An iconic watch, a history, a revolution
How do you define an iconic watch? Well beyond its rarity or design, such a timepiece is first and foremost a watch that revolutionized its era, through its movement or/and its complications. It is also - and perhaps above all - a watch that has a real history and longevity.
So when Cartier imagined the Santos in 1904, it was at the request of an aviation pioneer. The Brazilian Albert Santos-Dumont no longer wanted those pocket watches that pilots had to take out of their pockets while remaining at the controls of their aircraft. He could trust his friend Louis Cartier. The visionary jeweler who invented, in collaboration with the movement manufacturer Edmond Jaeger - founder of the House of Jaeger-Lecoultre - the first wristwatch for men. Since then, the Cartier Santos has continued to evolve, in its design and complications, redesigned in 1978 in an Art Deco style and with an unprecedented steel/gold combination, then in 2018 where the case is made thinner, the in-house caliber more modern.
The Santos is recognized as the one that "brought watchmaking into the modern era". Its longevity (more than 115 years!) is exceptional and this watch, born of two passions, truly has a soul. It therefore perfectly embodies the concept of an iconic watch.
Watches, adventurers and men
The legendary watches are thus born of a meeting, between men and between worlds. In the early 1950s, the French army was rebuilding, and an elite unit of combat swimmers was created. At its head, Robert Maloubier was well aware that his divers needed state-of-the-art equipment, and in particular efficient diving watches. A first watch has already been invented by Omega (the Mariner) without achieving the expected water resistance, Panerai has indeed already developed luminescent hands and indexes, but it is a small Swiss House that is embarking on the adventure, Blancpain.
CEO Jean-Jacques Fiechter is himself a big fan of recreational scuba diving. He easily understands the importance of a waterproof and readable watch in the dark (black dial, large numbers, clear indications...), with a rotating bezel. The Swiss watchmaker set to work with the French soldier. Together, they designed a (large) 41 mm watch with a locked crown, a screw-in caseback, protected from magnetic fields by an inner cage and equipped with an automatic movement: in 1953, the Blancpain Fitfty Fathoms (for 50 fathoms) was born, and moreover a year before another legendary watch, the Rolex Submariner.
Adopted by Captain Cousteau's team, the watch was on screen as early as 1956, in "The Silent World".
This strong identity - and its technical prowess - will make the Fifty Fanthoms an iconic watch, still sold today and with 73 references. Blancpain's model thus precedes, by a small margin, the Rolex Submariner. But at the time, the Geneva-based House was already known as an expert in the marine environment, having equipped swimmer Mercedes Gleize with its Oyster Perpetual during her swim across the English Channel. The first two models of the Submariner (6204 and 6205) are waterproof to 100 meters, a record. Its graduated rotating bezel also makes it possible to measure the time spent underwater and the duration of the stops necessary for the safety of divers.
It became even more popular when Sean Connery wore the 6538 version, dated 1959, in "James Bond 007 vs Dr No". With again an anecdote, it was not Rolex that provided the watch to the actor but the producer of the film who lent his personal watch.
Watches that push the envelope
Great depths have inspired the best of the master watchmakers to create iconic watches. The Omega Seamaster is another, the first watch to be waterproof to 1,000 meters in its version launched in the early 1970s, adopted by Commander Cousteau and James Bond, again him, from 1995.
These examples - there are many others - testify that the legendary watches like the adventurers who wear them on unity by the same objective, that of pushing the limits. Thus watches worn by space conquerors naturally rise to this category. The Omega Speedmaster, the "watch that walked on the moon," is perhaps the most famous, but it was preceded by the Breitling Navitimer, worn in 1962 by Scott Carpenter when he orbited the earth three times.
Does this mean that an iconic watch is necessarily linked to a sporting or technological achievement? To be honest, no. Particularly elegant city watches have also written the history of watchmaking. Three models, at least, are there to attest to this: the Calatrava watch by Patek Philippe, the Cartier Tank and the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso. And this despite the fact that the history of the latter is linked to sports, since the Swiss House was asked to imagine a watch whose glass would be protected during polo matches. Jaeger-LeCoultre designed an inner case that could be rotated. This was in 1931.