being damaged from possible mallet strokes during a polo match. With such a challenge, the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso came to be.
The watch possessed an Art Deco design that offered not only a fresh aesthetic but also new values on timepieces. It proves as a great combination of form and function where geometry and elegance meet each other halfway. This timepiece is so iconic that it inspired other brands like Patek Philippe to come through and produce a limited number of Reverso timepieces under the brand name.
9. Bulgari Octo Finissimo
How Bulgari managed to create such a powerful timepiece and raise it to iconic status in less than a decade remains an astounding story to be told. In its legacy, Bulgari remains to this day a storied fashion house dedicated to crafting pieces of jewellery and accessories. Only when the brand acquired the manufactures of Gerald Genta and Daniel Roth was it established as a systematic part of Haute Horlogerie. That’s why the birth of the Bulgari Octo Finissimo truly fascinated the world for housing the world’s thinnest automatic movement before Piaget swiped the crown with its Altiplano Ultimate Automatic 910P.
Nevertheless, the Bulgari Octo Finissimo is a record-breaking timepiece that’s only less than a decade old. The Octo Finissimo Tourbillon, launched in 2014, housed a movement that only stood 1.95 mm in height, that’s just 5mm when cased. So, for a modern timepiece, it truly is a revolutionary one, bagging the titles such as the world’s thinnest automatic watch with the world’s thinnest tourbillon, and the world’s thinnest automatic tourbillon.
10. Longines Lindbergh Hour Angle
Navigation and pilot watches were never the same after the launch of the Longines Lindbergh Hour Angle. Designed by Charles A. Lindbergh, this timepiece was truly made by pilots, for pilots. Built upon the navigation system developed by Philip Van Horn Weems in 1927, a US Navy officer, the timepiece had a rotating disc that lets its wearer synchronise the seconds-hand with a radio GMT signal. From there, Lindbergh developed the Hour Angle watch.
While it’s too technical to work on how the timepiece functions, it’s best described as a combination of time through the Hour Angle hand, a sextant, as well as a nautical almanac with calculations for longitude and latitude for determining geographical positions. Every so often, Longines celebrates Lindbergh’s North Atlantic cross with a limited-edition Hour Angle watch that a lot of enthusiasts still vie for to this day.
11. Seiko Astron
As history proves, Seiko stands to this day as one of the biggest innovators in all of watch history. The Seiko Astron is the very timepiece that created a huge buzz around Quartz timepieces. On December 25, 1969, Seiko launched the world’s first-ever quartz watch, the Seiko Quartz Astron with a patent opened to the world. This created a ripple in the industry known today as the Quartz Crisis, forcing manufacturers of mechanical timepieces to innovate through various means.
But the invention of Quartz movements doesn’t end just there. Due to Seiko’s relentless passion for watch development and innovation, the Astron also became the world’s first GPS solar watch. Through a GPS network, the Astron adjusts the time on your specific location at the touch of a button. And since it’s solar-powered, it doesn’t require charging or winding anymore.
12. IWC Pilot’s Watch
IWC introduced its first Pilot’s Watch, not as a wristwatch but also as a cockpit instrument. At a time when planes were only beginning to soar 13,000 feet at 200 mph, accurate instruments were of great need to aviators. And so the birth of the IWC Pilot’s Watch became a ground-breaking legacy in all of aviation history. It can measure time down to the last millisecond with great precision, despite being subjected to a high-pressure environment inside the airplane’s cockpit.
This timepiece has everything one would need from an aviation watch: a large ribbed conical crown, as well as an easily readable interface, stripped down to the bare necessity of timekeeping on flights. Today, there are various iterations of the Pilot’s Watch that are still on sale, with a new collection including Spitfire and Top Gun. The series also includes limited-edition collections such as Le Petit Prince, an ode to the iconic literary piece by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry who was also a great aviator of his time.
13. Universal Genève Polerouter
The 1950s bore witness to the birth of the Hamilton Ventura, Rolex Submariner, as well as the Omega Seamaster. But all these can be trumped by a single watch designed by the prolific designer Gerald Genta — the Universal Genève Polerouter. In the early 1950s, the Scandanavian Airlines Systems or SAS established a transpolar route. This allowed the DC-6B ‘Arild Viking’ to fly from Los Angeles to Copenhagen through a route over the North Pole. As a response to the timekeeping needs of such a daring flight, Universal Genève researched and developed anti-magnetic watches.
Genta, only 23 years old at the time, designed a timepiece that met the SAS standards and in 1954, SAS distributed the first Polarouters to all the crews of the inaugural flight upon arrival at LAX. Powered by the Calibre 138 SS bumper automatic movement, this very timepiece with no date window or even Arabic hour indexes became the standard building blocks for the future iterations of the model.
14. Junghans Max Bill
Max Bill is a name that resounds to many design and art enthusiasts for his principles. The artist that mastered several disciplines also mastered the art of designing watches. And through a collaboration with German brand Junghans, the Max Bill collection was launched with great success, not only for enthusiasts but also for art connoisseurs alike.
The first Junghans Max Bill timepiece is a wall-clock with clean lines and a unique typeface. Today, Max Bill timepieces can be found not only on the wrists of enthusiasts around the world but also in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Forever bearing Max Bill’s name, this line of Bauhaus timepieces is celebrated for the artistry anchored with its excellent technology.
15. Panerai Luminor
At the time of the Luminor’s launch, Panerai watches were only available for the use of military forces. So, in 1993, Panerai presented the Luminor to the public as part of a series of limited-edition watches launched by the Italian brand: the Panerai Luminor, the Luminor Marina, and the Mare Nostrum. The Luminor gained the nickname ‘Logo’ due to the OP logo, 6 o’clock of the dial.
