For this article, we gave Simon de Burton free range on the topic of integrated bracelet sports watches. A particular area of focus for us, the original models from Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet have been covered in some depth on here previously. However, as many will have noticed, a whole range of integrated bracelet sports watches have appeared over the last few years, with varying degrees of originality and heritage to stand on. A controversial topic, which inevitably generates an opinion from anyone you might ask, we thought it worthwhile to have de Burton share his unfiltered thoughts.
It was the once-unknown Chicago bookkeeper turned world-renowned typeface designer Frederic W. Goudy who sagely observed that 'all the old fellows stole our best ideas'.
Goudy made the remark some time during the early 1900s in relation to how difficult it was to come up with truly new letter fonts – but it could equally be applied to the watch industry, many protagonists of which seem to have admitted defeat when it comes to creating something fresh.
After all, it's far easier, quicker and more profitable to look back at what the 'old fellows' did, tweak it a bit to suit modern times and manufacturing methods and then go all-out on marketing the heritage.
Military watches, driving watches, diving watches, pilot watches, digital watches, chronographs, alarm watches, GMT watches. The list of 'revived 45s' goes on and on, and buyers seem to lap them up.
From the originals to the modern interpretations.
But 2020's most notable horological blast from the past has proved to be the integrated bracelet watch, numerous new examples of which have arrived simultaneously in another of those remarkable coincidences often seen in this industry, whereby everyone appears to have been thinking the same thing at exactly the same time (assuming the oft-repeated claim that it takes at least five years to develop a new model is true. Which it can't be).
But by that reckoning (and putting conspiracy theories aside) it must have been back in 2015 that Hublot, Bell & Ross, Chopard, Laurent Ferrier, H. Moser and Co, A. Lange & Söhne and a few others received word from on high that watch buyers, whether they realised it or not, simply had to have integrated bracelets.
Cynical types (such as me, for example) might see the sudden enthusiasm for 'integration' as a response to falling sales on the basis that an all-new watch has the potential to generate a 'must have' feeling and a bracelet watch seems to justify a significantly higher price tag than a strap watch, thus boosting profits.
Where many think the integrated trend started.
New integrated bracelet models might also do something to arrest a fall in sales brought about by buyers simply 'refreshing' the look of their existing watches by the increasingly popular practice of fitting different straps (something recently encouraged by brands such as Tudor and Montblanc, which have taken to offering extra straps as part of their new watch 'packages').
And those even more cynical than me might say that there's a further money-making incentive to selling an integrated bracelet watch in that, once you have one, there's nowhere to go for a replacement bracelet other than back to the brand itself. Granted, a steel bracelet should last for decades – but as any watch repairer will tell you, the damage some people manage to inflict on their precious timepieces often beggars belief.
But fear not, this isn't meant to be a relentless attack on the sinister side of innocently-proffered integrated bracelets, but more a look at where they came from, which makers have a real history with them and which of the new arrivals are the most plausible.
An original sketch from Gerald Genta that Evelyn brought out of the archive for us.
As with many watch making classics, engaging reverse gear to get back to the first integrated bracelet appears to bring one to the late, great Gerald Genta and the well-worn tale of how a last-minute freelance job for Audemars Piguet led to him penning the prototype Royal Oak in a single, overnight sketching session prior to the 1971 Basel watch show.
But we really need to back-up a few years further until we alight on Genta's days as freelance pen for hire when he was commissioned by Omega to re-vamp its Constellation models , the result being the 'Integrated Line' of 1967, resulting in some decidedly groovy watches including the cushion-cased Chronometer, the rectangular, square-shouldered Emeraude, the so-called 'Ingot' and quartz models such as the left-wind Electroquartz.
So Genta probably was the inventor of the integrated bracelet – but, while the aforementioned Omegas were exclusively gold, the Royal Oak was the first luxury 'IB' watch to be made from steel, and that's why it caused such a stir when it first went on general sale in 1972 with a mammoth CHF 3,650 price tag.
The original 5402, released by Audemars Piguet in 1972.
Genta famously followed with further integrated designs, including the Patek Philippe Nautilus of 1976 and the IWC Ingenieur SL 'Jumbo' of '78, while, in '77, Vacheron Constantin turned to the young Jörg Hysek (24 at the time) to create its integrated '222' to mark the firm's 222nd anniversary.
Indeed, as Genta's widow Evelyne told A Collected Man: "I didn't meet Gerald until the early 1980s, a long time after he had created the Royal Oak – but he always said that he believed an integrated bracelet transformed a watch into a perfect object."
Looked at in that way, an integrated bracelet watch does make an 'ordinary' lugs and bars arrangement seem rather crude, much as a tractor simply towing a plough must have seemed a bit stone-age after Harry Ferguson invented the three-point linkage that conjoined vehicle and implement, making them work as one.
