The Best Luxury Sports Watches

How one man’s 1970s-era designs led to an entirely new category of timepiece — and why it matters

March 2, 2023 5:45 am
The Best luxury sports watches on a black background

It was late in the afternoon on April 10th, 1970, when a Swiss industrial designer named Gérald Genta received a call from George Golay, managing director for Audemars Piguet. Golay phoned him because he knew he could trust the man’s instincts — in 1954 at the age of just 23, Genta had conceived of what would become the Universal Genève Polerouter, still a beloved design today. In 1959, he refreshed the Constellation line for Omega, and became a true star designer. 

What Golay was asking of Genta was no small feat: “Mr. Genta, we have a distribution company that has asked us for a steel sports watch that has never been done before—and I need the design sketch for tomorrow morning.” The Swiss Watch Show — which would become the now-defunct Baselword show — was set to begin the next day, and the SSIH, or Société Suisse pour l’Industrie Horlogère, wanted a timepiece that would expand AP’s reach into new markets. (Until that time, the small, storied Swiss maison had mostly produced time-only dress watches or complicated pieces in small series — often in precious metals — and certainly wasn’t competing with the likes of Rolex for clients searching for robust, everyday timepieces.)

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Genta got to work immediately, taking as inspiration — or so the story goes — a deep-sea diver’s helmet. Rather than the round shape commonly used in everyday horology, his new timepiece was tonneau-shaped and made use of an octagonal bezel with eight visible screws. The bracelet was integrated into the case, and extremely complicated to produce, while the dial featured a unique petite tapisserie motif rather than a plain, painted background. The watch was fitted with an extremely thin, automatic caliber that lent the finished design a distinctly svelte profile. All in all, it was a completely new design — and a highly luxurious, rather expensive one.

And it was not an immediate success: Launched at the 1972 Swiss Watch Show, it retailed for 3,300 Swiss francs, while the Rolex Submariner cost a few hundred. The steel version even cost more than contemporary, solid-gold dress watches from comparable brands. But AP supported Genta, and began crafting clever advertisements to go along with its new watch. Slowly, people caught on, and the Royal Oak began to sell. Just a few years later, in the midst of the Quartz Crisis, Patek Philippe approached Genta for its own version of the new “luxury sports watch,” and the Swiss genius once again put pen to paper. Sketched on a napkin in a restaurant in just a few minutes, the Royal Oak likewise took its inspiration from the sea — this time, from the portholes of transatlantic ocean liners. It, too, became a classic in its own right. 

The Luxury Sports Watch Today

Following on the heels of Genta’s two star releases, more and more companies began embracing the idea of an elevated sports watch — something that would take the idea of the robust dive watch that had been around since the early 1950s, but upgrade it with fine appointments to transform it into an everyday watch for the well heeled. Today, many of these designs feature integrated bracelets, tonneau-shaped cases (rather than round), and have other signs of haute horlogerie’s influence, such as complications, precious metals, and intricate dials. 

As “microbrands” have grown in number and the watch-buying community has expanded, young companies have adopted the luxury sports watch aesthetic into more affordable designs, retaining the integrated bracelet but forgoing the use of precious metals, ultra-thin automatic movements, and other appointments that drive up the cost of a timepiece into the tens of thousands of dollars. Today, new luxury sports watch designs are being born each year, to the extent that Genta has proven to have been somewhat of a horological prophet.

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Below, we examine examples of some of our favorites from the current crop of luxury sports watches. Though most are highly expensive, super refined timepieces from notable purveyors of haute horlogerie, we’ve also included some of the aforementioned “microbrand” watches that merely embrace the same aesthetic, but offer their wares at more down-to-Earth pricing. As the category continues to grow, 50 years after its establishment, it offers something to aspire to for the impassioned watch collector.

