It was the decade that style itself, having toiled tirelessly and prodigiously throughout the 1960s, had a breakdown and went on a massive sabbatical. Fashion abominations flourished, from garishly patterned polyester shirts to flesh-furrowing shorts to high-waisted jeans that could conceal a badger strapped around the wearer’s shin. Interior designers wrongly assumed that hallucinogenic mind-benders would have the same creatively alchemic effect on their work that they had on rock music recorded during that era, with results that to this day scare burglars away from unrenovated properties throughout middle England.

And yet, in one avenue of life, thoughtful, tastefully avant-garde design prevailed throughout that taste-forsaken decade: the watch industry. That’s not to say the scene’s major players stayed true to their innately conservative instincts: on the contrary, industry honchos and watch designers – and in particular, one Swiss wristwatch visionary by the name of Gérald Genta – became emboldened and energised, and came up with new prototypes which, unfathomably at the time, made sports watches with luxury pedigree become acceptable in highly fashionable circles.

It was, most industry observers concur, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak that took the first step into this new design territory. It was a massive gamble on the part of a company renowned mainly for refined dress timepieces, but drastic action was required given the financial peril the sector was in due to the quartz age. Genta later explained: “Mr Georges Golay, the Managing Director of Audemars Piguet, rings me up and tells me: ‘Mr Genta, I need a steel sports watch that has never been done before. I want it to be something totally new and waterproof… I want the design by tomorrow morning.’ I designed it overnight and my idea was to replicate the system of the scaphander’s [deep sea diver’s] helmet on the watch case, with the eight screws and the joint visible on the case’s exterior.”

A RIGHT ROYAL SHAKE-UP

The Royal Oak was unveiled at the Basel watch fair in 1972 with an eyeball-popping SFr.3,650 price tag – more than the average retail price for gold watches (even the priciest steel watches at the time only fetched about SFr.850). Audemars Piguet’s Francois- Henry Bennahmias has remarked how observers congratulated them at the stand while quietly proclaiming the company’s audacity as commercial suicide.

Initially the doomsayers seemed correct. But slowly, these capacious steel pieces began to carve their niche in the market – the requisite wrist accompaniment to the pastel-coloured budgie- smugglers worn by St Tropez playboys, which set them a good distance from professional horological tools such as the Rolex Sea-Dweller. The catalyst moment, it has been said, came when Gianni Agnelli, the Fiat chief executive and high priest of the jet-set at the time, was seen wearing one. Forty years later, the Royal Oak constitutes up to 70 per cent of the firm’s annual production.

“When we launched it, the idea was to use stainless steel as a [layer of] armour to protect the beautiful and delicate mechanism inside: a body of steel for a heart of gold,” Bennahmias explains. “We realised that our clients’ lifestyles were changing, becoming more active – sometimes even extreme – compared to what used to be the norm, and I think that this is what makes the watches so timeless. The blending of the purity of the Royal Oak with the awe- inspiring and iconic perpetual calendar complication is a perfect match as far as I’m concerned.”

WATERWORLD

Also still being reinterpreted for the modern watch buyer to this day is the Patek Philippe Nautilus: another Genta-designed piece that became a big-hitter in this genre despite swimming (for dear life) against the zeitgeist of the era. “When the ref. 3700/1A was launched in 1976, it was completely against any trends, being considered a big watch for that time,” the brand’s CEO Thierry Stern says, adding that his father Henri Stern, who previously ran the company, also noted an appetite for a casual watch with a classic feel but suited to an active lifestyle. “The unique shape of the bezel and case construction made the Nautilus an iconic piece… and to this day it is true to the design rule that states that ‘form follows function’.” It’s hard to disagree – the yellow gold and stainless steel 3800 being just about the most elegant artefact which invites the word “retro” a collector could possibly own.

In the late 1970s, another luxury sports watch would arrive on the scene to make up a triumvirate of excellence in the eld. The Piaget Polo designed by Yves Piaget, yielded to the new genre in almost every way save for use of materials, choosing to adopt the style but to stick to precious metal. It was launched at the Palm Beach Polo Club at a bash where the presence of celebrities such as Ursula Andress announced to the watch-buying world that another piece had arrived on the scene aimed squarely not just at the international polo community, with which the brand has always been associated, but at the wider beau monde. Like the Royal Oak and the Nautilus, the Polo quickly earned its jet-setter credentials, and became de rigueur amongst yacht-hopping society in Monte Carlo.

