The term “Luxury Sports Watch” might not seem particularly unusual to collectors and timepiece enthusiasts in today’s luxury timepiece market. But in the early 1970s, a sports watch was made with an active user in mind, and a luxury watch was designed for dress wear – the two never really intersected. Somewhere along the line, the most straightforward of sporting timepieces (say, the Rolex Submariner or Omega Speedmaster, for example) did acquire a bit of a luxury connection (probably due to their ever-inflating price tags), but early on each piece was purpose-built for their clientele; in this case divers and pilots respectively. Admittedly, they were primarily purchased by well-heeled divers and pilots, but these watches weren’t generally bought by fashion/lifestyle/status symbol seeking consumers. And unless you were James Bond, you didn’t wear a Submariner with a Tuxedo, you’d have switched to your petite gold dress watch for the fancier occasions. This all began to change in the 70s , when steel sports watches with luxury pedigree became acceptable high fashion in most circles.
The blurring of the sports/luxury line all began with the introduction of a single timepiece, considered by horology experts to be the first true “luxury sports watch” in the world: the original Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. The very first Royal Oak, known as the “A-Series” was a game changer, and was a tremendous gamble for Audemars Piguet. The design of the timepiece was a radical departure for the brand, which was mainly known for their elegant dress timepieces. The design of the Royal Oak was masterminded by Gérald Genta, the storied Swiss designer who was hired by the brand to create something never before seen on the market: a steel sports watch for the luxury consumer. With the Royal Oak, Genta, who later went on to design the Nautilus for Patek Philippe, created what is arguably the most memorable design language of the era – a thin, angular case with an integrated bracelet. Equal parts sport & luxury, and entirely awesome. This design has been mimicked dozens of times over, and is experiencing resurgence in modern watch design today.
While the Royal Oak (1972) and the subsequent Nautilus (1976) are perhaps the most recognizable timepieces to feature this iconic 70s design to the average consumer, there are a few more important timepieces of the era worth looking at from both a historical and collector point of view. The IWC Ingenieur SL of 1976 is one such example that we’ll cover in greater detail in a future article, as is the Vacheron Constantin 222, which we’ll delve into a bit right now.
For Vacheron, like Audemars and Patek before it, the introduction of a steel luxury sporting piece was a gamble, although as the last brand to bring a piece to market (in 1977), they had the benefit of seeing how the market took to their competitors before releasing theirs, and tailoring their design to the strengths of those that came before it. At the time, Vacheron Constantin was the oldest continually operating timepiece manufacture in the world (and still is!), and so named the 222 in commemoration of their 222 years in business. The piece featured all the signature hallmarks of the great 70s Genta design: Angular case, sporty bezel design, and integrated bracelet. Like its contemporaries, the 222 was also offered in an array of different case sizes, ranging from a ladies version at 25mm to their version of the “Jumbo,” which at the time meant 37mm. This is somewhat on the small size by today’s standards, but is very slim and still infinitely wearable.
Despite its design, the 222 was not actually penned by Gérald Genta, although it was assumed to have been for many years. It was actually developed by Jorg Hysek who crafted the design with a clear nod of appreciation for Génta’s prior works. Aside from the obvious case and bracelet similarities, what ties the 222 to the other “big three” is what lies inside; the Calibre 920, an ultra-thin movement developed by Jaeger-LeCoultre. The Calibre 920 is something of an icon in its own right, and is highly regarded by collectors and enthusiasts. Interestingly, Jaeger-LeCoultre has never used this movement in any of their own branded timepieces.
We noted earlier that in the past few years there has been a resurgence of appreciation in the collector market for timepieces designed in this style. This has lead to increased values for the originals, as well as a number of reissues by the brands themselves. Of course the Royal Oak, Ingenieur, and Nautilus collections have all been stalwarts of their respective brands, but the retro theme is running strong throughout the timepiece industry, and hasn’t been missed by Vacheron Constantin, either. Indeed, the inspiration for their current Overseas Collection comes directly from the 222, and is proving to be a successful seller for the brand.
Like the original Royal Oak A-Series, IWC Ingenier SL, and Patek Philippe Nautilus 3700, the men’s Vacheron Constantin 222 was made in very limited numbers: 500 in steel (this is only half as many as the original A-Series Jumbo), 100 in solid 18k gold, and 120 in two-tone gold and stainless. Production was discontinued in 1985. Long undervalued, 37mm 222s are rapidly gaining appreciation in the collector market, and are a true rarity. For that reason, value is hard to put a finger on, as it is very much a seller’s market. One thing is for certain: If you fancy yourself an enthusiast of the original Luxury Sports Watches, don’t pass up on an original 222 in good condition, they don’t come around often.