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Rolex, Patek and other highlights from Watches & Wonders

New releases from the likes of Rolex, Patek Philippe and Grand Seiko have upped the excitement at the Geneva watch fair

The Rolex Air-King Ref. 126900 and Grand Seiko Ref. SLGA015
The Rolex Air-King Ref. 126900 and Grand Seiko Ref. SLGA015

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It’s been almost a year since I started this column on wristwatches. Perhaps it isn’t surprising then, that this week’s column, much like the original one, has coincided with the watch world’s biggest annual do: Watches & Wonders. Much like in 2021, watch enthusiasts around the world are glued to their laptop screens, waiting for new novelties and ranges from some of the biggest watch manufactures in the world. Unlike last year, however, when Watches & Wonders was an online only event, due to covid-19 restrictions, this year it’s back to being a physical watch fair, held in Geneva.

The international watch fair remains the only one of its kind, especially since the collapse of the rival Baselworld a few years ago. And although brands release watches through the year, Watches & Wonders remains a special occasion primarily because it brings together 38 of the biggest manufactures in the world. This includes the usual Swiss heavy hitters like Rolex, Patek Philippe, Tudor, Cartier, Vacheron Constantin and Jaeger-LeCoultre, and also the best of the rest, including Japan’s Grand Seiko and Germany’s A. Lange & Söhne. And although, at this point, Watches & Wonders is just a couple of days old (the fair runs from 30 March to 4 April), there have already been some fantastic releases.

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Let’s start with Rolex. By far the biggest Swiss watch manufacture by revenue—estimated wholesale turnover of CHF4,420 billion in 2020—it is also one of the Swiss Big 3, apart from Patek and Audemars Piguet. And much of the lead up to Watches & Wonders has been dominated by feverish speculation of what Rolex may launch this year, or tweak within its existing catalogue. Serious watch publications went so far as to make mock-up wishlists (with the help of Photoshop) of Rolex watches they would like to see this year. With the Oyster Perpetual, the Submariner and the Explorer already receiving upgrades in the past couple of years, this year’s Rolex has given makeovers to some of the other lines, the second string of Rolex models, as it were.

The most eye-catching of the lot is certainly the new Air-King Ref. 126900. The Air-King, which is the first of the manufacture’s aviation themed watches (the Air King first debuted in 1945, the GMT Master in 1954), has always sat somewhat uncomfortably between the GMT Master and the Explorer. While both these lines are solid tool watches with style to spare, the Air-King’s design, including its non-lumed Arabic 3, 6 and 9 numerals, gave it a bit of a personality crisis. With the Ref. 126900, that crisis is over. 

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The new Air-King has plenty of Rolex’s Chromalight lume on the applied numerals, and in a massive departure, also features crown guards for greater durability. The Air-King is now a proper 40mm sports watch, equipped with the manufacture’s latest in-house automatic caliber 3230, which has been around since 2020. A healthy 70 hours of power reserve and 100m of water resistance completes the package. It is now Rolex’s only smooth bezel sports watch with crown guards, which makes for a distinct look.

The Air-King isn’t Rolex’s only drop for 2022, with the Rolex Deep Sea getting a subtle facelift, mostly in the bracelet department. There is now a platinum version, with a fluted bezel, of the Day-Date in a new 40mm case. There are also a couple of new Rolex Yacht-Masters, in white gold and yellow gold versions, as well as a left-handed version (with the crown on left of the watch case) of the GMT Master II. 

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Of the other major releases so far, I have been absolutely blown away by the new Patek Philippe Calatrava. Coming in at 40mm, the Ref. 5226G-001 seems to be Patek’s nod towards two of the biggest trends of the past few years: textured dials and vintage looks, especially with the use of aged-looking lume. The watch, with its charcoal grey dial, gold applied numerals, syringe hands, a smooth bezel and beige lume on the hands and numerals, certainly nails the vintage look, but it’s also a representation of the modern Calatrava. 

Readers of this column know just how important the Calatrava line is, and how much I love its design. The new reference adds a new chapter to a rich history dating back to the 1920s. Patek’s other release, the Ref. 5326G Annual Calendar Travel Time, is equally gorgeous, working with the same textured dial look to give a new spin on another classic.

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So far, there have been new releases from quite a few other brands as well, including Grand Seiko, Tudor, Vacheron Constantin, Zenith, Oris and IWC, among others. Some of these certainly look to be classics, destined to generate much chatter and sales through the year. One of these is certainly Tudor’s brand new Black Bay GMT S&G ‘Root Beer’, with its two-tone styling. Not so long ago, two tone watches were considered a bit of a bad taste. But trends change, and now two-tone is certainly back, and Tudor’s capitalising on it. 

Grand Seiko’s releases have been another hit, given that the manufacture is betting big on its sports watches, having released two GMT watches, the Ref. SBGE283/285 and a diver, the titanium cased SLGA015, all equipped with the manufacture’s proprietary Spring Drive calibers. The SLGA015, in fact, is the first serial dive watch  to feature a Spring Drive movement.

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There’s a long way to go with Watches & Wonders yet, and there may still be some left-field surprises in store. Going by the watches released so far, I would hazard that the watch industry feels that the pandemic slump is well and truly over.

Handwound is a fortnightly column on watches and watchmaking. 

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