In the world of high-quality watches, the term “sought-after” is relative. If Patek Philippe or Rolex is making a watch, you can rest assured that someone, somewhere, is going to buy that watch. But there are some timepieces that stand above the pack. Whether it’s because of short supply, an iconic design, or historical relevance, some watches are just about impossible to get a hold of. Those are the watches you buy when you have the opportunity, because you never know when they’ll be available again.
Here, in no particular order, are the six most sought-after collectible watch models on today’s market. Some are classics, and some are modern limited-editions. But all of them deserve a spot in your collection.
Rolex Daytona Stainless Steel
The Rolex Daytona is one of the world’s most iconic watches, dating back to the original Reference 6239 that was released in 1963. The Daytona was the very first chronograph to have a tachymeter on the bezel instead of on the dial itself. It came in white and black, which has remained a staple of the Daytona line to this day. The original white dial is now so rare that it can garner millions of dollars at auction.
Considering how iconic it is, it comes as a surprise to many that the Daytona was not instantly popular. In fact, sales in the first few years were slow, and Rolex nearly stopped production. However, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, and other celebrities started wearing it in movies. Demand soared, and the Daytona became what it is today. In fact, Paul Newmans’s Daytona recently sold at auction, and became the most expensive watch in history. Newman wore the steel version, which is a big reason for its continued popularity.
But you don’t have to buy a decades-old classic to own a Rolex Daytona. In fact, the new Daytona has come with a ceramic bezel since 2011. But it took Rolex until 2016 to start offering a ceramic bezel on the stainless steel version of the Daytona. Given the long wait time, collectors will want to get their name on the list sooner rather than later. Otherwise, you could end up buying on the aftermarket at inflated prices.
Patek Philippe Nautilus
The original Patek Philippe Nautilus was designed by famed watchmaker Gerald Genta in the mid-1970s. While sitting in a restaurant booth during the Basel fair, he saw a group of Patek executives designing nearby. Inspiration struck, and Genta sketched out the design for what would become the Patek Philippe Nautilus. This was a time when stainless steel watches were just starting to appear in the luxury market, and the original Ref 3700/1 debuted in stainless steel in 1976.
The Nautilus has an octagonal profile, with a slightly raised bezel that’s wider than it needs to be but accentuates the fine markings on the dial. The five minute marks are all applied, with fine silver borders around the lume stripes. The dial itself has a blued finish, with horizontal embossed stripes that create accents when the light strikes them. The most famous aspect of the dial is the 24-hour sundial with moon phase indicator. This remains virtually unchanged from the original, which also sported the same horizontal embossing.
The case is water-resistant to 120 meters, so it’s safe for showering, hot tubs, and swimming. It also has a gorgeous display case back, protected by a sapphire crystal. The latest incarnation of the Nautilus maintains the spirit and look of the original, but with a more modern movement.
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak
The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak is one of the most expensive watches in existence, unless you’re talking about custom pieces or watches that are otherwise truly unique. This is, in large part, due to its history. I already mentioned that the 1970s were the time when steel cases first entered the luxury watch market, and the Royal Oak was the trendsetter that got it all started.
Remember Gerald Genta, and how he designed the Nautilus over breakfast? The Royal Oak was the watch that made him famous, and he designed it in much the same way; in a single day, with paper and a pencil. He envisioned a stainless steel luxury watch, and its design was taken from a series of Royal Navy battleships, all named the HMS Royal Oak. There’s a popular rumor that the octagonal bezel is designed to look like a porthole, but that’s false. According to Genta himself, that particular element was inspired by deep sea diving helmets of the era.
The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak was announced at Baselworld in 1972, and took the world by storm, kicking off an era of stainless steel luxury watchmaking that continues to this day. Not only that, but it’s truly a work of art. Like many of Genta’s designs, it features a textured dial, with similar blued steel to the Nautilus. However, the texture is embossed in a grid pattern, rather than a series of lines. The rest of the dial is a bit more elegant, with only small hashes and a date complication at three o’clock. The current version also sports a display back, the better to show off the new in-house movement.
