In 2019, Odell Beckham Junior stepped onto the field in Week 1 of the NFL football season with a 350k Richard Mille strapped to his wrist. He wasn't alone. Tennis star Rafael Nadal powered his way to a 19th Grand Slam title while sporting the same brand. On the greatest stage, under the brightest lights, this generation's sporting heroes are, now more frequently than ever, billboards for the luxury watch industry.
However, the category of "sports watches" is much broader than those worn by top-tier athletes. Both sports and dress watches have luxury and non-luxury options, as well as expensive and cheap examples. Yet, the aesthetic and features of sports watches can be both smart and casual depending on their design, build quality, and industry provenance.
Perhaps the most famous example of a luxury sports watch is the Gerald Genta-designed Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. Designed in 1971 and released one year later, the Royal Oak was an instant classic, redefining the perception at the time of stainless steel as a luxury material. Four years later, Genta released another iconic steel sports watch: the Patek Philippe Nautilus. Now, the majority of the industry is focused around the design, creation, and sale of steel watches.
After the luxury watch industry took a hit due to the quartz crisis of the mid-late '70s and early '80s, the sports watch industry decided to up its game. Audemars Piguet, for instance, launched a bigger, badder, much bolder Royal Oak Offshore in 1993. Shortly after that, luxury stainless steel watches received a real boost with the 1995 release of Goldeneye. That iconic film saw Pierce Brosnan's 007 wearing a stainless steel Omega Seamaster on his wrist, essentially giving it a James Bond endorsement.
So what distinguishes a sports watch from other sporty watches, like a dive watch, racing chronograph, or Pilot's watch? Broadly speaking, sports watches tend to be made out of 316L or 904L stainless steel, which may or may not be treated with a surface coating to change the color and/or increase the hardness and durability. Dials on sports watches tend to be more colorful than their dressier counterparts, with time indicators often more stylized due to the reduced function.
A good comparison for the sports watch is the sports coat/jacket in fashion. A sports coat or jacket is not actually intended to be worn for sport. Similarly, a sports watch is an item inspired by the principles of sport more than its actual application towards anything to do with it.
However, it is important to note that this distinction is blurring with the advent of smart, electronic devices. These devices have further muddied the distinction between a luxury sports watch, and a watch worn for doing sport.
Nowadays, it seems the future of most sports watches lies in the smartwatch sphere. With the ability to integrate more and more functions, it seems inevitable that the idea of sports watches will eventually become separated from the relative quaintness of these quartz-driven module's mechanical forerunners.
Popular brands of modern sports watches that still use mechanical movements are Omega, Rolex, Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe, and Grand Seiko. If "traditional" quartz brands are more your thing, check out Citizen, Casio, and Seiko. However, if you're fully on board with the smartwatch phenomenon, then brands like Garmin, TomTom, Apple, and Samsung have some very accomplished options.