The 12 best watches of 2021: from the Rolex Explorer II to Breitling Premier Heritage

Here are the best horological launches from this year's Watches & Wonders

Roger Dubuis has partnered with Los Angeles tattoo artist, Dr. Woo, under the concept, “Urban Art Tribe.” The long-term partnership that will begin with the artist sharing his creative process by opening their workshops to clients of the brand. 
Courtesy Roger Dubuis
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In the space of only 12 months, the notion of a buy-one-get-one-free digital amalgamation of two historic trade shows – normally drawing thousands to Geneva, then Basel every year – doesn’t seem at all far-fetched.

Thus, with the physical renditions of Watches & Wonders (formerly SIHH) and Switzerland’s famed Baselworld cancelled yet again on account of Covid-19, at the start of April the industry’s retailers, journalists and VIP clients descended not on a cavernous convention centre, but rather remained rooted to their laptops at home. Probably in their sweats, drinking tea.

While that crucial in-the-flesh product experience could never be supplanted, the irony is that Watches & Wonders' online portal offered more brand-engagement opportunities than ever, trickling down to the benefit of everyone in attendance. Sure, the brands' Instagram posts feature yet another pack shot, but not even the most fleet-footed of traditional fair-goers could access as many keynotes, Q&As, unveilings and panel discussions as afforded by and its 38-strong line-up of star players – accessible 24/7, Wi-Fi permitting.

Like most things affected by the pandemic (ie, everything) it's still too early to know whether such a successful pivot spells the end of the "old way". But for the customers and collectors upon whom the entire industry depends, who just want to know about the watches themselves, the good news for this year is that the hills of the Swiss Jura are still alive with the sound of music (or ticking).

Post-crash, back in 2009, every watchmaker and their dairy cow seemed to rein in the R&D and hunker down on nostalgia. This year it's nothing but dazzling technical wizardry, a return to oversize bombast, rainbows of colour pops, multi-carat bling, you name it.

Here's our pick of the best watches of 2021 

1. TAG Heuer Aquaracer

2. Roger Dubuis Excalibur Glow Me Up

3. Bulgari Octo Perpetual Calendar

4. Oris Aquis Dat Watt

5. Hublot Unico

6. Ulysse Nardin Hourstriker

7. Patek Philippe Ref 5236P-001

8. Rolex Explorer II

9. Montblanc Monopusher Chronograph Origins

10. Panerai eLab

11. Breitling Premier Heritage

12. Greubel Forsey GMT Sport

1. TAG Heuer Aquaracer

TAG Heuer Aquaracer. Courtesy TAG Heuer
TAG Heuer Aquaracer. Courtesy TAG Heuer

The diver’s watch is pure, dangerous and storied; a cult genre with little to mess with, and where any quirks of character are lionised. So hats off to Swiss watchmaking’s most democratic practitioner for adopting a brass-tacks-led strategy in reduxing its Aquaracer, all with functionality in mind. That signature 12-sided uni-directional rotating bezel, for example – now integrating a scratch-resistant ceramic insert and fluting for easy grip – plus a magnifying glass over the date bulging below the crystal.

2. Roger Dubuis Excalibur Glow Me Up 

Roger Dubuis Excalibur Glow Me Up. Courtesy Roger Dubuis
Roger Dubuis Excalibur Glow Me Up. Courtesy Roger Dubuis

Horological prodigy Roger Dubuis, who died in 2017, only formed his eponymous brand in 1995. But, untethered by heritage, it’s had ample time to turn traditional watchmaking on its head. Quite literally in the case of the gravity-defying tourbillons you see in this piece, tumbling in skeletal space frames, with an aesthetic that at once references King Arthur, steampunk and glam-noir, all while conforming to the Poinçon de Genève’s strict standards of top-flight craftsmanship. This year, the disco beckons with the Excalibur Glow Me Up, which luridly backlights its baguette diamonds with multicoloured luminosity.

3. Bulgari Octo Perpetual Calendar

Bulgari Octo Perpetual Calendar. Courtesy Bulgari
Bulgari Octo Perpetual Calendar. Courtesy Bulgari

Patek Philippe’s In-line Perpetual Calendar may have stolen the show with the concise date display we’ve always craved, but Bulgari’s take on the always-correct calendar function comes a close second, as it’s not only the brand’s seventh ultra-thin record in complicated watchmaking, but an honourable mention in the legibility stakes. The Octo Finissimo Perpetual Calendar arranges the usual constellation of day, date and month subdials in poetic sympathy with B.ulgari’s Octo design – rapidly establishing itself as an icon of 21st century watchmaking – crowning only 5.8 millimetres of minutely sandwiched componentry.

4. Oris Aquis Dat Watt

01 761 7765 4185-Set - Oris Dat Watt Limited Edition
Oris Aquis Dat Watt. Courtesy Oris

Over the past decade, Oris has emerged as a plucky independent putting much larger contemporaries to shame when it comes to sustainability. Given the solid sub-aqua credentials of its Aquis diving watches, the brand’s ocean-going direction is hardly surprising, lately to the benefit of the Common Wadden Sea Secretariat, a trilateral organisation covering Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands, protecting the Wadden Sea. Bottom line: the Dat Watt Limited Edition displays the lunar cycle and tidal range in the Northern Hemisphere via the Oris-developed Pointer Moon function.