Philippe Dufour Simplicity
Philippe Dufour is a watchmaker mostly known for his intricate, complicated designs. For most of his career, Dufour produced custom, bespoke watches for individual clients. But from 2000 to 2014, he made a production watch called the Simplicity, although “production watch” is probably the wrong term. The Simplicity is a serialized model, and Dufour originally intended to make only 100 of them. He ultimately doubled the number to 200, in response to demand.
In addition to that, Dufour has now produced 21 special-edition Simplicity watches, with seven each in rose gold, white gold, and platinum. Dufour himself kept one of the platinum models, and watch magazine Hodinkee received one of the rose gold models. This means there are only 19 of the special edition watches in private circulation. The special edition is cosmetically similar to the original, but has a large PD logo that’s not featured on the original. The same logo is embossed and the crown and the case of the special edition.
That said, the base simplicity itself is still a work of art. The gold applied numerals have a flowing script, and form a beautiful contrast with the smooth, rich grey dial. The center part of the dial has an antique sun flare design, but it’s understated, and doesn’t jump out at you unless you’re looking for it. There’s also a 24-hour dial at six o’clock, but that’s also fairly understated, with only fine gold hashes to interrupt the plain appearance. Everything is rounded out by a pair of broad, blade-style hands that are easy to read by day or night.
Patek Philippe Aquanaut
First launched in 1997, the Aquanaut was Patek Philippe’s attempt to capture the hip, modern vibe of the 1990s. Its most striking feature is its dial, which is matte black, and embossed in a grid pattern. It looks almost industrial, like a texture you’d see on a gym floor. But Patek Philippe didn’t push the envelope too far with the modern design. Despite the daring dial, the rest of the design is more traditional. For instance, it has the same octagonal stainless steel case as the Nautilus, marrying modern aesthetics with time-tested design.
The hands and the indexes are all high-visibility, with broad profiles and a white lume finish. There are also numerals at the hour marks, which have a similarly bold, high-contrast appearance. At three o’clock, you’ll see a small date window, with a fine white Patek Philippe logo imprinted towards the top of the dial. The case itself has a screw-down crown, and is water-resistant to a depth of 120 meters. This makes it truly functional as well as being a striking luxury item. It also has a display back, with a scratch-resistant sapphire crystal.
The original version of the Aquanaut came with a black silicone “tropical” strap, suitable for swimming or diving, as the Aquanaut’s name implies. However, it’s also available with a more traditional three-link steel band. It can even be bought in rose gold if you prefer that to steel.
Vacheron Constantin Overseas
Vacheron Constantin first debuted the Overseas in 1996. It had a beautiful blued dial and an eye-catching dual index, but many criticized it for being a bit too bulky. Vacheron has made some changes over the years, and has made two distinct updates. In 2004, they slimmed down the case, but they also removed some of the elegant dial features that people liked. In 2016, they tinkered with the design again, and restored the vintage look of the original while keeping the 2004 variant’s slim case. The new variant, the Reference 4500, has become one of the most sought-after watches on today’s market.
The case has also been rounded off slightly, while the markings on the bezel have been toned down a bit. This lends it a more formal look than earlier Overseas models, and more in line with Vacheron Constantin’s elegant aesthetic. Most notably, parts of the case are brushed and others are smooth, which almost sparkles in the right kind of lighting. The outside of the dial is fairly busy, with the aforementioned inner and outer indexes and a three o’clock date window. However, the middle of the dial is bare except for the VC logo and Swiss cross. Other than that, you have a formal, blued surface. The hands are equally formal, slender, and silver in color. The Overseas took some tweaking, but the current version is an instant classic.
What about Rolex submariner? Why is stainless so collectible?
McQueen never wore a Rolex Daytona in a movie or personally. He owned two Submariners. He wore his own 5512 in The Towering Inferno and The Hunter and he wore a Rolex Speeding in The Great Escape. These are his only official Rolex connections.
I have a SS sub, SS Explorer, white gold Day-Date and a Tudor Black Bay bronze. I rotate through them, but wear my Tudor as my beater while renovating houses. The Daytona has always seemed overkill to me.