Back in Time: Luxury Watches Born in the 1970s

ARTICLE DATE 07/29/2020

After exploring the watches that debuted in the eighties and nineties, we’re continuing our trip down memory lane with a stop in the seventies. The Swiss watch industry was in the throes of the Quartz Crisis with most brands having no choice but to embrace the new battery-operated caliber–or at least add a few quartz watches to their catalogs. More importantly, this was the decade that gave birth to the concept of the luxury sports watch, which is still an immensely popular watch genre today. Read the third installment of our Back in Time series as we discover which luxury watches were born in the 1970s.

Luxury Watches born in the 1970s
Luxury Watches on in the 1970s

1971 – Rolex Explorer II

Rolex introduced the Explorer II in 1971 as an evolution of the first Explorer watch that premiered in 1953. While both Rolex watches were rooted in adventuring, the Explorer II was developed specifically for spelunkers and polar explorers. What these two exploits have in common is the lack of ability to look at the sky to determine if it’s day or night–spelunkers hang out in dark caves and polar regions have extreme variations in daylight.

Rolex Watch: Explorer II
The first Explorer (left) had an AM/PM indicator while future versions were GMT watches

To solve this problem, Rolex created the Explorer II. The steel watch had a fixed 24-hour bezel and a large 24-hour hand on the dial (coupled to the traditional 12-hour hand). That way, the wearer could always tell whether it was day or night, regardless of the environment they were in. Rolex eventually evolved the Explorer II to have independent hour hands, therefore upgrading the Explorer II to a GMT watch.

1972 – Audemars Piguet Royal Oak

Prior to the 1970s, watches were generally segmented into a few distinct categories: slim gold dress watches, high-complication timepieces, and steel tool watches. In 1972, Audemars Piguet shook up the watch industry a major way when it presented the Royal Oak watch. Designed by Gerald Genta, the unconventional silhouette of the Royal Oak featured a large-for-the-era 39mm octagonal case, an eight-sided bezel with exposed screws, and an integrated bracelet. The dial, which was decorated in a hobnail “tapisserie” pattern, offered simple time and date functionality. The inaugural Royal Oak was crafted in stainless steel but priced above many gold watches of the time–and the concept of the luxury sports watch was established.

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Luxury watches
The stainless steel Royal Oak remains as one of the most iconic watch designs ever made

The Royal Oak was met with mixed reactions, some balking at the outrageous size, style, and price. However, the Royal Oak eventually became the backbone of the Audemars Piguet watch catalog. Almost 50 years later, the Royal Oak is AP’s flagship watch model, available in a slew of sizes, materials, and additional complications.

1976 – Patek Philippe Nautilus

Not to be outshone by Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe also thought it was time to introduce its own version of a high-end sports watch. Naturally, the renowned watchmaker turned to Gerald Genta to develop the model and the famed designer came up with the Patek Philippe Nautilus. Inspired by a ship’s porthole, the Nautilus watch featured an oversized 42mm cushion-shaped case complete with “ears” to mimic window hinges. Other design details included an eight-sided bezel with rounded edges, an integrated bracelet, and a time and date dial decorated with horizontal grooves.

Patek Nautilus luxury watches
The stainless steel Nautilus 5711/1A is perhaps the most desirable watch of the modern era

Patek also priced the stainless steel Nautilus on par with gold timepieces, further cementing the cachet of an ultra-luxurious sports watch. The Nautilus is one of the most coveted watches today, available in a range of materials. In addition to the time/date versions, Patek Philippe also makes more complex editions of the Nautilus such as chronographs, annual calendars, and dual times.

1976 – Chopard Happy Diamonds

An innovative design for its time, Chopard released the Happy Diamonds watch in 1976. Designed by in-house designer Ronald Kurowski and recipient of the Baden-Baden Rose d’Or during its inaugural year, the Chopard Happy Diamonds watch featured free-floating diamonds moving around the face of the watch. While this may seem simple in concept, the famed hardness of diamond gems can cause significant scratching to any surface–even to the pair sapphire crystal that sandwiched the precious stones. To solve this, Chopard coated the diamonds with a thin gold layer.

