Alternative sports watches that deserve your attention
Words by Marcus Randell
When looking for a watch that can be a real go-to piece, suitable for the rigours of everyday life and still look the part, the luxury sports watch is the ideal category.
With the likes of Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet and Rolex sports watches all increasingly difficult to acquire, we have put together a collection of imaginative alternatives that are just as worthy of the limelight, with an added bonus of actually being obtainable, too!
Defining a sports watch
Defining what makes a sports watch is surprisingly difficult. Diving is a sport, so you could argue that all dive watches are sports watches. Motor racing is a sport too. Travel is not a sport, yet travel watches are widely considered as sports watches. Field watches, designed to be worn in the great outdoors, could also qualify.
We might find a better definition by looking at some popular examples.
Technically speaking, the first sports watch was Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Reverso, released in 1931, which introduced a reversible case that could be used during polo matches to protect the dial-side glass from damage during a game. By presenting the back side of the case instead, it meant that any knocks or scratches would be resigned to the steel face on the back of the watch.
JLC Reverso 'London Edition' (Photo Subdial)
Some more widely recognised sports watches include the Rolex Oyster Perpetual, worn by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay when they summited Mount Everest, and the archetypal dive watch, the Rolex Submariner, both appearing in 1953. In 1972, Audemars Piguet released the first stainless-steel luxury sports watch with the Royal Oak, which was followed by Patek Philippe’s Nautilus in 1976 – both created by legendary designer Gerald Genta. Interestingly all of these watches feature a metal bracelet and the complications are limited to hours, minutes, seconds and a date display.
Despite their remarkable success today, the Royal Oak and Nautilus models were met with muted interest on their launch. Following on from the Royal Oak, the Nautilus was also a trailblazer in using steel as a base material – something that seems normal today but caused a stir in the luxury industry at the time. These watches also introduced integrated bracelets, merging the case and bracelet together seamlessly in what would become another recurring design feature within sports watches.
Patek's Nautlius, AP's Royal Oak & IWC's Ingenieur, three Genta designs (Photo - Bulang & Sons)
These pieces tell us something about Sports Watches as a category. They’re multi-purpose and suitable for a wide range of activities, offering comfort on the wrist both indoors and outdoors. Simplicity is key, with complications either limited or discreet (think a date or GMT hand rather than a chronograph with 3 subdials). They should be water resistant, ideally rated to 100m+ and suitable for swimming (which is, after all, a sport!). Finally, though arguably modern sports watches do come with rubber or textile straps, for the purposes of this article we will insist that a sports watch should be featured on a metal bracelet.
We have our criteria! Our alternative sports watches should:
1. Be comfortable both indoors and out
2. Have few or discreet complications
3. Be water resistant to at least 100m
4. Feature on a metal bracelet
Alternative sports watches
Recent years have seen demand and prices skyrocket for the Royal Oak and Nautilus, especially blue dialled variants.
In the last 5 years alone, the blue dial 15202ST Audemars Piguet Royal Oak on the pre-owned market has increased from around £15,000 to currently over £50,000, and the blue dial 5711/1A-010 Patek Philippe Nautilus from around £18,000 to over £75,000 currently. Granted, both have recently been discontinued, but even before those announcements the Royal Oak was trading at around £40,000 and the Nautilus around £50,000, with 2021 list prices of £26,400 and £25,960 respectively.
Patek Philippe Nautilus 5711/1A-010 - Price History
Data Source: Subdial
In today’s market, the Royal Oak and Nautilus are all but unobtainable through authorised retailers and boutiques, and the popular Rolex professional watches in stainless steel are equally difficult to acquire. There is a vibrant pre-owned market where these pieces are available to those who want to spend a premium, but what if you don’t?
Fortunately, there is an ever-growing plethora of alternative luxury sports watch options, as Genta’s designs from the 1970s continue to influence the watch industry. There are hundreds of great choices available for all budgets, so let’s take a look at some different examples and just what makes them equally worthy of your consideration.
Tudor – Black Bay Fifty-Eight (RRP £2,760)
There really is no other place to start with this budget: the Tudor Black Bay Fifty-Eight is the epitome of an all-round watch and has proven incredibly popular since its 2018 release – after its launch it became a notoriously difficult watch to acquire with a waiting period required in most cases. With a 39mm diameter and 12mm thick, it offers an impressive 200m water resistance whilst being incredibly comfortable to wear, hitting the sweet spot in size for most wrists – make no mistake, when you put this on your wrist, you know it’s something special.
Tudor Black Bay Fifty Eight (Photo - Subdial)
The attention to detail of the finishing is impeccable, as you might expect from the sister company of Rolex. Available with black or blue dial, both models have the quality feel and finish of a contemporary watch, and a flavour of vintage thanks to its roots which are planted firmly in the DNA of the Tudor Submariner. The faux rivets on the bracelet can be a point of contention for some, however it is easy to adjust and features three micro-adjustment positions as well.
The movement is Tudor’s in-house MT5402, which provides 70 hours power reserve - meaning you could put this down on Friday and it would still be running come Monday - and is certified to chronometer standards, ensuring the highest degree of accuracy.