NOTE: Keep in mind that a luxury sports watch is not necessarily meant for, well, sports — most lack dive bezels, and some don’t have the water resistant common to modern dive watches. (Also, many are made of expensive precious metals.) These watches are made for everyday wear, and though they can take a beating, are more suited to a night out or a walk around town than climbing a mountain, or a dive beneath the waves. (Of course, there are exceptions…)

When the Aesthetic is What’s Important 

Casio G-Shock on a black background

G-SHOCK GAB2100 “Casi-Oak” 

Upon its launch in 2019, collectors nicknamed the GAB2100-series G-SHOCK the “Casi-Oak” — and for obvious reasons. This handsome digital watch, which is available in numerous colorways, offers the integrated bracelet and octagonal bezel look of the Royal Oak, but combines it with all the features for which Casio’s famed line of digital watches is revered: multiple timers and alarms, solar charging, Bluetooth functionality, and more. If all you want is the luxury sports watch aesthetic, then this is $150 well spent!

Diameter: 45.4mm
Movement: Casio 5689 quartz
Water Resistance: 200m

Timex M79, one of the best luxury sports watches, on a black background

Timex M79

Ok, so maybe you want the aesthetic, but you also want a mechanical movement? Look no further than the M79 from Timex. An automatic version of the Q Timex that exploded in popularity upon its launch in 2019, the M79 ups the case size and offers many features of dive watches — a highly legible, lumed dial, a rotating bezel with 60-minute scale, and a steel bracelet. It’s definitely not a dive watch, seeing as it’s only water resistant to 50m and features a push-pull crown, but for under $300, it gives you the (vague) look of a luxury sports watch for not very much moolah. (The day-date feature is also distinctly 1970s.)

Diameter: 40mm
Movement: Miyota 8205 automatic
Water Resistance: 50m

The New Kids on the Block

Zenith Defy Skyline Skeleton is one of the best luxury sports watches

Zenith Defy Skyline

Zenith’s new Defy Skyline collection is one of the newer players in the luxury sports watch world, but the value it delivers is truly remarkable considering the research and development that has gone into over 50 years of the El Primero movements program. While time-only models are available in 41 and 36mm, the Skeleton version (currently available in blue and black) is notable considering its pricing: For $11,000 you’re getting a simply gorgeous, futuristic watch with an openworked dial and an in-house movement, whereas comparable watches from other luxury brands would costs multiples of this number. 

Diameter: 41mm
Movement: Zenith El Primero 3620 SK automatic 
Water Resistance: 100m

On a black background, the Parmigiani Fleurier Tonda is one of the best luxury sports watches

Parmigiani Fleurier Tonda PF GMT Rattrapante Steel Platinum 

Coming up with an entirely new compilation in the 2020s is no mean feat, but Parmigiani Fleurier managed to do it with 2022’s Tonda PF GMT Rattrapante Steel Platinum: A sort of combination of the “flyback” chronograph mechanism with the GMT mechanism, it features two superimposed hands that remain in this position until a pusher is activated — at this point, the upper, rhodium-plated, 18K white gold hand — which indicates local time — reveals a second, 18K rose gold hand, which indicates home time. This ingenious system, when combined with a textured dial, a beautiful in-house movement with micro-rotor, and — of course — an integrated bracelet, makes for a truly luxurious sports watch.

Diameter: 40mm
Movement: Parmigiani Fleurier PF051 automatic 
Water Resistance: 60m

Bulgari Octo Finissimo on a black background

Bulgari Octo Finissimo Ultra Chronograph GMT

This entry in Bulgari’s ultra-thin Octo Finissimo line holds a world record for being the world’s slimmest timepiece that features both chronograph and GMT complications, at just 8.75mm thick. Take a close look at what appears at first glance to be a (relatively) simple triple-register chronograph, and you’ll notice that the 3 o’clock totalizer is actually a GMT indicator. This unique feature — combined with the OF’s incredible case and bracelet architecture, and the ultra-thin, in-house movement powering it — makes for one of the most exciting luxury sports watch releases of the 20th century thus far.