5. Hublot Unico

Hublot Unico. Courtesy Hublot
Hublot Unico. Courtesy Hublot

How can you not be smiling right now, looking at this sunny-side-up timepiece? Because it’s Hublot, forever young in its anarchic take on the Swiss craft, it doesn’t care that you’re not even noticing the Big Bang Unico Yellow Magic’s inner works, flipped backside-forward for you to admire the column wheel dial side, as you fiddle with the flyback chronograph function. Nope, you’re dazzled by the world-first banana-yellow ceramic case.

6. Ulysse Nardin Hourstriker

Ulysse Nardin Hourstriker. courtesy Ulysse Nardin
Ulysse Nardin Hourstriker. courtesy Ulysse Nardin

It’s hard to keep up with Ulysse Nardin, with its high-octane horology and carbon-fibre experimentation – all leaning on a noble lineage of marine chronometry. But the new Blast Hourstriker could be the innovation to consolidate the brand’s dual personality. It’s a clever evolution of the minute repeater function, which usually chimes the time to the minute by striking tiny circular “gongs” with similarly tiny hammers. In this case, the wire gongs are replaced by a titanium diaphragm, measuring only three tenths of a millimetre – deployed front and centre like a speaker cone for all to admire, suitably agog.

7. Patek Philippe Ref 5236P-001

HyperFocal: 0
Patek Philippe Ref 5236 perpetual calendar. Courtesy Patek Philippe

Patek Philippe not only unveiled the hands-down highlight of this year with nonchalant elan, but right when we thought Watches & Wonders was all but done. Its Ref 5236P-001 does away with the fussy subdials of your “normal” perpetual calendar, instead representing the always-correct date as you’d inscribe in your journal – “SUN29FEB”. The best engineering is about simplification, so while its in-line display requires 118 additional parts over your usual calendar complication, the ease of legibility easily wins.

8. Rolex Explorer II

Oyster Perpetual 
Explorer II
Rolex Explorer II. Courtesy Rolex

The choice of alpinists since 1971, the new-generation Explorer II gets a 50th-birthday spruce-up. It’s equipped with a calibre 3285, incorporating all the bells and whistles that keep Rolex ahead of the rest in “tool watch” reliability: nickel-phosphorous Chronergy escapement and Parachrom hairspring, plus a 70-hour power reserve. Also essential to polar or subterranean explorers is that joyous pop of orange: a 24-hour hand allowing the wearer to clearly distinguish day from night. When you’re in the midst of a six-month winter, in temperatures that render batteries and LCD screens highly fickle, this is a lifesaver.

9. Montblanc Monopusher Chronograph Origins

Montblanc Monopusher Chronograph Origins. Courtesy Montblanc
Montblanc Monopusher Chronograph Origins. Courtesy Montblanc

Montblanc’s black-dial 1858 Monopusher Chronograph Origins is pure reach-for-the-blue-skied brilliance, which if nothing else reassures you of the masterful duty of care exacted by Hamburg’s pen-maker in its assumption of Switzerland’s historic Minerva factory back in 2007. This reverence is proved unequivocally by the gorgeously hand-crafted chronograph mechanics of the Monopusher, which are admirable from the rear: 1930s in origin, military by intention, future-proofed thanks to Montblanc.

10. Panerai eLab

Panerai eLab. Courtesy Panerai
Panerai eLab. Courtesy Panerai

Panerai has a reputation for materials innovation. Starting with radioactive Radiomir, then less-lethal Luminor dial paint, this year Panerai reaches a zenith with nothing less than the “most recycled” watch in history: 98.6 per cent of the Submersible eLab-ID’s case, sandwich dial and bridges are composed of lightweight EcoTitanium, 80 per cent of which is alloyed with metal upcycled from the aerospace industry. It’s also the first watch to use 100 per cent recycled Super-LumiNova on its dial and hands. Science prizewinner, and another CSR star.

11. Breitling Premier Heritage

Breitling Premier Heritage green dial. Courtesy Breitling
Breitling Premier Heritage green dial. Courtesy Breitling

Ex-IWC chief executive Georges Kern has thrashed his way through Breitling’s previously bloated catalogue, refocusing on the brand’s golden mid-century period. The Premier was a break from the watchmaker’s Second World War duties kitting out RAF cockpits, instead offering chaps on Civvy Street some welcome sartorial respite. The swoonsome new Premier Heritage Chronograph is manually wound, like its 1940s predecessors, powered by in-house-engineered Caliber B09 mechanics. It’s all about the bonnet topping that engine, though: a pistachio switch-up on the ubiquitous green-dial trend, which provokes instant cravings for gelato.

12. Greubel Forsey GMT Sport

Greubel Forsey GMT Sport. Courtesy Greubel Forsey

When you’re one of only 33 lucky collectors sporting Stephen Forsey and Robert Greubel’s latest micro-mechanical masterpiece, with a fresh $500,000 hole in your bank balance, the notion of actual sport will be far from your mind. But in this rarefied world, “sport” is more of a look than a pursuit, and those clever chaps have knocked it out of the park, streamlining their aerobatically inclined tourbillon and immersive, world-timer globe display, with their first metal bracelet. Anyone for a game of lacrosse?