So far as the fabled one-watch collection would go, the Tudor Black Bay Fifty-Eight really can do everything and happily meets our four criteria!
Grand Seiko – Sport SBGN003 or SBGN005 (RRP £2,900)
Grand Seiko’s attention to detail is phenomenal and one the driving factors by the brand’s recent surge in popularity; the result is consistently well-made timepieces that feel every bit as good as they look, with an immaculate all-round finish.
This surge in popularity is reflected in their sales figures, too. According to statistics published by analysts NPD, over the course of 2020 in the United States, Grand Seiko has entered the top 10 brands for all men’s watches above $2,000 and are now ranked third in the $5000-$7000 price range (they were sixth in 2019, and 23rd in 2017).
Google Search Popularity - Last 5 Years
Data Source: Google
These pieces are no exception: multi-faceted indices and hands on the dial ensure the light dances on all surfaces, and the brushed and polished finishes on the case provide both visual intrigue and an air of quality. The two references are the same watch in different colourways: SBGN003 has a black dial and orange GMT hand, whilst the SBGN005 has a deep blue dial and red GMT hand.
Grand Seiko SBGN005 (Photo - Watch Collecting Strategy YouTube)
Each piece has a 39mm diameter and is 12.1mm thick, fitting very comfortably on the wrist and is extremely comfortable for long-term wear. They are water resistant to 100m, so are well suited to outdoors and should even be fine for a dip in the pool.
In terms of practical yet discreet complications, the GMT hand with 24-hour steel bezel is almost Rolex Explorer-esque, and a subtle date aperture fit the bill perfectly, making these ideal for travel or perhaps more appropriately during the pandemic for keeping track of the time elsewhere with family or colleagues in another time zone. The quartz 9F86 movement ensures time is kept exceedingly accurately, in fact to within just ±10 seconds per year. These watches score another home run in terms of our four sports watch checkpoints, too.
Longines – Conquest L3.7188.8.131.52 or L3.7184.108.40.206 (RRP £980)
Dating back to 1832, Longines is a watch manufacturer steeped in history. The Conquest collection channels this watchmaking savoir-faire into a family of watches ready for anything and is where we find our final alternative sports watch – again two references constituting the same watch in different colourways: L3.7220.127.116.11 with a blue dial, or L3.718.104.22.168 in black.
They are a little larger in diameter than the previous watches at 41mm, however also slightly thinner at 11.7mm thick. This change of dimensions combined with downward curving lugs ensures a snug fit that feels very comfortable on the wrist. The dial is finished with a sunburst brushing radiating from the centre and is adorned with multi-faceted hands and applied indices, creating a sense of depth. The case is finished with a mix of polished and brushed faces for that feel of luxury.
Longines Conquest L3.722.214.171.124 (Photo - Longines)
The only complication present is a date aperture at 3 o’clock; this, plus the 300m water resistance (the same as a Rolex Submariner) means the Conquest is equally at home with tuxedo or a wetsuit. It has an automatic movement with 72 hours power reserve which again means you can put it down for the weekend and pick it up again on Monday, and once again ticks all four of our sports watch needs.
As you can see from these examples, there are some really great sports watches available for under £5,000. Everybody’s budget is different, and there are many more accessible sports watches on the market, too, so it really is worth looking around to find the right piece for you.
What about if you had £25,000 burning a hole in your pocket? It would be a nice problem to have, so let’s imagine we did…
H. Moser & Cie – Streamliner (RRP £18,900)
For something special, look no further than H. Moser & Cie’s Streamliner with ‘Matrix Green’ fumé dial. Moser is an independent manufacturer, and one of very few in the world capable of manufacturing every single component in house (including even the hairspring!) thanks to their sister company Precision Engineering AG. Independent watchmaking is going through somewhat of a renaissance thanks to the rise of other indies such as F.P Journe, Akrivia and Kari Voutilainen. With several GPHG wins already under their belt, it is entirely possible that Moser will go the same way.
The Streamliner collection is a relatively new addition to the catalogue, and whilst the design might not be for everyone, I imagine it is one which will see new additions over the coming years. The Streamliner chronograph earned a GPHG 2020 win – it is a little out of budget for this article, but it is worth checking it out anyway just to see the movement, trust me when I say it is worth a look!
H. Moser & Cie – Streamliner (Photo - Subdial)
This is the first three hand model of Streamliner, driven by the in-house HMC 200 calibre, which is visible through a sapphire caseback and offers 72 hours of power reserve. The 40mm case is in the sweet spot for size, and even affords up to 120m of water resistance, such that it is well suited for both indoors and out, and even a dip in the pool.
In addition to the hallmark Moser dial, the integrated bracelet on the Streamliner is a sight to behold. Every time I have tried any Moser timepiece, I have been in awe of it – and this is no different. The intricate finishing on each bracelet-link with a brushed face and slither of a polished edge is both unique and exceptionally well crafted. The beauty of this piece is that a brand like Moser is likely to fly under the radar of people less interested in watches – very much an “if you know, you know” type of watch that you’re highly unlikely to encounter on anybody else’s wrist, not to mention it comfortably ticks our points of contention for a sports watch.