Pre-Owned Chopard Happy Diamonds
The Chopard Happy Diamonds watch features floating diamonds on the dial

Two decades later, Chopard came out with another iteration called the Happy Sport, which was the first watch to combine stainless steel and diamonds. Over the decades, the Chopard Happy Diamonds and Happy Sport collections have grown to become some of the most popular luxury women’s watches in the market. This ladies’ Chopard watch collection is vast, with plenty of materials, shapes, and sizes to choose from–but always flaunting its signature floating diamonds.

1977 – Bulgari BVLGARI BVLGARI

In 1975, Bulgari released a limited-edition digital gold watch engraved with “BVLGARI ROMA” and fitted on a hemp and leather strap. Bulgari only made 100 examples to give to its top clients as Christmas gifts. Inspired by the success of these watches, Bulgari introduced the BVLGARI BVLGARI watch in 1977–designed yet again by Gerald Genta. This time, the watch featured a traditional analog display, a double-logo engraved bezel, and an automatic movement.

Bulgari Bulgari luxury watches
Bulgari continues to release various versions of the BVLGARI BVLGARI watch

The BVLGARI BVLGARI became a mainstay of the Bulgari watch collection, reinterpreted in a bevy of sizes, styles, materials, and complications for men and women. It remains one of Bulgari’s most recognizable and popular timepieces thanks to its iconic engraved bezel.

1978 – Santos de Cartier

The Santos-Dumont was the first Cartier wristwatch ever made, given to aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont in 1904. However, in the late 1970s, the pioneering Cartier watch model was not only redesigned to follow the luxury sports watch trend of the era but also renamed the Santos de Cartier. The then-new Santos de Cartier watch sported a larger steel case, a wide yellow gold bezel, and an integrated steel bracelet embellished with yellow gold screws. This was the first time Cartier made a watch using stainless steel–and the start of Cartier’s love of two-tone gold and steel watches.

Cartier Santos Luxury Watches
The two-tone Santos was the first Cartier watch to include stainless steel

This redesign was a hit. As a result, Cartier continued to expand the Santos lineup with plenty of different models. In true Cartier fashion, Santos luxury watches are available in a wide range of materials, sizes, and functions. Although the brand discontinued the Santos collection in 2016, Cartier brought it back a short two years later.

1979 – Piaget Polo

Towards the end of the decade, Piaget also joined the sporty luxury watches trend by presenting the Polo. However, instead of going for stainless steel, the 1970’s Piaget Polo was craft entirely in 18k yellow gold. Furthermore, Piaget opted to embrace the popularity of quartz during the era and fitted the Polo with a quartz movement. The Polo watch, characterized by its wide horizontal grooves (known as gadroons) throughout the slim piece and integrated bracelet, became the must-have watch of the following decade. Whether with a round case or rectangular one, Yves G. Piaget designed the Polo to wear like a lavish bracelet watch, not simply a timepiece. It’s reported that the gold Polo was one of the best selling Piaget watches of that time.

With its gadroons and integrated bracelet, the gold Polo was the must-have watch of its era

The Polo model underwent a few design shifts over the course of its history, In 2001, the revamped Polo featured a more voluminous and curvier silhouette, along with bolder dials. Then in 2009, on the occasion of the Polo’s 30th anniversary, Piaget unleashed more modern editions with more prominent dimensions. Finally, in 2016, the Piaget Polo S came onto the scene as sportier versions in stainless steel.

The 1970’s Luxury Watches

It’s evident that the idea of the high-end sports watch dominated the Swiss watch industry in the 1970s. Many of these timepieces evolved to become absolute icons in the luxury watch space, never veering too far from their original designs. Others underwent a couple of facelifts over the decades. However, what’s important to note is that all of these watch models remain a part of their respective brand’s catalogs until today.

Stay tuned for the next installment of our Back in Time series, where we’ll be racing through the 1960s–the decade of the chronograph.