WORLDS COLLIDE

The idea of blending sports watches – once aimed at people who actually broke a sweat from time to time – with the kind of luxury watches designed to grace the wrists of the elite was as outlandish back then as combining a Nike Air Pegasus with a George Cleverly monkstrap dress shoe would be now. But the experimental cultural climate of the 1970s turned out to be fertile ground for one of horological history’s more capricious twists. Even more astoundingly, the sports watch phenomenon turned out to be anything but a fad.

As far as Time Products Chairman Marcus Margulies is concerned, it’s no surprise that these watches turned out to be impervious to the ravaging effects of trend. “Great designs such as the Patek Philippe Nautilus and the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak are timeless,” he says, “and so the basic design concept holds true – all that’s needed is minor tweaking and changes to either the size or colour. The same applies to fashion: look at the Birkin and Kelly bags from Hermès and the Chanel jacket.” Vacheron Constantin Creative Director Christian Selmoni adds: “The marriage of the reassuring robustness of steel and a sleek design proved to be a very successful combination and became an instant classic.”

For design guru Stephen Bayley, meanwhile, it’s the 1970s sports watches’ distinctive character that continues to engage the contemporary imagination and prevent them from becoming period pieces. “I think what all of us – from rich prat to brain surgeon – enjoy about watches is the way the successful ones suggest a milieu or a genre,” he says. “After all, it’s a general provision in the consumer contract that, when we buy any product more complex than lavatory cleaner, we engage in a fantasy. But there’s an element of sympathetic magic here as well. While I don’t especially want to be a ‘Sea Dweller’ or a ‘Yachtsman’ (or an arsonist or saboteur for that matter), we enjoy the vicarious association. ‘Sports’ watches transfer a little athletic magic onto even the most lardy wearer.”

For vintage wristwatch specialist George Somlo, the luxury sports watch phenomenon was just one streak within a much larger purple patch in watchmaking. “Pieces from the 1970s retain their appeal today as they broke the mould, with case designs and materials big brands these days simply wouldn’t use,” he says. “For example, Omega produced a range of so-called ‘Hard Metal’ watches which were comprised of unusual, barrel shaped cases and ultra- polished, tungsten-bombarded stainless steel that give a sleek, almost imposing appearance to the timepiece.”

GRAND DESIGNS

Cutting-edge design, Somlo adds, is all the more likely to inspire feelings of nostalgia in years to come. “Many of those who can purchase a statement piece such as this were the youth of the 1970s and, as such, look to bring back childhood memories through timepieces made distinctive by TV and films. The watches’ sharp angles and sci-fi quality was inspired by the rise of electronic technology, and the surge of movies that told tales of pre- and post- apocalyptic societies, such as Mad Max, Alien and Apocalypse Now. [Vintage examples] are also, more often than not, more wearable than today’s sport wristwatches that are comprised of bulky 42mm-plus cases and cumbersome designs that are not easily worn both casually and with more formal attire.” The Vacheron Constantin 222 is perhaps the blast from the past, which illustrates his point best.

Bulgari CEO Jean-Christophe Babin, meanwhile, points out that the luxury sports watch’s appeal was, and remains, driven not by brands but by models – the Genta-designed Bulgari, on which the branding was etched around the bezel, being a prime example. “We often relate to a specific model which was created at that time to a specific event, a technical challenge linked to the performance, the precision and/or a new function for the time,” he says, adding that these watches didn’t just represent a stylistic rebellion, but also a technological one: “The sports mechanical watches were at that time the symbols of a kind of resistance against the new technology.”

For Christian Knoop, Creative Director at IWC – which in the mid-1970s realised Mr Genta’s panache for the category and commissioned him to rethink their Ingenieur model, thus vastly enriching the sports watch canon – the industry’s jaunt into riskier waters was a watershed moment in horological history and something of a commercial masterstroke. “This new category helped the Swiss watch industry to survive after the Quartz Crisis tremendously,” he says. “While elegant watches were previously mostly equipped with leather straps, stainless-steel watches with corresponding bracelets for every day usage became increasingly popular and have endured today due to their timeless style, as well as their versatility for all occasions.”

It’s hard to argue with that, with not only Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe, Piaget, IWC and Bulgari but also Breitling, TAG Heuer, Zenith and Hamilton also offering contemporary gems that adhere to – and often enhance – the style tenets of a horological movement which was widely deemed a whimsical fad when it burst onto the scene four decades ago.