Narrowing down all the watches seen over a year to just 17 of the best is a Sisyphean task; every time you think you’ve got it nailed, you take a final cursory look at your Instagram feed and discover you’ve overlooked an absolute smash hit and find yourself re-evaluating every decision for the 20th time.
Well, we’ve finally pinned our horological colours to the mast and come up with what we think are this year’s most stand-out timepieces, broken down by category. From heritage reissues and regatta timers to classics that you’ll pass on to the next generation, this is a snapshot of what 2019-in-watches looks like. And hopefully some additions to your (fantasy) Christmas list too.
All watches are investments, but some are more obviously so than others. Whether crafted from precious metal or housing a movement that has come to define an entire category of watches, these exemplary pieces represent the pinnacle of design, and let you know about it too.
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Selfwinding
Just when you thought Audemars Piguet couldn’t improve any further on the Royal Oak, this gorgeous slice of pink gold comes along. On an alligator strap rather than the full bracelet (because that would be gauche, right?), this 41mm version has wider indices, which moves the date window further from the centre, and a subtle minute track on the outer edge of the dial. Having the iconic grande tapisserie in black as opposed to blue gives a touch of after-dark class to this sports classic.
Zenith El Primero A384 Revival
As revivals go, this was one of 2019’s absolute hit-it-out-of-the-park designs. Part of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the El Primero – the first-ever fully integrated automatic chronograph – it is less an homage than a straight-up reproduction; but with the added benefit of sapphire crystal. Like its direct descendant, it has a panda dial, tachymeter scale and the minutes and seconds sub dials at nine and three o’clock respectively make an oversized contrast to the 12-hour sub dial between.
Aside from the sapphire crystal, the other update is the movement – the El Primero 400. There’s not much that’s really changed since it first launched 50 years ago. How many things you can say that about?
Rolex Oyster Perpetual Yacht-Master II
It has one of the most useless complications in horological history unless you happen to be a skipper on regatta-competing yacht; it’s also a complication only a handful of people know how to programme (and most of them work at Rolex), however that doesn’t stop this being one of the most apologetically fun watches of 2019. It’s big (44mm, which is large for a Rolex), slightly brash, with its “Yacht-Master” emblazoned bezel and definitely one for the weekend, but what a weekend you’ll have with something like this on your wrist.
It’s a well known fact that everything looked better in the past. Watch brands know this, which is why one of the major horological trends of the last ten years has been the vintage-styled re-issue. Not all of these are exact replicas of previous designs, but they all hark back to decades gone-by. They don’t make them like they used to. Well, they do, actually.
Montblanc Heritage Monopusher Chronograph
Forget all the rambunctiousness of its Nicolas Rieussec watches, Montblanc is at its best when it takes things back to basics. And this gorgeously simple addition to the Heritage collection is a case in point. There’s the delicate blue tracking on the outer ring of the main and sub dials; the clever little red accents; the silvery-white dial so pure it’s almost porcelain.
The monopusher chronograph adds a touch of sportiness, which prevents it from being too serious a timepiece. What is serious, however, is how much we want it on our wrists.
IWC Pilot’s Watch UTC Spitfire Edition ‘MJ271’
Named after the call sign of the original “Silver Spitfire” when it was in service, this addition to IWC’s incredible range of pilot watches was certainly one of the year’s most talked about designs. There’s so much to love about it from the rather fabulous bronze case paired with an olive-green dial, to the clever second-time-zone display from 11 to one o’clock, which you can read at a glance – ideal if you’re the one sat in a cockpit.
Its looks are one thing but this is also the watch that contains a movement from IWC’s first-ever base calibre family – the 8200. Granted that’s not as sexy an angle as the 2019 globe circumnavigation in a spitfire from which this watch takes its name, however, in watch-making terms, it’s an even more impressive endeavour.
Breitling Navitimer B01 Chrono Pan-AM
This could have gone so wrong, but Breitling manages to fly over any connotations of naffness and straight into stone-cold classic territory with this homage to one of the USA’s most iconic airlines. The secret to its success is not having the logo emblazoned on the front of the dial. Instead, this Breitling Navitimer is decked out in the Pan-AM red-and-blue livery – something which really makes that slide rule look fun rather than mathematically intimidating.
It’s only when you turn the watch over that there’s the Pan-AM on the sapphire crystal allowing a glimpse of the in-house movement that powers it. A little reminder that Breitling doesn’t just do pretty faces, it’s a horological powerhouse too.
Tissot Heritage 1973 Chronograph
This watch definitely made a lot of watch connoisseurs’ wish-lists. And it’s easy to see why. It’s an amalgam of watch-design greatest hits. There’s the deliciously retro cushion-shaped case and panda dial, with pops provided by colouring three of the hands orange, and the greenish hue of the lume.
If you hadn’t pegged this as an automotive-inspired chronograph given its aesthetics, then another clue is in the name. 1973 was the year Tissot first sponsored Team Renault in the Monte Carlo Rally; a race for which it took all three podium positions. Something to remember when you’re approaching Junction 22 on the M62 at speed.
Amongst all the high-tech wizardry, fancy materials and boundary-pushing design, the simple dress watch is often forgotten. For times when you need to make the very best impression though, no other watch will do. These are the ultimate designs of 2019.
March LAB Mansart
Dress watches used to mean straight-up no-fuss three-handers, but just as men’s after-dark style has evolved to include crushed velvet and florals, so we have wrist-candy experiments like this gorgeous March LAB. The octagonal design is based on the architecture of La Place Vendôme and supposed to combine the loucheness of LA’s Chateau Marmont with the baroque classicism of the architect from which it gets its name – Francois Mansart. Either way, it’s a daring dress design that demands to be taken seriously.
