Unsung Heroes: The Watches That Deserve A Second Chance In The Limelight

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Unsung Heroes: The Watches That Deserve A Second Chance In The Limelight

Words by Mr Chris Hall

18 March 2021

There are thousands of great watches out there, but a relatively small number tend to suck up most of the oxygen in the room, especially on social media. Time to redress the balance, we think. Time to celebrate the watches from some of Switzerland’s biggest names that, for whatever reason, always seem to end up flying under the radar. These seven are all excellent watches in their own right and, as a bonus, an easy way to buy something that goes against the grain without being wilfully left field.

Asymmetric dial designs get a bad rep, and we have to hold our hands up here because we spend a lot of time praising the balanced layouts of so many watches. Sometimes, when you’ve got plenty of information to display, it’s better to embrace a more free-flowing aesthetic. It pays off for Jaeger-LeCoultre here, having squeezed in a world time display, second time zone, 24-hour indicator and a radial date display (a window would have taken up less space, but would struggle to co-exist with the world time ring) and still found space for a frankly enormous power reserve indicator in the upper left quadrant. It’s one of the most characterful watches in the brand’s line-up.

Bell & Ross is about as strongly associated with one particular case shape as any watchmaker has ever been. The square BR01 and more recently the smaller BR03 families are easily some of the most recognisable watches around. The brand existed for a full 12 years before it debuted the BR01, during which time it cut its teeth on more predictable (ie, circular) tool watch designs, many closely related to those of German watchmaker Sinn, with whom Bell & Ross had a commercial partnership for many years. Hence our choice for the brand’s unsung hero is one of its many round-cased watches. In this instance, one of the simplest there is. Big numerals, big hands, a black dial and very little else – do you really need more?

Breitling’s Navitimer is one of maybe half a dozen bone fide tool watch icons that are worthy of mention in the same breath as the Omega Speedmaster, TAG Heuer Carrera and Rolex Submariner. That casts a long shadow, before you even think about the Chronomat (recently redesigned and looking better than ever) and sprightly new additions, such as the Premier. Even so, the Superocean Heritage as a family gets a fair crack at the whip (remember the rainbow-dialled editions that sold out in a flash?), but we think this base-spec, low-key, black-dial version of the Superocean Heritage deserves more airtime. It’s a solid diver – 200m is ample for anyone not actually heading to the darkest depths – and it has bags of wrist presence, thanks to that chunky bezel and outsized handset, without being monstrously sized, at 42mm.

It’s not that the Portofino is unsung, so much as the inevitable result of sharing a stage with the Big Pilot and Portugieser. IWC’s sleekest watch comes in a wide range of flavours, right up to a hand-wound tourbillon number, but is probably most often overlooked in its simplest guise, this 40mm, solid-backed automatic. Whether it’s doing service as a dress watch or a smart everyday wearer, it’s an elegant, refined choice. The straight lugs, rounded case (not just circular, but nicely curved around the bezel and case band) and minimalist hour markers give it more of a Bauhaus feel, offset by the more flamboyant hands and alligator leather strap.

Certain brands, such as Omega, TAG Heuer or Breitling, are revered for their chronographs, be it for their associations with racing, flying and exploration. Others, such as Zenith or A. Lange & Söhne, are revered for their sheer devotion to the technical wizardry required. No one would argue that Piaget is among them, but that didn’t stop it making one of the most interesting, impressive and under-rated chronos of recent times, the Altiplano Chronograph. It may have been bested since by Bulgari’s Octo Finissimo Chrono for thickness (8.24mm versus 6.9mm, and the Bulgari’s an automatic to boot), but the Altiplano is still considerably thinner than any other chronograph you care to name and effortlessly minimal dial-side as well.

It might feel a little strange to call out the Radiomir as Panerai’s unsung hero – it’s the original design around which everything else has been built – but the Luminor, with its oversized crown guard, is the totemic Panerai look and available in far more iterations, materials and styles. Without wishing to overstate the matter (there’s every chance Panerai will go great guns on the Radiomir in 2022), right now, if you want to take the path less travelled, we’d suggest a Radiomir is the way forward. We’ve picked out this green-dialled beauty, powered by the three-day automatic P.4000 calibre.

There’s something ever-present about the Traditionelle, a reassuring constant in Vacheron Constantin’s range, but for that same reason it can occasionally recede into the background, so familiar are we with its presence. Nothing about this complete calendar deserves such relegation. Recognisable for its wide-spaced day and month windows, it’s powered by the same movement as the FiftySix complete calendar, but adheres to a much more steadfast aesthetic, with a traditional crescent-tipped date pointer hand, railroad minute track and sharply polished sword-shaped hands.

A second wind