Diameter: 43mm
Movement: Bulgari Calibre BVL318 automatic 
Water Resistance: 100m

The Classics

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Jumbo Ultra-Thin, one of the best luxury sports watches

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak “Jumbo” Ultra-Thin reference 16202BC

If you’re looking for an “OG” luxury sports watch, what you’re really after is a simple, time-only Royal Oak from AP. The new reference 16202BC, available now in white gold, adds a textured, deep blue dial to the mix in place of the usual petite tapisserie motif, and upgrades the movement to the automatic, in-house Calibre 7121 with 55 hours of power reserve. Measuring just 8.1mm thick, this is the stuff of horological dreams, complete with the beautiful bracelet design that Genta conceptualized way back in 1970. Just know that you’ll have to be a hell of a good client to snag one at retail — but such is the state of the watch industry in 2023. 

Diameter: 39mm
Movement: Audemars Piguet Calibre 7121
Water Resistance: 50m

Piaget Polo Perpetual Calendar on a black background

Piaget Polo Perpetual Calendar Ultra-Thin

The sporty and handsome Polo collection from ultra-thin specialists Piaget dates to the late 1970s, though it’s truly come into its own recently. To wit, the new Perpetual Calendar Ultra-Thin combines a wildly thin 8.65mm stainless steel case (with integrated bracelet) with a to-die-for, emerald green dial. The in-house, automatic Piaget 1255P automatic movement provides perpetual calendar functionality — hours, minutes, seconds, day, date, month, moonphase, and leap year — without crowding said dial, which is a testament to the maison’s industrial designers. At nearly $60,000, this exquisite workmanship doesn’t come cheap, but they’re called “luxury sports watches” for a reason. 

Diameter: 42mm
Movement: Piaget 1255P automatic
Water Resistance: 30m

The Patek Philippe Nautilus is one of the best luxury sports watches

Patek Philippe Nautilus reference 5811

When Patek Philippe announced the discontinuation of the revered ref. 5711 — one of the most desirable timepieces in the world — watch collectors waited with baited breath for the successor model. The 5811, which was announced in late 2022, is currently available only in white gold, but is otherwise largely a classic Nautilus: present and accounted for are the porthole-esque case flanges, the horizontally embossed gradient dial, the integrated bracelet, and the thin profile, which measures just 8.2mm. Good luck getting your hands on one of these watches at retail, but if you can, treasure it — the Nautilus is a horological icon. 

Diameter: 41mm
Movement: Patek Philippe Calibre 26 330 S C automatic 
Water Resistance: 120m

The Vacheron Constantin Historiques is one of the best luxury sports watches

Vacheron Constantin Historiques 222 

In 2022, Vacheron Constantin delighted collectors with the release of a watch that, at surface level, is a near one-for-one remake of a luxury sports watch classic — the 222 from 1977. Executed in solid yellow gold, this 37mm beauty has a monobloc, tonneau-shaped case with a grooved bezel (just like the original), a simple dial with applied, gold makers and a matching baton handset, and the maison’s Maltese cross logo at 5 o’clock. New this time around is a sapphire caseback, which allows the wearer to view the automatic Vacheron Constantin Calibre 2455/2 (and its specially designed rotor) ticking away within.

Diameter: 37mm
Movement: Vacheron Constantin Calibre 2455/2 automatic 
Water Resistance: 50m

The Avant Garde Option

The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore Chronograph on a black background

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore Selfwinding Chronograph

Audemar Piguet’s Royal Oak — the prototypical luxury sports watch — was joined by the sportier Royal Oak Offshore in 1993. (The original Offshore horrified Genta, but that’s a story for another day.) Combining the luxurious appointments of the Royal Oak with thicker case silhouettes, increased robustness, and all sorts of complications, the Offshore became a favorite of folks with the wrist size to pull them off — such as Arnold Schwarzennegger. The latest Offshore features a black ceramic case and bracelet — a first for the model family — combined with the Royal Oak’s emblematic petite tapisserie dial.

Diameter: 42mm
Movement: Audemars Piguet Calibre 4404 automatic 
Water Resistance: 100m

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