To say that 2020 so far has not been business as usual is to say nothing at all. Still, the watch industry, for all its general conservativism, remains capable of springing surprises on us. To a certain extent, watch brands occasionally have to do the unexpected in order to stay part of the conversation overall among consumers, but at the same time, figuring out how to stay fresh without straying too far from one’s core identity remains an ongoing challenge. The collapse of the watch trade shows this year has meant that new releases are not only more spread out over the calendar year, it also means that the jury is far from out on what 2020 is going to look like in the rear view mirror in terms of new releases. Still, at close to the halfway point, we think we’ve seen enough of the new stuff (with some very major exceptions, like Rolex and Patek, which have thus far not shown any new releases) to make a look back interesting. With that in mind, here are six watches that HODINKEE editors didn’t see coming.
Jon Bues: Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Control Chronograph Calendar
When it comes to executing and pairing complications, I was under the impression that Jaeger-LeCoultre had just about done it all. I mean, the company is called the Grande Maison for a reason. Its manufacture is sprawling, and it’s difficult to think of a watchmaking skillset or métier that isn’t performed within its many rooms. So I was more than a little surprised to learn that this year’s fantastic Master Control line revamp included what Jaeger-LeCoultre says is its first pairing of a chronograph with a triple calendar with moon phase display. Fortunately, I’ve been able to overcome my sense of surprise and instead let my attention rest on how well executed this first attempt is.
A triple calendar chronograph with moon phase is the kind of watch, with its many displays and heaps of information to impart, that can easily get away from a watch designer and end up looking like a soulless instrument. Sub-dials can appear jammed together, legibility can sometimes suffer, and a case can swell to an unwearable thickness. The Master Control Chronograph ably avoids each of these hazards and is, in my very humble opinion, a leading candidate so far among the very best watches of 2020. This is one watch that I absolutely cannot wait to gain some hands on time with, and soon.
Prices: Steel, $ 14,500; Le Grand Rose gold, $ 26,000, Jaeger-LeCoultre.com.
Jack Forster: Omega De Ville Master Chronometer Central Tourbillon
For Omega to do something genuinely surprising and unexpected is perhaps more difficult than for some of its competition, partly because Omega already has such a wide range of timepieces in its portfolio. This year, however, and pretty recently, they managed it handily, with the latest version of a classic complication that I think has probably become a bit lost over the years since its last release. I’m talking, of course, about the newest version of the Omega De Ville Central Tourbillon, which this year was introduced with, for the first time ever, Master Chronometer certification. Central tourbillons of any kind are extremely rare, and though the Omega patent expired some time ago – thus potentially opening the floodgates for a whole slew of central tourbillons – they have only appeared in a few examples from different firms since then, and they’ve been off the radar of even very dedicated Omega-watchers for many years.
That’s part of the reason I found this watch very to be unexpected, but it’s not the only reason. The other is that there are some fairly serious technical obstacles to making a tourbillon that is capable of not just running to within chronometer specifications, but doing so when exposed to magnetic fields that can be at least as strong as 15,000 gauss (and possibly more; that figure represents the technical limit of the testing equipment Omega used when the first Master Chronometer Aqua Terra was introduced).
While it was certainly a great surprise to see the De Ville Central Tourbillon reappear in a new version this year, it’s also a reminder that Omega has in its technical repertoire a number of advances in basic mechanical horology that really do put it in a unique position in the industry. The De Ville Central Tourbillon Master Chronometer represents the fusion of one of the company’s most innovative pieces of horological engineering in the last thirty years, with some of its other most important technical innovations including the use of amagnetic materials, which made Master Chronometer certification possible in the first place, as well as the co-axial escapement. It’s a testimony to the diversity of watchmaking at Omega that the central tourbillon, after going quiet for many years, was a pleasant surprise for 2020. Likewise, it’s a testimony to the richness of technical innovation at Omega that after some thought, it doesn’t seem like a surprise at all.
Price; $ 168,000, Omegawatches.com.
Danny Milton: Breitling Superocean Heritage ’57 Capsule Collection
When the Breitling Superocean Heritage ’57 Capsule Collection was released, the first thing I thought was “flying saucer,” and I mean that in a good way. The design is, no doubt, a throwback, but the introduction was nonetheless surprising. From the concave bezel to the vintage inspired markers to the no-date layout, this one struck me as a watch that could stir up debate, but also one that was certainly well thought out and well executed. The design is meant to reflect a late 1950’s, early 60’s surfer vibe (read Beach Boys), but for me the capsule collection is reminiscent of the ’50s in more of a drive-in, sci-fi, B-movie sort of way, and from that perspective I really like it.
In naming this the Capsule Collection, Breitling really nailed the very idea of creating a pseudo time capsule. This watch really is an encapsulation of the feeling of an era, and that idea stretches to multiple areas of the watch. It’s the little things like the typography of the Arabic seconds printed along the outer part of the dial – the vintage-inspired flat 4 is a subtle nod to the past and the type of small detail that can really make a big difference. There is also the bi-directional bezel, a feature seldom seen on modern dive or water sport watches these days. Much of the design of this watch is shared with the existing Superocean Heritage line, but that is also because that very model takes many of its design cues from the original vintage watch that the ’57 Capsule Collection is based upon. As someone who typically wears 40mm dive watches, it is also very cool to to see the somewhat shorter 46mm lug to lug distance and thin 9.99mm case, both of which should make the 42mm watch wear quite nicely. And I feel that I must remind everyone about the Rainbow limited edition. I mean, who saw that one coming? Surprises abounded in this release, and I am certainly a fan.
