A Serious Guide to Luxury Sport Watches

A Serious Guide to Luxury Sport Watches

| 04.01.24

Sport watches — and especially ‘luxury sports watches’ — have enjoyed a moment in the spotlight in the last few years. 

Before the early 1970s, the idea of a sports watch that cost more than a similar piece in precious metal was laughable, but all that changed with Gérald Genta and the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. Recently, the market has become awash in similarly high-end designs — ones that boast in-house movements, compelling aesthetics, and integrated bracelets. (This last feature, though commonly seen on what are termed ‘luxury sports watches,’ isn’t necessarily a requisite for inclusion on every high-end sports watch.) 

Here, we’ll examine the high-end sports watch market including its history, iconic designs, recent expansion, and what to look for in a potential purchase. 

The Expansion of the Sports Watch Segment 

The popularization of the luxury sport watch submarket didn’t occur overnight. During the past 10 years or so, we’ve seen workplace dress codes become more casual. While several factors have contributed to this shift — including the idea that an emphasis on comfort can contribute to an increase in productivity and efficiency — one result is that accessories have followed a similar pattern.

While the wafer-thin dress watch was commonly found on the wrist of aspiring business leaders in the 1980s and 1990s, a visit to the trading floor or a corner office at any leading bank today would yield a very different spectacle. Today, sports watches dominate the market, and are commonly worn with a suit or sport coat — when these are even worn. Pieces such as the Royal Oak, which were once relegated to post-office hours wear, are now granted a seat at the table in the boardroom. 

The reasons for wearing a sports watch in place of a dress watch extend beyond the adherence to fashion trends or a need to keep up with the Joneses: A sports watch is typically more robust than its dressier counterparts, features improved water resistance, and has a comfortable bracelet and more relaxed aesthetics. If what you want is a high-end watch that you don’t have to worry about when you travel, swim, or go out for the night, the luxury sports watch gives far more peace of mind than a delicate dress watch — as elegant and desirable as a dress watch can be. And if you’re the sort of person for whom more than a single watch is one watch too many, then it follows that you’d buy a sports watch and simply wear it everywhere, including to the office. 

For these reasons, a versatile sports offering is often the perfect choice for a one-watch collection. Dive watches in particular — with their high water resistance, their comfortable bracelets, and their relatively pared-down looks — are extremely commonplace purchases, even amongst non-divers. These days, an Omega Seamaster is found just as commonly in an office setting doing “desk diving” duty as it is beneath the waves.

One of the common threads you’ll observe in this guide is the extensive use of gold and platinum. Does precious metal have a place in the sports watch world? In the higher-end segments of the luxury market, sports watches often represent a lifestyle more than anything else. The aesthetic of a sports watch projects a certain aura and presence that is extremely appealing. And while a rose gold sports watch, for example, may seem like an oxymoron, few who wear such pieces actually dive with them. Indeed, there’s a relaxed type of beauty to a precious-metal sports piece. This is, in effect, truly what casual luxury has become all about.

What to Look For in a Luxury Sports Watch

What you choose to prioritize in a luxury watch will be impacted by the type of collector you are. Are you looking for a one-and-done piece like we mentioned above — or are you instead searching for a token sports model in a more diversified collection? The sports watch category comprises a broad range of pieces, complications, etc, that cater to vastly different personalities. Let’s break down the two primary categories you might fall within: 

If you’re hankering for that one-and-done, versatile watch, you’ll likely need to make some concessions with regards to spec to maintain a more reserved appearance. With sports watches, there’s generally a trade-off — larger sports pieces will deliver increased water resistance, more elaborate complications, sturdier construction, and overall greater durability. When you want a more versatile piece to wear to work and on the weekends, however, you’re likely going to sacrifice some of that technical prowess in exchange for greater flexibility. 

