From across all of horology's long and storied past, countless iconic timepieces have helped shape the modern industry to some degree. As such, it is always an interesting topic of conversation when the debate surrounding the most iconic watches of all time comes around.
Of course, with tens, if not hundreds, of incredibly iconic, important, and historic timepieces all deserving a spot, it's generally a matter of personal preference. However, with that said, we'd like to share our opinion and give you what we think are the eight most iconic watches of all time.
1. Rolex Submariner
Kicking things off is going to be a couple of Rolex models, and it's not because we're mindless Rolex fanboys, but the Genevan Giant has helped shape modern horology in a manner that no other brand has ever come close to emulating, and the Rolex Submariner is the best place to start. Beginning life in 1953 as one of the first dive watches to make it to market; the Submariner introduced a never-before-seen 100m water resistance to watchmaking while also creating what is now the signature dive watch aesthetic, still all of these decades later.
Worn by James Bond amongst a list of other iconic individuals, the Submariner is easily the most recognisable dive watch and helped put Rolex's tool watch capabilities on the map. From the Submariner collection, we have been gifted the Sea-Dweller and Deepsea collection, along with a litany of iconic variants and references like the Kermit, Hulk. Starbucks, ref. 5513, ref. 16610 and many others.
2. Rolex GMT-Master
Picking up where the Submariner left off, we have its aviator equivalent, the GMT-Master, and its modern sibling collection, the GMT-Master II. Launched in 1954, the GMT-Master was designed in collaboration with Pan-Am in what would go on to become one of the most successful watchmaking collaborations of all time. With its blue and red Pan-Am-inspired "Pepsi" bezel, the GMT-Master quickly became an iconic timepiece, and also made its way into a James Bond film on the wrist of Pussy Galore in 1959's Goldfinger.
An iconic aviator's and pilot's watch, the GMT-Master has introduced some iconic colorways to watchmaking with the Coke, Pepsi, Rootbeer, Batman, and new Sprite, all inspiring other brands to take a leaf from Rolex's book. With its long list of iconic references, the GMT-Master is the Pilot's watch to have at least one of in your collection.
3. Rolex Daytona
Continuing on our list, we have the last Rolex to get a mention. While the Rolex Day-Date and Datejust are both honorable mentions, they don't carry the same level of desirability and prestige as the Rolex Daytona.
Launched in 1963 and performing rather underwhelmingly at first, Rolex expanded the collection's dial offerings which enabled a certain 'Exotic' dial to catch the attention of one Paul Newman. Growing in popularity in the 70s and 80s thanks to his implicit admiration, the Daytona quickly became what it is today, the most sought-after chronograph timepiece on the planet.
With its long history as a world-record-setting timepiece, with various generations, dials, movements, and automotive heritage, the Daytona is rightfully heralded as one of watchmaking's most important watches, with the Daytona acting as a springboard for hundreds of other watches across several decades to make it to market and become popular in their own rite.
4. Audemars Piguet Royal Oak
The first non-Rolex to make its way onto our list of the top 8 most iconic watches of all time is the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. Launched in 1972 and designed by legendary watch designer Gerald Genta, the Royal Oak was AP's response to the growing threat of the Quartz Crisis.
With its screw-set octagonal bezel, unique AP integrated bracelet, tapisserie dial, and position as one of the most expensive watches on the market at the time (as a stainless steel sports watch, an industry first), it was not well-received. However, after a few years on the market, the public finally warmed to it, and so the Royal Oak quickly grew in popularity and thus created the most popular market segment that we have today, the luxury sports watch category, a category that contains brands like Patek Philippe, Richard Mille, Vacheron Constantin, countless independent brands and many many more. An industry icon, the Royal Oak easily deserves a spot in our top 8.
5. Patek Philippe Nautilus
Launched in 1976, just four years after the Royal Oak, the Nautilus was Patek's response to their fierce rival, AP, launching the Royal Oak. Also designed by Gerald Genta, the Nautilus' aesthetic is rather similar to the Royal Oak, but with a unique spin. While a diver's helmet inspired the Royal Oak, the Nautilus was inspired by a porthole on a submarine and thus features a rounded octagonal bezel, a porthole-shaped case with 'hinges' on either side, a more rounded integrated bracelet design, and greater water resistance.
While the Royal Oak had become popular by the time the Nautilus was launched, it languished until the early 1980s, which saw it explode in popularity as Patek expanded from the originally 42mm timepiece into smaller mid-sized variants, and other precious metal variants, which allowed Patek's traditional customer base to enjoy its design. From there, the Nautilus exploded and rapidly overtook the Royal Oak as the most desirable luxury sports watch, a position it still holds today.
6. Omega Speedmaster
Moving away from the Holy Trinity, we have one of the singularly most important watches in all of human history, the Omega Speedmaster. While that might sound like a rather grandiose claim, the Speedmaster was the first watch worn on the moon as it donned the wrists of the astronauts during the Apollo moon landings, and it was the first watch worn during a spacewalk.
Besides those two feats, it also accompanied plenty of other astronauts during their space missions, with the Speedmaster even saving the lives of the crew on board Apollo 13 during a loss of electronic power, which forced them to rely on their mechanical timepieces. This single feat won Omega the NASA Snoopy award as the Speedmaster's reliability and accuracy saved the entire crew's lives.
Across the majority of its models, it features a relatively unchanged aesthetic that blends with a truly remarkable history and thus makes the Speedmaster one of the most significant and iconic timepieces we have ever seen, and likely will ever see, in the world of horology.
7. Cartier Tank
Next on our list is a timepiece from Cartier, the famed designer, jeweler, and watchmaker. While they might not be the first watchmaker that comes to mind when thinking about iconic watches, Cartier is, in fact, the inventor of the wristwatch, to an extent. As such, one of the watches deserves a spot on our list, and we have chosen the Cartier Tank. While the Santos Dumont was their first timepiece and the first tool watch/pilot's watch ever created, the Tank's design is that little bit more iconic.
With its Renault tank-inspired rectangular construction, signature dial design, and 100+ year lineage (thanks to its 1917 launch), the Cartier Tank earns its spot as our 7th most iconic watch. While several of Cartier's other timepieces are also iconic, like the Crash and the Santos, the Tank's endless list of sibling collections and incredibly long list of famed wearers, such as Andy Warhol, Princess Diana, Jackie Kennedy, and more, have earned it it's place on our list.
8. Breitling Navitimer
Last on our list is another pilot's watch, the Breitling Navitimer. While it might not be as well known by the public as the Rolex GMT-Master, the Navitimer was a massive technological leap thanks to its innovative slide-rule bezel.
Allowing pilots to calculate various things like speeds, fuel consumption rates, distances, and various other pieces of arithmetic, the Breitling Navitimer has grown to become one of Breitling's most legendary and popular models, with one variant, the Cosmonaute, being of particular importance thanks to its journey into space on the wrist of Scott Carpenter in 1962.
With a famously busy dial (due to the plethora of scales required to operate the slide rule bezel), the Navitimer's aesthetic has become an icon in and of itself.