Prices: $ 4,380 – $ 5,690, Breitling.com.
Cole Pennington: H. Moser Streamliner Flyback Chronograph Automatic
It seems like forever ago, but it was indeed 2020 when H. Moser took a radical departure from their normal svelte and understated watches and released the Moser Streamliner Flyback Chronograph Automatic. The fact that they released a stainless steel sport watch wasn’t what surprised me. Lately, it seems many high horology manufacturers from Switzerland (and Germany) have jumped on the stainless steel sport watch bandwagon. It was the execution that surprised me in the best way possible. Seemingly different elements from all corners of watch design mingle together in a way that makes the watch completely original – and that’s not easy in today’s horological landscape. The alternating fifth-seconds track is reminiscent of sporting chronographs from the ’60s, and in particular, one of the watches I find most interesting, the Omega flightmaster (Omega styles this watch’s name with a lower-case “f”).
The bracelet eschews any sort of traditional link blueprints and instead seems to draw from the old IWC-Porsche Design model of the ’80s and ’90s. It articulates in a way that mimics nature, like the armor of an armadillo. The lume inserts on the hands are fashioned from a compound that’s a hybrid of luminescent material and ceramic. It’s a watch that’s so tech-forward but also traditional. Jack points out that chronographs “have the potential, I’ve always felt, to bring out the absolute worst in a watch design team.” And I would agree. It gets complicated quickly, and with every design element the chance to be led astray is introduced. I was surprised at how well H. Moser held course and came up with a watch that’s both original and beautiful.
Price: $ 39,900, H-Moser.com.
Stephen Pulvirent: IWC Portugieser Automatic 40
This is a watch that I’ve wanted to exist for a very long time, but, to be totally honest, it’s one that I didn’t think I’d ever see. When I reviewed the IWC Portugieser Hand-Wound Eight-Days Edition ‘150 Years‘ back in 2018, my only real complaint with that watch was that it was just too damn big for my tiny wrist. At 43.2mm, that watch is well outside my usual 35mm-39mm bubble, and definitely a far cry from my 36mm sweet-spot. But, as I said then, the Portugieser has a long history of being an oversized watch, going all the way back to the very first version, which was about 42mm across and powered by a repurposed pocket watch movement. I figured that somewhere around that 42mm size was the bottom limit for a Portugieser and that this would be a family of watches for me to admire from afar. Luckily, I was super wrong.
This year, IWC released not one, but two downsized Portugieser watches – the 40mm automatic with sub-seconds that you see here and a 42mm version of its perpetual calendar (down from 44mm). These aren’t replacing the larger models, but they’re alternatives that offer more pared-down takes on the familiar forms, in case sizes that open the collection up to the slight-of-wrist. When I put the steel Portugieser Automatic 40mm with the white dial and blue accents on my wrist, it was love at first sight. Sure, 40mm is still large for me, but it really works with this design and the watch is extremely comfortable. You also get one of IWC’s new-generation in-house movements, so it’s got substance to back things up. This watch still feels every bit a classic Portugieser and it’s currently sitting at the top of my new-releases wish list.
Price: $ 7,250 in steel, IWC.com.
James Stacey: Seiko Prospex SPB143
While Seiko releasing a dive watch during the spring cycle is a long way from a surprise, the new SPB14X models are not at all what I expected to see. Only a few short years after the launch of the SLA017 (aka the “62MAS” re-edition), with the SPB14X line, Seiko is now offering a largely similar vibe at a surprising price point. This hit me as noteworthy for a few reasons. First, these new models – four references at launch – are 40.5mm wide, which is a good bit smaller than what I’ve come to expect from the general Prospex range. The quoted lug-to-lug is a welcome 47.6mm, meaning these new models should fit the wrists of those who might not have a taste for larger options from within the Prospex range. The next surprise is the price, which could arguably be packing two surprises at the SPB14X’s ~$ 1,200 MSRP (with a bracelet, non-limited). Depending on your reference point, this number could be high or low. If you’re comparing it to an SKX or even an SRP777, $ 1,200 is going to feel like a lot.
Conversely, if you’re comparing against the SLA017 and its $ 3,400 price (albeit with much higher-end movement and being a limited edition), then these forthcoming SPB’s will seem like a lot of watch for the money. While I’m waiting to take delivery and get some wrist time with an SPB143 before I entirely settle on my feelings for a $ 1,200 Seiko dive watch (my $ 200 SKX007 has never let me down), the pricing for this new model is another step in Seiko’s progression of differentiating the Prospex line from their more entry-level options. Regardless, this looks to be a handsome and nicely spec’d Seiko diver that also looks to be sized for current tastes and well-positioned within Seiko’s line up. Availability is still slated for June/July of this year. As someone who loves a dive watch with 39mm to 41mm sizing, I was surprised by this announcement and can’t wait to experience one on my own wrist.
Price: $ 1,200, Seikowatches.com.