Conversely, if you already have a well-established collection with an everyday piece, a dress watch, and maybe a few sports pieces already, you might be a bit more adventurous and consider a quirkier sports watch with a helium escape valve, a dive bezel, a larger-format case, perhaps a NATO strap — you get the picture. This all may seem obvious, but when you approach a watch purchase of any kind, it’s important to think about the practical use the piece will have, and pick the watch that best addresses that need. The number of times collectors have attempted to make the wrong watch check the right box is far more numerous than any collector would like to admit. Start with sound expectations and the rest will follow. 

The High-End Sports Watch Market


Naturally, the upper end of the watch market has experienced a similar expansion to that of the wider sports watch segment. In the 1970s, the integrated-bracelet, steel sports watch (pioneered by Audemars Piguet, and later, by Patek Philippe) helped change the perspectives of watch enthusiasts globally. For the first time, collectors recognized that a high-end watch — a luxury piece — could be fashioned from steel rather than from precious metals, and that utility could be combined with luxury to produce something special.

This was the underlying philosophy that drove the Royal Oak and the Nautilus to such dizzying heights of popularity, and part of the force that has lifted the sport category as a whole more recently. With players such as Chopard, Bulgari, and others joining the fray, it seems like everyone and their mother wants a piece of integrated-bracelet, luxury sports watch action these days. Furthermore, with the Royal Oak and the Nautilus proving difficult to buy at retail, these brands smell blood in the water. 

Let’s take a look at a few of our favorite sport watches currently available at Analog:Shift…

Omega Constellation 

Omega Constellation ($2,950) - IN THE SHOP

Sitting somewhere between a dress watch and a more “traditional” — if that word is even applicable here — luxury sports watch, this Constellation from the 1990s pairs a chronometer-certified automatic movement to a 35.5mm two-tone case in steel and gold. Boasting a handsome, engraved ‘Roman’ numeral bezel and luminous hands, it’s an excellent everyday option despite its elevated aesthetics. 

Bulova Royal Oak 

Bulova Royal Oak ($4,100) - IN THE SHOP

What if we told you that you could cop the look of a Royal Oak without taking out a HELOC? If that’s of interest, then check this out: It’s a Bulova Ref. 4423901 from the 1970s. Housed in a 35mm two-tone steel and hold case, it’s clearly an homage to Genta’s Royal Oak design from 1972, but done in an affordable, American style. With its micro-tapisserie dial and matching, integrated bracelet, it gives you the best in R.O. aesthetics for a fraction of the price!

IWC Aquatimer GST 2000 

IWC Aquatimer GST 2000 ($5,900) - IN THE SHOP

With a water resistance rating of some 2,000 meters, this IWC Auqatimer GST 2000 is perhaps the best-equipped watch on this list to take on the wonders of the deep. Dating from the 2000s, it calls upon the long and storied history of the brand’s dive watch collection, melding it with an integrated bracelet and a contemporary 42mm diameter. Handsome, practical, and robust, it’s the sort of watch you can strap on and not have to think twice about. 

Cartier Ballon Bleu 

Cartier Ballon Bleu ($6,200) - IN THE SHOP

While the Royal Oak and Nautilus were launched as men’s collections, plenty of compelling ladies’ timepieces in the luxury sports watch style have entered the market over the years. To wit, this beautiful Ballon Bleu: Measuring 33mm wide in stainless steel, all the lovely Cartier hallmarks — cabochon crown, ‘Roman’ dial, blued steel ‘sword’ handset — are present and accounted for. Add in a guilliché dial, and you’ve got yourself a winning formula.

Blancpain Air Command

Blancpain Air Command ($27,300) - IN THE SHOP

An oft-overlooked chronograph from Blancpain, the ‘Air Command’ — which is inspired by a vintage mil-spec model never adopted for military use — is nevertheless one of the more appealing vintage reissues from the past decade. A more recent release from the brand, this particular iteration is fashioned from rose gold and features a blue dial, rather than the steel/black dial combination found on the original.  

Outfitted with an in-house movement featuring flyback capability, the Air Command is a serious chronograph. Details from the Fifty Fathoms family — such as the bezel insert design and typography — are present, though so are features of the original watch, such as the ‘telephone timer’ marks within the 30-minute totalizer. All told, this is an extremely handsome, automatic-winding chronograph with interesting provenance. Paired to an Analog:Shift Milano Gray suede strap with white contrast stitching and a signed, rose gold pin and buckle, it’s a lovely meeting of luxury and utility. 