Vacheron Constantin – Overseas (RRP £19,000)
Founded in 1755, Vacheron Constantin is a manufacturer with over 260 years of continuous history and is considered alongside Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe as one of the “Holy Trinity” of Swiss watchmakers.
The Overseas was originally conceived as a travel watch, launched in 1977 as the “222” in celebration of the manufacture’s 222nd birthday. Today, the collection ranges from simple pieces in stainless steel through to skeletonised perpetual calendars in precious metal; the focus for this article is the 41mm three-hand models with the date complication, available in blue black or white dials and stainless-steel cases (they are also available with a GMT hand and date sub-dial for £23,000 which are still in budget!)
Vacheron Constantin Overseas (Photo - Subdial)
The Overseas has a few surprises up its sleeve, too. As with many Vacheron Constantin watches, the Overseas movement is certified with the Geneva Seal, a quality seal of the City of Geneva, reserved only for timepieces which are decorated and finished to the highest of standards. Every edge of every bridge or plate must be chamfered and polished, no machining marks are permitted, screw-holes and recesses must all be bevelled and polished, and more.
Suffice it to say, not many watches attain this status and bear the hallmark of the Geneva Seal, but the Overseas does.
Vacheron Constantin Overseas (Photo - Subdial)
Each Overseas is presented with three quick release strap choices as standard – a leather and rubber strap alongside a bracelet complete with Maltese Cross decorated links. At 41mm, these are again starting to creep into the larger territory but are only 11mm thick, such that they are not too bulky on the wrist and fit very comfortably. Each piece is rated to 150m water resistance, ensuring they are well equipped to handle whatever life can throw at it, and meet all of our sports watch requirements with aplomb.
Breguet – Marine (RRP £15,700 or £17,300)
To put it simply, the name of Breguet is perhaps one of the most important in horology, and I think deserving of far more attention than they receive. Abraham-Louis Breguet founded his brand in 1775, and went on to become one of, if not the single most influential watchmakers in history, responsible for multiple inventions and innovations still in use today.
The Marine collection is home to the brand’s sportier watches and is testament to Abraham-Louis Breguet’s achievement of being appointed Chronometer maker to the French Royal Navy in 1815. Whilst there are a great many references within the collection, with a variety of complications, materials and strap options, there are two references particular I would like to highlight: 5817ST/92/SM0 and 5517TI/G2/TZ0.
Breguet 5817ST/92/SM0 Marine (Photo - Watch Club)
Both pieces are well within budget at £15,700 and £17,300 respectively, and I think both of these present as a wonderful alternative to a more run-of-the-mill sports watch from one of the greatest names in horology, whilst also ticking all four of our boxes.
For those looking to spend a little bigger, hopefully this has given you some insight as to sports watches that exist out there. Although, as I said earlier, it is always fun to think bigger, so what about one final piece for a lottery win?
A sports watch for lottery winners
Laurent Ferrier – Grand Sport Tourbillon (RRP approx. £160,000)
It is always nice to dream big, and for this pick we are absolutely going big! Laurent Ferrier is an independent watchmaker who spent over 30 years working at Patek Philippe, where he ultimately became a technical director, before starting his own venture in 2010. Laurent himself even raced on less than 7 occasions in the Le Mans 24-hour race, in 1979 his team placing third behind Paul Newman!
Laurent Ferrier produce only between 100-200 pieces annually, and these are normally more traditional pieces – perhaps unsurprising following 30 years working at Patek Philippe. In 2020, they released the Grand Sport Tourbillon, a high complication sports watch in stainless-steel which would be limited to just 12 pieces. This is larger than a fair few other sports watches at 44mm, but the stainless-steel cushion case does contain the same calibre, LF 619.01, which won the GPHG award for “Best Men’s Watch” in 2010 and contains a double balance spring tourbillon, so a little extra room is required!
Laurent Ferrier – Grand Sport Tourbillon (Photo - Hodinkee)
The level of finishing applied to the movement is nothing short of exceptional, and yet from the front of the watch the only hint as to what lies inside is the ‘Tourbillon Grand Sport’ wording placed just above the only visible complication of a small-seconds subdial.
If you were one of the lucky 12 owners, I cannot imagine you would actually wear it as an everyday watch (or maybe you might?), but the fact of the matter is that you very well could, and the 100m water resistance makes this well capable of outdoor wear, too. At around £160,000, this is certainly one of the more elaborate ways to tick all four of our sports watch requirements, but if you can afford it – then why not!
I hope you have enjoyed this exploratory look into the world of sports watches. Of course, there are a great deal more options than I’ve talked about here, but these are just a few of my personal favourites and I hope goes some way to showing that there are many wonderful examples of watches on the market beyond the usual suspects.
Be sure to get in touch and let me know yours!
Marcus is the Founder & Editor at Watch Affinity - read more at watchaffinity.co.uk