Every category of products has models that are considered classic or even iconic.

Petrolheads regard the Mercedes-Benz 300SL “Gullwing” as an icon, making it one of the most collectable of Merc-Benz models. Similarly, the Eames lounger is in the furniture hall of fame, and pen collectors see the Montblanc 149 as a classic that is mightier than the sword.

Watchmaking has its share of classics and icons, too. Like their counterparts in other fields, classic watches remain appreciated decades on. The Rolex Submariner is almost 60 years old, the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso is an octogenarian, while the Cartier Tank is pushing a century. Relatively youthful is Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak, designed in 1972.

But what makes a watch classic or iconic? Masayuki Hirota, an eminent industry observer and journalist at Chronos magazine in Japan, outlines the basics: A classic must be widely regarded as attractive with appealing aesthetics – in shape, geometry or proportion. He notes that an important beauty criterion is “the balance of bezel, indices and hands”. As a watch’s key visual elements, these have to complement one another in design, style and feel, while being appropriate to the overall look and genre of the watch.

Classics like A. Lange & Sohne’s Lange 1 and the Tank are good examples of such aesthetic success, says Hirota. But a classic or icon is not just a pretty face. It also needs to be distinctive, he adds, saying that Richard Mille and Franck Muller exemplify brands with “strong (visual) character”.

The need for a distinctive identity is echoed by watch collector and car designer Luc Donckerwolke, formerly head of design at Lamborghini and now director of design at British luxury car marque Bentley. He distils the essence of a distinctive identity thus: “A strong aesthetic character (that stems) from either a pure stylistic execution or (something that) can be portrayed with a couple of lines, like a cartoon.”

He says that “respect for the brand, for the DNA of the object” is another key criterion for a product attaining classic status – “respecting it, refreshing it, actualising it but never contradicting it”. This echoes his work in creating the Murcielago in 2001. The car gave new life to the brand.

Beyond looks, production volumes also matter. Because a classic needs to be widely recognised, watches made in tiny quantities are unlikely to make it. As Hirota says: “The most important quality of a classic is (that it must be) easy to find.”

For that reason, independent watchmakers like MB&F and Urwerk might find it hard to aspire to classics, even if their unique products meet the aesthetic criteria. For instance, many independent watchmakers today cite the Jules Verne-inspired Vianney Halter Antiqua of 1998 as a turning point in watch design. But only 200 or so were made – and the Antiqua is not widely known outside of a small circle of aficionados.

Yet, an icon can also emerge from the “absolute contradiction and lack of compatibility of the object with the time of its appearance”. This contradiction, says Donckerwolke, can be aesthetic or functional. “This generally leads to an immediate market rejection that will result in a limited volume, boosting its value later.”

But an icon or classic can be created by factors extrinsic to the watch as well. “Association with an event or person that adds another dimension” can be just as powerful, he says. The Omega Speedmaster, for example, is a legend for no other reason than that Nasa sent it to the Moon on the wrists of its astronauts in 1969.

Cynics will argue that a classic can be created with savvy marketing. Patek Philippe, for instance, has appropriated the world-time watch as one of its quintessential timepieces, thanks to clever positioning, reinforced by auction results, as some of its vintage world-timers have sold for millions.

More recent examples abound. The Ballon Bleu, launched only in 2007, has already become a signature Cartier, especially in Asia, thanks to Cartier’s muscular branding. The sheer volume of watches sold and consumer recognition of the design will propel the Ballon Bleu to classic status.

Yet, there is no magic formula for creating an icon. Everything can seem to be in place, only to fall apart. Take Swiss brand Technomarine’s Techno Diamond. It was distinctive and easily recognisable, made of translucent plastic set with diamonds. The watch was fashionable – several hundred thousand had been sold by the end of its run. A sure sign of its success was how widely it was copied. So, in that sense, it changed watch design.

And then, it fell out of fashion. So, unlike the Swatch watch, that other cheerful plastic watch,
the Techno Diamond is but a faint memory.