There are three chronographs that really matter: the Rolex Daytona, the Omega Speedmaster, and the Heuer Carrera. That’s not to say others aren’t great, but these three represent entire categories of collecting and scholarship unto themselves, and over the past seven decades they have rightly reached a level of appreciation that in some cases surpasses even the brands that produce them. The problem with this echelon of success is, of course, ubiquity. Every year more chronographs are made, more people wear them and obsess over them, and suddenly objects that were conceived as fully realized expressions of unique senses of design and function start feeling blasé.
And so among serious watch collectors, that class of aficionado born with an innate, King Midas-like desire for next-level grails, the only versions of the Daytona, the Speedmaster, and the Carrera worth having are the versions that are rarely seen—those crafted not in steel but in solid yellow gold.
It’s no coincidence that the gold Daytona, Speedmaster, and Carrera were introduced around the same time the first quartz wristwatch hit the market, in 1969. With the advent of quartz, the Swiss could no longer claim to make the most precise watches, so they doubled down on luxury and prestige. And exclusivity. The 18-karat-gold Rolex Daytona reference 6263 was produced from the early ’70s through the mid ’80s in shockingly small numbers—some estimate them to be far rarer than even the “Paul Newman” Daytonas in steel, which many view as the ultimate in Daytona collecting. More than just a watch, the gold 6263 was a declaration of purpose and represented Rolex’s shift from watchmaker to luxury watchmaker.
Gold watches are synonymous with milestones and celebrations, and none more so than the reference BA145.022 Speedmaster, created to mark the Apollo 11 lunar landing. The very first few of the 1,014 pieces created—the limited-edition version of the watch worn by Buzz Aldrin on the moon—were given to the Apollo astronauts and to President Nixon, who had to return his due to ethics rules. Omega has produced dozens of Speedmaster variations since, but the finest came in 2019, when, to celebrate 50 years, the company released a remarkable tribute to this watch, with the same burgundy bezel and onyx hour markers and a new gold alloy dubbed “Moonshine” that quite literally gives it an otherworldly gleam. Again, only 1,014 watches were made, and they quickly went to the most important Omega collectors in the world. (Fans of The Daily Show might catch a glimpse of one from time to time.)
But the rarest of all the great golden chronographs is the Heuer Carrera reference 1158. Unlike the other two, it is self-winding—Heuer was an early adopter of the technology in chronographs—and it has perhaps the purest and most exhilarating connection to the chrono’s motorsports origins one could dream of. These solid 18-karat-gold watches were given to members of the Ferrari Formula 1 team during the sport’s mid-’70s heyday, when racing drivers were among the most famous people in the world. On the back were the driver’s initials and, just in case, his blood type. Paul Newman’s personal Daytona, the watch that stoked chrono frenzy more than any other, bore the inscription “Drive Carefully.” You might say these gold Carreras—and gold chronographs in general—are for those who would rather drive fast.
A version of this story originally appears in the November 2020 issue with the title “The Golden Age of Chronographs.”