Cartier Santos de Cartier

Cartier Santos de Cartier ($33,900) - IN THE SHOP

While not typically associated with sports in a conventional sense, the Cartier Santos de Cartier is actually one of the earliest sports watches in history: Developed for ballooning pioneer Alberto Santos Dumont, it was presented to accompany the Brazilian aviator on his many aeronautical adventures in the early 20the century. Built with utility at the core of its design — with exposed screws, a highly legible dial, and a substantial case — this is a purpose-built timepiece. 

Today, the Santos remains one of the best contemporary sports offerings, with Medium and Large versions offering 100m of water resistance plus matching bracelets that can take a beating. Measuring nearly 40mm, this particular version is powered by an automatic movement and features a sapphire crystal, a sapphire cabochon crown, rose gold construction, and a matching rose gold bracelet with a hidden deployant clasp. And while it wouldn’t be our first recommendation for an everyday sports watch, it can certainly be worn on a daily basis with aplomb. 

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Chronograph 

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Chronograph ($38,850) - IN THE SHOP

The original time-and-date Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Ref. 5402ST is the watch that popularized the integrated bracelet trend of the current era. Since its release in 1972, the model family has swelled to include hundreds of references and iterations of the iconic design. One of the most popular variants is certainly the chronograph. 


Showcased here with an automatic winding movement, this Reference 40991028 features a white Grand-Tapisserie dial and traditional triple-register display. Unlike many such integrated-bracelet models, however, this it’s set on an integrated alligator leather strap. There’s something subtly appealing about a sports watch set on a dressy strap — indeed, this type of ironic blend of styles underscores that while this is technically a tool watch, it’s likely going to be enjoyed in a luxury setting. 

Omega Speedmaster Professional Canopus Gold

Omega Speedmaster Professional Canopus Gold ($41,900) - IN THE SHOP

Everyone knows the Speedmaster, and almost every watch collector has handled or owned one. That said, the Omega Speedmaster Professional in Canopus Gold is a completely different beast. Omega’s term for its white gold formula, Canopus Gold adds significant heft to the Speedy’s design. This luxurious iteration of what was designed as a pure tool still has many of the classic elements of the Moonwatch that excite the connoisseur: Firstly, unlike many of the more modern interpretations of the Speedy, it comes with a Hesalite crystal. Plus, it’s got the nice oval-link bracelet, albeit fashioned from white gold instead of steel. 

With gold bracelet links and a gold case, you feel every ounce of this Speedy — a sensation that many collectors prefer in their watches. Plus, while it may be a far rarer and more luxurious iteration of the Speedmaster, its white gold construction makes it far less loud than a similar model in yellow or pink gold. 

Vacheron Constantin Overseas Dual-Time 

Vacheron Constantin Overseas Dual-Time ($55,900) - IN THE SHOP

Vacheron’s modern expression of the luxury sports watch, the Overseas collection features references both simple and complicated — but perhaps the most compelling is the Dual-Time. With its extra minute hand, date wheel at 6 o'clock, and AM/PM indicator, it’s the perfect travel/adventure watch, with a look and construction that make it appropriate at the beach, out to dinner, or in the boardroom.

Patek Philippe Aquanaut

Patek Philippe Aquanaut ($57,650) - IN THE SHOP

You might think of the Aquanaut as the more modern successor to the Nautilus — and if that’s true, then this particular reference is its genesis. Dating to 1997, it was meant to be a 20th-anniversary Nautilus model, but its lack of case ‘ears’ and addition of traditional lugs ended up launching an entirely new product family. Effectively a dressy Nautilus Ref. 3800 in gold, this extremely limited-production model is an important piece of Patek Philippe history. 