It gained popularity worldwide for its unique design and inspired the creation of Luminor watches specifically made for the Italian Navy. But what pushed the model’s popularity, even more, is Sylvester Stalone’s adoration for the watch. During a stay in Italy, Stalone noticed the Luminor and personally asked Panerai to equip him for underwater scenes in his movie Daylight. The brand then created the Luminor Submersible, marked with the words ‘Sly Tech’, which stands for Sylvester Stalone’s nickname, Sly.
16. Casio G-Shock DW-5000C
Casio engineer Kikuo Ibe discovered the need for a Casio G-Shock watch completely by accident. After dropping and breaking a pocket watch given to him by his father, he decided to create a timepiece that could withstand 10 metres of fall, have 10 years of battery life, and have a depth rating of 10 bar — known as the ‘triple 10’ resistance. After 200 prototypes, Ibe’s three-man team named ‘Team Tough’ still couldn’t figure out how to meet the triple 10 criteria. But a visit to a playground made Ibe realise that on rubber balls, the centre of the ball doesn’t suffer much impact when bounced.
From there, Ibe and Team Tough created timepieces with the same principle — wrapped in a rubber-like material to protect the timepiece within. So, in 1983, the DW-5000C was launched. To achieve the triple 10 standards, it had 10 layers protecting the quartz timekeeping module, including a urethane rubber bumper, the stainless steel case, the hardened mineral glass watch crystal, and a whole lot more. After a widely publicised test by turning the Casio G-Shock DW-5000C into a hockey puck, the timepiece became popular with the public. Today, its design DNA can be seen through the DW-5600 models.
17. Cartier Tank
The Cartier Tank was created by Louis Cartier in 1917, taking inspiration from new Renault tanks which Cartier saw in use on the Western Front. Officially introduced in 1918, the watch entered full production in 1919, with a total of six pieces built. It had lines and proportions similar to its inspiration — tanks found on the First World War battlefields. The rectangular timepiece had its strap seamlessly integrated into vertical sidebars called ‘brancards’.
Since its launch, Cartier presented various iterations of the Tank including the Tank Louis in 1922, the Tank Americaine in 1989, as well as the Tank Francaise in 1996. With the watch’s bold Roman numeral indexes on the dial, it became an iconic watch for the brand. It also includes a chemin de fer chapter ring, blued sword-shaped steel hands, and a sapphire cabochon surmounted crown. Among its famous wearers include Princess Diana and Yves Saint Laurent.
18. Patek Philippe Nautilus
The Patek Philippe Nautilus was launched in 1976 and has been in production for more than four decades since. At the time, the Swiss watchmaking industry faced the Quartz Crisis. Also during this time, Philippe Stern led Patek Philippe. Four years before the conception of the Nautilus, Genta gave birth to the Audemars Piguer Royal Oak. Both timepieces noticeably carry the same design principles while remaining unique from each other. The Nautilus has a more rounded octagonal bezel than the Royal Oak’s more definite shape. To reference Philippe Stern’s devotion for sailing, Genta deliberately crafted the watch’s face to look like a transatlantic liner’s porthole. Thus, its name, the Nautilus.
At the time, the production of the Nautilus was a bold move. Due to the Quartz Crisis, producing an expensive watch entailed huge risks. An old advertisement for the Nautilus went: ‘One of the world’s costliest watches is made of steel’ — this is true given that it’s almost as expensive as an 18K gold Patek Philippe at the time. What makes it so expensive, however, is the steel itself. Made of nickel-chrome-molybdenum steel, the alloy upheld the highest standard during that time. For comparison, it’s the same metal used for war tanks. And as strong as it is, the metal remained light and perfect for a timepiece. With that said, the Nautilus can withstand great pressure and temperatures.
19. Omega Seamaster Diver 300
There’s a lot to unpack with the Omega Seamaster series. Launched in 1993, the Omega Seamaster Professional Diver 300 met with great success. Among its many achievements include being on the wrist of Frenchman Roland Specker’s freshwater free dive that made it to world records with a depth of 80m in Lake Neuchatel.
But what truly makes this timepiece an iconic one also relies on a fictional spy, 007 himself, James Bond. Strapped in the wrist of Pierce Brosnan who played 007 in the film Golden Eye, the dive watch became synonymous with the English spy, therefore boosting its sales almost instantaneously. This began the unbreakable ties between Omega and the world-famous spy. To this day, it’s the chosen timepiece of modern-day 007, Daniel Craig starting in Casino Royale.
20. Rolex Cosmograph “Paul Newman” Daytona Ref. 6239
Last but never the least, let’s dive into the expensive history of the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Ref. 6239, also known as the ‘Paul Newman Daytona’. In a Phillips auction in 2017, the $1 million starting price for the Paul Newman Daytona quickly jumped to $10 million with the first bidder alone. The intense auction hammered at $17.8 million, beating the Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendar Chronograph from the previous year.
While this iconic watch is not as rare as people put it to be, the watch holds a story that no other timepiece could have. Your regular old Daytona now embellished with a story of Hollywood glamour. According to sources, the watch was Joanne Woodward’s gift to her husband Paul Newman during the filming of the movie ‘Winning’. This very watch that his wife bought at Tiffany & Co. had a black-and-white dial. With Newman wearing the watch, it ultimately gained an association with the actor. Later, it was nicknamed Paul Newman Daytona.
Iconic Watches Through Time
It’s agonising to end the list here, but we dare say that we’ve just enumerated some of the most iconic watches of all time. These watches carry with them fascinating stories of yesteryears as well as a legacy that no other watches can uphold or boast in the distant future. As most collectors lean on the idea of a watch’s making than the price tag that comes along with it, these iconic watches are indeed worthy of having a spot in every watch collector’s prized selection.
Interested in vintage watches? Check out our guide to buying vintage Rolex watches.