"I didn't meet Gerald until the early 1980s, a long time after he had created the Royal Oak – but he always said that he believed an integrated bracelet transformed a watch into a perfect object." - Evelyne Genta
Back in the '70s, of course, traditional Swiss watch making desperately needed a fillip as the popularity of clockwork was waning badly in the face of new-fangled quartz, and integrated bracelets seemed to add value and create new possibilities for an object that, otherwise, had changed little in decades.
And perhaps the fact that today's industry is also facing tricky times is behind the resurgence of IBs. Who knows, but there are certainly quite a few new ones to choose from, with one of the more controversial offerings being the BR-05 from Bell & Ross.
The Vacheron Constantin 222, designed by the young Hysek.
Just as the Audemars Piguet CODE 11.59 provoked a disproportionately vituperative outpouring from some quarters, so the BR-05 attracted considerably more than its fair share of disgust from many, largely because of its thinly-disguised similarity to the creations of Genta.
New integrated bracelet models might also do something to arrest a fall in sales brought about by buyers simply 'refreshing' the look of their existing watches by the increasingly popular practice of fitting different straps
For the impecunious fan of the Royal Oak or the Nautilus, however, the opportunity to get the look for less – from £3,600 on a steel bracelet – is surely good news, even if the dial name doesn't offer the gravitas of Audemars Piguet or Patek Philippe.
Better received, meanwhile, was the Alpine Eagle from Chopard, a brand that can't be accused of copying because the 'inspiration' for the new model is said to have come from the St Moritz, a quartz watch designed by brand co-president Karl-Friedrich Scheufele back in 1979 - when he was 22 and working his way around the firm's various departments in order to understand the ins and outs of the business.
"I have always loved being outdoors and taking part in activities such as skiing, walking and driving sports cars, so I told my father that Chopard needed a sports watch that had to be made from steel and with great water and shock resistance,"Scheufele told A Collected Man,
The original St Moritz next to its modern interpretation.
"He was completely against the idea at first, but I was extremely insistent and, eventually, he let me design one."
Featuring a cushion cased and a bezel secured by top-loading screws set into small bulges at the three, six, nine and 12 positions, the watch was secured by a seamlessly integrated bracelet and, after being unveiled at the 1980 Basel watch fair, it remained in the Chopard catalogue for more than a decade.
And in a neat example of serendipity, the Alpine Eagle came about at the suggestion of Scheufele's son, 20-year-old Karl-Fritz, after he saw a St Moritz in the Chopard museum.
The make up of a modern integrated steel sports watch.
Available in 41mm and 36mm diameters and three-hand and chronograph forms, the watch has a rock-like textured dial designed to evoke the iris of an eagle's eye, while the hands are reminiscent of the bird's feathers.
The case, meanwhile, features distinctive 'shoulders' at three and nine, a bezel secured by eight visible screws and a crown engraved with a compass rose - symbolic of the eagle's remarkable navigation ability.
An unexpected released from A. Lange & Söhne.
Surprisingly late to the IB party, however, was A. Lange & Söhne. But its new Odysseus models, the sixth and latest family in the A. Lange & Söhne line-up, are both intriguingly different and superb to wear while offering plenty of brand 'signatures' such as a big date and an exceptional level of finish. While this doesn't have what many may consider a traditional integrated bracelet its design concept of being a luxury stainless steel sports watch points heavily towards its inspiration in this catagory.
And given that Hublot's original Fusion watch of 1980 had an integrated bracelet (albeit a vanilla-scented rubber type) it has taken a while for the top-selling Big Bang to be given one – but now the Big Bang Integral is here, its metal bracelet serving to make an already ostentatious watch all the more statement-making.
Independents joining the trend.
Perhaps the two most intriguing IBs of 2020, however, have both come from independent makers. The H. Moser Streamliner chronograph was especially attention-grabbing, both because of the futuristic, almost Porsche Design-like appearance of the watch head and the fact that – well, who could have predicted Moser would arrive with an integrated bracelet?
It's good, but the more recent Streamliner Centre Seconds with green fume dial is even better and deserves to become a classic – as does Laurent Ferrier's new, steel bracelet version of the Grand Sport Tourbillon launched last year on rubber.
The unmistakeable designs which started it all.
Yes, they've all done a good job of creating what some might call the horological 'trend' of 2020.
But prepare to be further amazed because, according to Evelyne Genta, many of the 3,500 unrealised and so far unseen watch designs left behind by her husband are, indeed, integrated bracelet models.
And when she's ready to reveal them, there's no doubt we'll see further proof (were it needed) that the old fellow really did have all the best ideas...