Like death, art and the law, the beach is a great leveller. Stripped – literally – of all the usual signifiers of one’s wealth, status and background, the individual is left only with their sunglasses, swimwear and watch to denote his or her means, mores and demographic. And yet, as the images below demonstrate, so much is still revealed about the scarcely clad’s style tenets by how their cossie interacts with their timepiece.

If a man regularly paddles the shallow waters of St Barths dressed in “budgie smugglers” which score his nether regions like a cheese slice, accompanied by a watch so oversized it tempts dating couples to meet beneath it, his belief that size is everything is seriously clouding his judgement. Similarly, only a sartorial klutz of the first order would pair the diminutive elegance of a Cartier Tank with the kind of voluminous Bermudas that make passers-by think Comic Relief Day’s come round seven months early.

Your swimwear-and-watch combo can give off sprezzatura, an indefinable nonchalance-par-excellence, or make beholders assume they’ll later see the wearer in the hotel bar matching a cheap Hawaiian shirt with chequered chinos.

But how easy is it to get this crucial pairing right? A glance at the examples that have been peppered over the web-o-sphere via the paparazzi lenses of late suggests that the rich and famous carry it off with mixed levels of success…

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER

This was amongst a batch of shots taken of The Terminator star-turned California governor when he’d just whipped his shirt off outside his hotel during the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, which he was visiting to promote The Expendables 3. His no-nonsense black swimmers paired with the U-1942 by U-Boat Italo Fontana – a watch Arnie, along with Sly Stallone, has favoured for some time – has a kind of Tony Soprano-esque effect: a sort of upper middle-aged brashness that is brutally elegant. It’s just a shame about the child-size Aviators.

ELLE MACPHERSON

In terms of molecular mass, this yellow gold Rolex Cosmograph Daytona with white dial is the most substantial item Elle MacPherson is wearing in this series of shots – especially since the 6ft Australian supermodel has always favoured the men’s 35mm diameter bruisers over the 26mm ones supposedly designed for her gender. When statuesque women of style (particularly in Italy) followed Elle’s lead on this, she was, in some quarters, credited with actually causing a seismic industry shift. As any male over 14 will attest, her look here works, as does her pairing of a Rolex GMT with a pink one-piece. Aquatic marine mammals apparently think so too.

ELTON JOHN

Hublot referred to its Big Bang Pop Art watch as: “A timepiece that brings the avant-garde spirit of the Pop Art movement to life.” And, while the crocodile rocker won’t exactly be chuffed with this unauthorised shot, his wristwear adds a touch of natty flamboyance to the simple red swim shorts and blue polo combo he opts for here. Same goes for the Hublot Tutti Frutti Purple Caviar he wears with a similar coloured polo, while he sensibly opts for a more understated Rolex Rainbow Daytona in white gold when the hat and shoes have the “flash-of-flamboyance” bit covered.

FELICITY KENDALL

Her name will bring about nostalgic memories of sexual awakening in any man who was an adolescent when The Good Life dominated British peak-time TV in the mid-1970s. Such men now being in their middle-years, they may these days be more bowled over by the 69-year-old actress’s huge affection for collectable men’s watches, particularly Rolexes. She wore a Panerai in the TV show Rosemary & Thyme (apparently one from her personal collection) but is here sporting a yellow gold Rolex which works stunningly in tandem with the oversized shades, friendship bracelet and loose-fitting summer dress.

JAMES BOND

There’s getting it right, then there’s getting it spot on – then there’s James Bond. In these stills from 1965’s Thunderball, Connery pairs his Rolex Submariner firstly with fins and fishing spear – which would surely have delighted the Rolex marketing department beyond measure – then with French actress Claudine Auger wearing Riviera Polo and Jantzen shorts. Naturally, in both cases, it all goes together like gin, vermouth and a lemon twist. Over the years, Bond would move on from the Submariner, enjoying numerous brief flings with various beauties before Daniel Craig’s 007 settled on the Omega Seamaster.

