Earlier this week, a feature by my colleague on the difficulty of buying a Rolex was met with a huge response. Clearly it’s a topic that really resonates, with watch enthusiasts weighing in with recommendations of where to look, or watches that have stood the test of time. One thing to note – as someone who has been lucky enough to visit many manufacturers in Switzerland – lengthy waiting lists aren’t just because of a strategy to drive scarcity.
They exist – across many brands, not just Rolex – in part because the artisanal process is so exacting, involved and frankly astonishing. I’ve watched an artisan paint the face of the dial using a single hair, invisible to the naked eye and viewed via magnifying glass. With such intricate workmanship it begins to make sense why watchmaking is such an expensive and slow process. Factor in that certain materials might be harder to get thanks to Covid shutting down manufacturing of certain parts or precious materials, and you have the recipe for a long waiting list.
Expert James Gurney, editor of the watch magazine QP, has some initial pointers as to what Rolex alternatives to look out for. “If you want value, long term (and to enjoy the watch in the meantime), look for a design with a good 40-50 years of history behind it, that’s emblematic of the brand that made it and not too obviously a version fitted to today’s fashions.”
In the luxury industry, certain watches are icons of design, totemic in their pull and their history. Tellingly, one of most mentioned brands amongst readers in the initial feature on this subject was Omega. The Omega Speedmaster, created in 1957, is a masterclass in marrying sporty dynamism with the finesse of a luxury house. The first chronograph to be produced by the house, it’s known for its distinctive tachymeter scale bezel and is what astronauts have been issued with in space.
Another brand to excite Telegraph readers was Zenith, a heritage Swiss house founded in 1865 whose name might be more under the radar than some others, but as a reader notes is a well-known name amongst the “cognoscenti”. It’s known for its El Primero movement, incorporated into some of its most elegant and complicated watches.
Then, in the great pantheon of most iconic watches, a Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso is one of the most sought-after, and beautiful. A dress watch, it was initially created for the polo field – which is why the face can be flipped over and hidden safely – and its sensual Art Deco lines mean it’s an excellent option for the smarter end of your watch roster.
Similarly, at the dress end of the market, the Cartier Tank is one of the most renowned watch designs of all time, the name taken from Louis Cartier’s glimpse of the rhomboid shape of tanks in the First World War. The rectangle shape and the classic roman numerals of its dial means its sense of classicism has never gone out of style.
Sporting and military pursuits have long inspired the most renowned watches of the 20th century, and this is the case with Tag Heuer’s Carrera. Created by Jack Heuer, great grandson of the house’s founder, out of his love of motor racing, its automatic versions come at an entry level £2,100 upwards, and special editions usually become collectors’ items.
Two other brands that excited debate were Breitling and Longines. The former’s Navitimer is a masterclass of masculine design; developed as a pilot’s watch in 1952, its hallmarks are the bi-directional slide rule bezel and that distinctive trio of subdials. Longines’ Master Collection is similarly exalted amongst watch insiders; classic and refined without being overly “mannered” or kept strictly as a dress watch. A version with the moon phase on the dial is always going to carry some weight with watch connoisseurs.
Within the Rolex family firmament, Tudor – a brother brand of the house – has its own roster of iconic watches. Most notably, the Black Bay, which only sprang to life in 2012 but has a distinctive design identity; someone in the know will spot that snowflake dial and distinctive triangle, circle and baton numerals a mile away.
Then of course there’s the grand master of luxury watch houses: Patek Philippe. Its Nautilus range is spoken of in hushed terms as many a watch lover’s “Grail watch” with good reason. As is the case with Rolex, sometimes the waiting list really is worth it.
What to buy now
Top row, left to right
- Navitimer B01 Chronograph 46, £7,050, breitling.com
- Speedmaster Mark II Co-Axial Chronometer Chronograph 42, £10,060, omegawatches.com
- Chronomaster Sport, contact in store for price, zenith-watches.com
- Reverso Tribute Monoface, £7,600, jaeger-lecoultre.com
Bottom row, left to right
- Tag Heuer Carrera 160 Years Anniversary watch, £4,950, tagheuer.com
- Longines Master Collection L2, £2,000, longines.com
- Black Bay, £3,000, tudorwatch.com
- Zenith Chronomaster Sport El Primero, £9,200, watches-of-switzerland.co.uk
...and one that’s worth waiting for
- Nautilus 5712/1A-001, apply in store for details, patek.com