Ralph Lauren is a man who does not need any introduction, yet this has not always been the case. His start was humble, yet through his refined taste he was able to turn a modest business in neck ties into a multi-billion-dollar empire. However, Lauren’s refined taste not only influenced his business, but also his personal life. Funded by his enormous success, Lauren was able to put together one of the most iconic car collections in the world. Not as a display of wealth, but just like Jay Leno, powered by a great passion. The collection Lauren put together does not focus on a single brand, type or time period, but simply brings together the most enchanting designs in the history of the car. The cars in his collection are more sculptures of speed, crafted and perfected by passionate men such as Enzo Ferrari, Ettore Bugatti, William Lyons and W.O. Bentley. That also brings up the question of whether it is really a car collection or in fact an art collection. Lauren sees them as both, and this became especially clear in 2011 when he displayed part of his collection at Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris for a special exhibition called “The Art of the Automobile: Masterpieces from the Ralph Lauren Collection.”
Despite the broad range of his collections, including everything from menswear to home furnishings, there was one noticeable item that was not included: wrist watches. For many designers, wrist watches are one of the first things to be added to their collections—often simple timekeepers with a dominant logo, designed especially to cash in on the name and fame of the brand. This however, was not the route that Lauren took. Instead of lowering his standards, he forged an alliance with Richemont, the holding company that owns some of the finest brands like Vacheron Constantin, Cartier, Piaget, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Lange & Sohne. This gave Lauren not only access to some of the best movement-makers in the business, but also the craftsmanship to translate his vision into a very high-end product. That vision was introduced in 2009, when the first collections of Ralph Lauren’s watches hit the stores. Although they are all in line with that signature Ralph Lauren look, there is one collection that stands closer to the man himself than the others: the automotive collection.
This collection reflects Lauren’s interest in car design, but is in fact inspired by a single car from his collection: the 1938 Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic. There aren’t nearly enough superlatives to describe the beauty of this car as well as its significance in a historical sense. Lauren’s Type 57SC Atlantic was the last of four built, and can very well be designated as the world’s first supercar. This is thanks not only to the straight 8-cylinder engine with twin overhead camshafts and a compressor, but also to the innovative aluminum alloy coachwork, which kept the car remarkably light. It also probably gave Jean Bugatti, Ettore’s eldest son, some headaches. The difficulty lies in molding and soldering the aluminum alloy, an aspect that Jean Bugatti solved by making the roof and wings out of two parts and riveting them together—a solution that also enhanced the aesthetic qualities of the car. With a top speed of 125 mph/ 200 km/h the car was also as fast as it was beautiful. Jean Bugatti passed away tragically a year later, in a car crash while testing a Type 57C Tank that had just won Le Mans.
Don’t expect the influence of Lauren’s Bugatti to be obvious. All of the watches in the collection have a clear automotive spirit, but none take obvious clues from any car whatsoever. This is also part of the magic that Ralph Lauren offers, not only with his watches but also with his clothing: a distinct and stylish look that seems comfortably familiar, not by copying what has already been done, but by collecting the essence of the style.
This Ralph Lauren trademark is immediately visible with the Chronometer Steel, which is available in a 39mm and 45mm diameter, within the Automotive collection. Despite a steel case that combines nice details with alternating polished and brushed finishes, it is the dial that draws your attention. A real eye-catcher is the white second hand, which is almost twice as long as the minute hand, and has its own chapter ring which is secured by four screws on the dial. Next an elm burl wood ring surrounds the actual dial, where sword hands point out the time on beige Arabic numerals. Although the configuration of the dial is quite unusual, it allows for very precise time reading and is visually very pleasing.
Of course no watch collection with a reference to the world of automotive art is complete without a chronograph. This watch is available only in the 45mm version and for good reason. This extra space allowed Ralph Lauren to group all the sub dials of the chronograph inside the inner dial. By keeping the numerals as well as the hands slender, it does not look overcrowded, can easily be read and you almost forget that there is even a date function included. The chronograph is powered by caliber RL751A/1, which is crafted for Ralph Lauren by Jaeger-LeCoultre. Next to a power reserve of a generous 65 hours, while still running at 4 Hertz, it also features a vertical clutch and a column wheel to ensure precise and reliable chronograph functions.
Lauren’s Type 57SC Atlantic has a deep black coat of paint, which offers a rich contrast with the wood and brown leather on the inside of the watch. This contrast takes center stage in the two top models of the automotive collection. The 45mm steel has a black shot-blasted steel case that is highlighted by an amboyna burl wood bezel, secured by six screws. This is one of the rarest and most expensive woods in the world, and one often used for the dashboards of the most exclusive cars. The matt black dial has been kept sober and functional, with beige Arabic numerals and sword hands. Also sober and functional is the movement, which can be viewed through a smoky sapphire crystal. Although designated as caliber RL98295, watch connoisseurs will immediately recognize by its long precision index that it is in fact a movement made for Ralph Lauren by IWC and based on their famed F.A. Jones caliber, which they reintroduced in a limited edition of the Portuguese in 2005. With a diameter of 37.8mm, this movement nicely fills the case of the Automotive 45mm. This is an important aspect of the watch, and probably also one of the reasons Ralph Lauren selected Richemont to partner with. Just as with his cars, the beauty does not go just skin deep. The complete package needs to fit together, in order to embody true luxury. That same manual wind movement can also be found in another version of the 45mm. This one lacks the black shot-blasted finish, but instead alternates between brushed and polished surfaces. Here the dial looks like a clock from a vintage car. An elm burl wood ring, secured with four screws, surrounds the highly legible dial. Small details put this watch in a league of its own, like the sub-seconds that cut into the elm burl wood ring, or the hands which actually have a shiny black oxidization on their outline.
But if details are important to you, it is probably Ralph Lauren’s 45mm skeleton steel that will steal the show. Again, it is the details that rule this watch—based on the same IWC-caliber, yet now carefully skeletonized and coated in black. This makes the gear train stand out quite a bit, but it is the balance wheel that especially draws attention. Perhaps even more than the other watches does this Ralph Lauren really bring it all together: the lines of the case, the exclusive amboyna burl wood bezel and the skeleton movement, as the ultimate demonstration that the style and passion of Ralph Lauren touches all elements, and runs much deeper than design alone. That dedication has earned Ralph Lauren the respect of even some of the most critical watch connoisseurs and collectors and is a strong contender as the watch of their choice next time they visit Villa d’Este or Pebble Beach.