Urwerk UR-100 ‘Blue Planet’

Urwerk UR-100 'Blue Planet' ($78,000) IN THE SHOP

Continuing thematically with thought-provoking pieces, next up is the Urwek UR-100 — more specifically, in the ‘Blue Planet’ finishing. The UR-100, with its wandering hours complication, is probably the brand’s most recognizable design. We’ve seen this timekeeping system used infrequently throughout history, although Audemars Piguet helped popularize it somewhat with their coveted Star Wheel. Regardless, Urwerk has combined the complication with a modernist case that truly pushes the design envelope.

This particular iteration of the UR-100 is based around a titanium case with a PVD coating in brilliant blue. (Urwerk offered a number of colors for the UR-100, and the brand is one of relatively few in the luxury space that successfully colors the actual cases of watches rather than just dials.) Powered by an automatic movement, it uses a system of satellite arms to display the time along an arc at the bottom of the dial. Unique and mesmerizing, it’s an unconventional system that captivates the attention of anyone who comes into contact with it. 

Vacheron Constantin 222

Vacheron Constantin 222 ($79,050) - IN THE SHOP

Released in 1977 in celebration of the 222nd Vacheron Constantin’s anniversary, the Reference 222 was not a mass-produced piece by any means. Much like the original Royal Oak in 1972 and the Nautilus in 1976, the 222 didn’t quite take off right away, and low production numbers of less than 1,000 pieces followed. Conceived by young industrial designer Jörg Hysek, it features a monocoque design in which the movement is loaded via the scalloped bezel — not via a caseback. 

Fast forward to the 21st century, and we’re looking at a completely different industry. Where the 222 may have been an oddball in the past, in an era of sports watch dominance, it has emerged as a fan favorite. In 2022, Vacheron Constantin reissued the 222 as part of its Historiques collection, modernizing the design for the new market. With the surge in collector interest surrounding the 222, older examples — such as this stainless steel version — have skyrocketed in value and popularity. With its signature Maltese crown in the lower right-hand corner and patinated tritium dial, this 37mm timepiece is more desirable than ever. 

Richard Mille RM67-01

Richard Mille RM67-01 ($220,000) - IN THE SHOP

We’ve discussed this Richard Mille reference, the RM67-01, in the past on Transmissions, but it truly gets so much right: On the one hand, it’s everything that is Richard Mille: the tonneau case, vaulted case sides, lightweight wrist experience, and domed/scalloped case profile. Simultaneously, this watch is different from many other tonneau RM references in that it features an extremely svelte profile, which effectively allows it to wear much more comfortably on the wrist. 


The RM 67-01 displays nothing but the time and date (and selected crown function, technically), and features the classic sapphire dial that the marque is well known for. Made from lightweight titanium, it has subtle, polished case facets and highly polished, exposed case screws. Paired to its integrated rubber strap, it nearly disappears on the wrist, making it one of the most comfortable models in the high-end sports watch game. If you’re looking for an access point to Richard Mille without the size and bulk of a larger reference, try on the RM 67-01. 

Patek Philippe Nautilus ‘Jumbo’ White Gold Reference 3711/1G

Patek Philippe Nsutilus 'Jumbo' White Gold ($253,350) - IN THE SHOP

There’s something about the original time-and-date Nautilus — and its successor references — whose purity of design and pared-down functionality keep the entire watch world engaged. This Reference 3711/1G, crafted from white gold and dating to the 2000s, is such a watch: Housed in a 42mm case, it features a handsome, dark blue gradient ‘teak’ dial with applied white gold indices and a matching handset. Interrupted only by a subtle date window at 3 o’clock, its design recalls the earliest such Nautilus references such as the 3700 as imagined by Gérald Genta himself.

Housed within this sumptuous gold case — which is paired to a matching, integrated bracelet with a signed deployant clasp — is the Calibre 315 SC movement with a gold winding rotor, which is visible via a transparent sapphire caseback. Few watches have managed to capture the imagination of the collecting world quite like the porthole-inspired Nautilus and its offshoots, and for good reason. Slightly unusual but incredibly considered in its design, it’s a watch that, along with the Royal Oak, encapsulates the luxury sports watch aesthetic.