Omega De Ville Tresor 40mm
With all the fuss about moon watches and Bond watches, it sometimes gets forgotten that Omega also makes some of the best dress (or best dressed) watches in the business. This Tresor, which has been in the collection since 1949, may not have the fiddly bezels and dynamic history of its other more notable names, but simplicity this beautiful is hard to do because there’s nowhere to hide.
From the precisely tapered hands that seem to melt into the similarly styled indices, as they slide gently past, to the unobtrusive date and the opaline sheen of the dial, this watch is one that rewards repeat viewing.
Patek Philippe Ref. 5327J-001 perpetual calendar
Generally speaking, dinner is not the time to be checking your perpetual calendar, but why would you want to keep it under your cuff, when it’s as good looking as this from Patek Philippe? Taking the perennially elegant Calatrava case as its starting point, everything from the Breguet numerals to the precisely aligned sub-dials are geared towards aesthetic perfection.
Powering it is the exquisitely finished self-winding 240Q, an ultra-thin calibre that was first introduced in 1977 and which has been in the brand’s perpetual calendars since 1985, though it has since been updated with added silicon. This watch is Patek Philippe at its best – sophisticated, complicated and that little bit too special to wear every day.
The watch industry was shook upon the arrival of the original Apple Watch, and while it never completely fell on its knees, the American tech brand forced Switzerland to react with smartwatches of its own as well as lower, more accessible prices. It joins Swatch and Seiko (and a host of newer brands), all fighting to keep the luxury old guard honest, and we couldn’t approve more.
Swatch Big Bold
Swatch has taken the notion of going big or going home quite literally with its Big Bold. As the name suggests, it’s certainly a bold statement and that’s without taking into consideration the whopping 47mm case diameter. The strap and dial have 3D details on, and you won’t have any trouble reading the time thanks to the SuperLuminova hands.
The oversized numerals and the two o’clock crown adds a cheeky design twist, in case you thought it was just the size that mattered. It’s not for those who are delicate of wrist, but if you’ve got the radius, it’s a great watch to rock.
Seiko Sports 5
First launched in 1963, this legend from Seiko has been given a reboot for 2019 and now comes in 27 different options. It was originally called the 5 because it had five specific character traits, all of which are adhered to today. It has decent water resistance (100m in this case), day/date window, crown at 4 and a case that could withstand the slings and arrows of everyday life. It really should have been the 6 because the other characteristic is an almost unbelievable price tag.
You get all this, plus the guarantee of all the quality with which the Seiko named is imbued, and for just £300. Now that’s disruptive.
Apple Watch Series 5
There’s a reason why we’re still talking about the Apple Watch despite the lukewarm reception to it back in 2015. That’s because with every iteration it’s just got better. While number 4 was considered to be smartwatch perfection, thanks to its larger screen, more rounded edges and added ECG sensor to ensure nothing happens with your heart without you knowing about it first, the 5 improved on perfection by fixing the one big issue – the dead black mirror you get when not looking at the screen.
Now it’s always on, dimming to an ambient light when resting. With that major bugbear fixed, there’s really no other smartwatch like it.
The idea of the tool watch is nothing new, but this particular category is one of the most exciting out there right now. As menswear has gone more casual, so to has the watch world, and it’s now possible to wear one watch for all occasions. These are your go-anywhere, do-anything watches.
TAG Heuer Carrera 16
It’s been a big year for TAG Heuer – what with Calibre 11 (first automatic chronograph) and Monaco anniversaries, we could probably have filled a few categories with models from this brand. However, it’s the Carrera 16 that got the vote. This is more an evolution than a revolution of this classic from the TAG Heuer catalogue that was first launched in 1963.
What you’ve got here are subtle changes such as a new ceramic bezel, lengthened hour markers and subtle use of red to emphasise the watch’s automotive origins but they all add up to a sleeker design that keeps its sporty vibe but with a bit more sartorial panache.
Longines HydroConquest Ceramic
Although Longines likes to push its elegant attitude, watches like this that prove it’s got a different kind of attitude in spades. The HydroConquest was launched 10 years ago and while there have been plenty of updates over the years, it’s finally hit the sweet spot. The definitive sports watch for 2019, this fully stainless steel piece is accented by a black ceramic bezel and angled crown guards give, making for a muscular-looking watch that’s about as elegant as Daniel Craig in a dinner jacket.
Tudor Black Bay PO1
This watch deserves to be in an “of the year” list for its back story alone. A Tudor designed especially for the US Marines, with a detachable bezel the patent for which was filed by Rolex, has been the stuff of watch-world rumour for years. In 2019, Tudor solved the mystery (and potentially alerted an unlucky owner to the fact they’d bought a fake) by releasing a timepiece based on the original US Marines prototype.
You can’t detach the bezel, unfortunately, and its unusual case shape is not for everyone. However, if you want to own a piece of horological history updated for the 21st century, it’s the only thing for which to wave your plastic.
Bell & Ross BR05
If you’ve got a steel sports watch hole in your watch collection, this is the timepiece to fill it. Taking its cues from earlier Bell & Ross designs, namely the BR01 and BR03 – both cockpit-instrument inspired and with the same typeface and chunky lume-filled hands – the BR05 is a sleeker, more refined proposition.
For starters the case is just 40mm (the BR01 and BR03 weighing in at 46 and 42mm respectively), while having the nailed square form the bezel rather than the case makes everything look less chunky. Yes, it’s a blatant bid for some of that Nautilus/Royal Oak market share, but when it looks this good, why the hell not?