JEREMY CLARKSON/JAMES MAY

Oh, the power of mischievous juxtaposition. The resemblances between the most foppish man in movie history and the former Top Gear trio pretty much end at fast cars (one imagines that the Connery-era Bond’s grey glen check Anthony Sinclair suit would stick around Clarkson’s burly frame like cling-film around Camembert). And indeed here, Clarkson’s excellent choice of Omega Seamaster Planet Ocean does little to redeem the effect of the comedy-uncle shorts. As for James May’s timepiece, while it’s presumably a thing of mechanical prowess given May’s notorious mechanical geekiness, we doubt its makers will be leaping forward to claim a celebrity endorsement.

MARK WAHLBERG

He often opts for a yellow-gold GMT II (ceramic with green dial). He’s also been spotted with a customised Project X Rolex. Here though, the Lone Survivor star is following the tradition of the ultimate Hollywood Rolex wearer, Paul Newman, by opting for a Daytona. While the baseball hat and beady chain/pendant cannot be advocated by a writer who used to edit The Rake, the swimmers Wahlberg opts for here – although fruity to the point of being garish (“fun”, is surely the most insulting adjective a man can hear about one of his garments) – have a certain silly charm to them, which contrasts nicely with the serious petrolhead connotations of his wristwatch.

RICK ROSS

What you see before you isn’t just a timepiece. It’s rapper and entrepreneur Rick Ross’s diamond-studded Franck Muller King Conquistador Cortez watch. In terms of the hip hop world’s more abundantly encrusted timepieces, it’s up there with Birdman’s diamond-encrusted Chopard watch which cost a cool $1.5 million. Whatever its aesthetic merits or otherwise, we congratulate Ross on contrasting his simple, aquamarine swimwear with a timepiece so heavy, it must have serious effects on his gait – along with his heavily needled torso.

SERENA WILLIAMS

Friend-of-the-brand Serena Williams often wears her Audemars Piguet Royal Oak – an Offshore Chronograph in stainless steel with a diamond-set bezel featuring the Swiss brand‘s iconic octagonal shape – on court; here she’s seen on a Miami beach with actress Eva Longoria wearing a print chiffon number, black straw hat and round shades. Tennis is replete with watch brand commercial partnerships, but with Williams being the greatest American athlete of her generation, both parties must consider this relationship a huge coup.

STAVROS NIARCHOS

Like many stylish men who have reached septuagenarian or octogenarian territory, the late multi-billionaire Greek shipping tycoon Niarchos stuck to less edgy polos and shorts, letting the cuts and fabrics do the talking. The same brand of moderately brassy traditionalism applies to the watch he’s wearing here. We have conflicting theories about what the actual watch is, and our inbox is always open…

SYLVERSTER STALLONE

He wore a Day-Date on the set of 1983’s Stayin’ Alive, a Richard Mille RM 032 Ti in 2001’s The Expendables and a gold Submariner in the Rocky movies. The Rolex Sly has on his wrist in this shot taken with his wife Jennifer Flavin complements his ensemble nicely, but the overall look is compromised even more by the bullet nipples – it doesn’t look like a cold day – than it is by the Stars n’ Stripes bloomers.

DAVID JOHANSEN

This one we slightly cheated on as, try as we might, we could not ID the watch but, as the subject is simply one of the most awesome people alive, we decided to give him a pass. Coney Island has always embraced leftfield entertainment, what with its history of vaudeville and freak shows, but the Mermaid Parade – which attracts more than half a million spectators annually – is in an oddness league of its own. Each year, a different celebrity King Neptune and Queen Mermaid “rule” over the proceedings and David Byrne, Lou Reed, Queen Latifah, Moby and Harvey Keitel have all graced the famous boardwalk at some time. Here, New York Doll David Johansen lords it up at the 2005 parade, wearing a watch which shouts: “Yup, I’m dressed in a white onesie with a Cabbage Patch Doll’s hat and an air stewardess’s neck-scarf – what of it, bland f*cker?”