Just like pretty much everything else in our modern lives, the watch industry is shaped by trends, and these ever-evolving reflections of consumer preferences can be observed in both people’s purchasing habits and the watches themselves that the brands produce. While there has been a general industry shift towards smaller and more reasonably-sized cases over the course of the last several years, one of the more isolated trends I’ve noticed is that an increasing number of people are starting to gravitate towards models that I would categorize as classic sports watches.
Sports Watches, But Not for Specific Sports
By “classic sports watches,” I mean timepieces that are designed with an emphasis on durability and legibility, but that are also not purpose-built for any one particular sport or activity (ie. not dive watches, pilot’s watches, racing chronographs, etc.). That means smooth fixed bezels, no additional scales or complications beyond maybe a calendar display, and generally more reserved case proportions, as they are meant to be worn on your wrist rather than over the sleeve of something like a wetsuit. You could almost group them into the greater category of field watches, although the “field” designation typically carries more military-inspired design connotations and offers a more utilitarian overall aesthetic.
Many of the oldest and most famous examples of timepieces that fit into this “classic sports watch” category were initially designed with hiking and mountain climbing in mind, such as the Rolex Explorer and Seiko Alpinist. While both of these two collections have been expanded over the years to include models with additional features (such as the Explorer II and the various Alpinist watches with compass bezels), the original versions of both of these models did not have any specific features that would make them particularly well-suited for their intended tasks relative to any other outdoor activities. Despite their origins, calling them mountaineering watches would be rather inaccurate, and there are also countless other timepieces within this category that have absolutely nothing to do with the mountains, such as the Omega Aqua Terra, Patek Philippe Aquanaut, Tudor Black Bay 36, Sinn 556, and Monta Triumph (just to name a few).
All things considered, it can be somewhat of a nebulous genre of watches, and one with plenty of overlap between adjacent styles of timepieces - just look at the similarities between the Rolex Explorer and the Oyster Perpetual 36, and this same type of overlap also exits within many other brand’s catalogs. With that in mind, although it can be a bit hard to pin down the exact criteria for what constitutes a classic sports watch, most of us certainly know one when we see it.
The Allure of the Classic Sport Watch
So, why might people be attracted to this style of wristwatch? Probably the first reason that comes to mind is its extreme versatility, and there is a case to be made that a classic sports watch is the single most versatile style of timepiece. An elegant dress watch may not have enough water resistance to go snorkeling while on vacation, and a chunky purpose-built diver might be a bit too large to comfortably wear with a button up shirt around the office; however, a classic sports watch is a true go-anywhere, do-anything timekeeping companion.
Another reason might have to do with the fact that everyone can benefit from a classic sports watch’s hallmark features such as its durable case and a highly legible display. It’s no secret that most people who own dive watches do not actually go scuba diving, and most people who own pilot’s watches certainly don’t fly airplanes. Although you can always use your Rolex Submariner’s bezel for tracking cook times at the grill or the slide-rule scale on your Breitling Navitimer to help you with calculations for tax season, there is a certain elegance that exists when a timepiece does exactly what you need it to do without having any extraneous features whatsoever.
A Potentially Overlooked Style of Wristwatch
On top of that, part of the reason for the recent spike in interest might be simply due to the fact that people already have other styles of timepieces in their collections. All things considered, classic sports watches are rarely the most wild-looking or eye-catching, and there’s a good chance that they might initially get overlooked by new enthusiasts who are just getting into the hobby.
For example, dive watches offer the added intrigue of adult fidget spinners fitted to the the top of their cases, and all the information on the dial of a chronograph just looks important, even if you have no idea what any of it actually means. I can easily see a number of collectors first acquiring other, more-involved styles of timepieces and are just now turning their attention back to some of the more simple styles, even though the simple ones might actually be best suited for their everyday lives.
Built for Real Life
On a personal level, the watch that I’ve been wearing the most over the last few months has been a Seiko Alpinist “Ginza” SPB259. While I find the dial to be absolutely mesmerizing and I love how the watch was a gift from my girlfriend, I also appreciate how it can effortlessly be paired with more formal attire on the rare occasions I actually go somewhere fancy, yet it features a screw down crown and all of the water resistance needed to go swimming or even scuba diving. When I need the extra durability or a highly luminous display, it’s there; and when I don’t, there aren’t any extra bezels, hands, or registers that prevent it from being the perfect timepiece for whatever else I happen to be doing that day.
At the end of the day, regardless of the specific reasons why so many people are suddenly interested in classic sports watches, the fact remains that they are undeniably practical timepieces. They can effortlessly fit into a person’s life, whether they are climbing a mountain or climbing the corporate ladder - and I have a feeling that is exactly why so many different people have been gravitating towards them in recent years.
*All photos courtesy of their respective manufacturers.