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Review: Tudor Iconaut

Tudor’s hot stuff right now. The release of the Black Bay Blue shot off shelves faster than the last roll of toilet paper, with every man and his dog trying to get hold of one. It’ll be, in the short term at the very least, an appreciating asset, and there aren’t many watch brands than can claim that. Funny thing is, Tudor’s only really been hot for a decade. Before that, no one had any clue what it was—and that’s why you’ve never heard of the Tudor Iconaut.

“Be anything but obvious.” That’s the line Tudor used to promote the Iconaut back when it was launched in 2008, but given that Tudor was nowhere to be found outside of the Far East and select European nations, it wasn’t seen by many. Picture the scene in Lost In Translation where Bill Murray’s character shoots the whiskey commercial, and you’ll have something similar to the vibe of that Tudor promotion.

In fact, the entire watch has that vibe, because everything about it seems simultaneously familiar and yet so strange at the same time. We’ve become so used to Tudor’s way of doing things over the last decade that to see the Iconaut is really rather strange. It has a Tudor shield, that we recognise, but everything else is just a bit different to what we’re expecting.

Even the name is odd, Iconaut. We’re more than used to watch manufacturers pitching their wares to industry professionals—including both aqua and astronauts—but Iconaut is rather unfathomable. It was launched alongside the Hydronaut diver and Aeronaut GMT as a follow-up to the major Rolex facelift—introduced with the GMT-Master II 116718LN—but it, and the other two “nauts” quickly faded from history.

That’s because, in 2010, Tudor completely changed its tune. Like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, closed to the public for so long, the gates flew open and the world was invited in once more. And what a treat it was to see what this period of what seemed like eternal hibernation had in store for us; the Heritage Chrono was to be the poster child for the future of the brand for the next decade and beyond.

The Tudor Iconaut was first introduced in 2008

The Tudor Iconaut was first introduced in 2008

All of a sudden, a Tudor was no longer a watch you had to explain, but a household name. Megastars Lady Gaga and, erm, David Beckham were roped in to fast track the brand’s way to success. And it worked, boy did it work. Meanwhile, the Iconaut was still available, and would be for another four years—not that anybody noticed.

What makes the Iconaut even stranger is what it’s even supposed to be. It’s a sports watch, as per the Hydronaut and Aeronaut, but where those two both had a clearly defined purpose, the Iconaut’s lips were sealed. The cartoonish Explorer bezel, linked to an adjustable GMT hand, made it a traveller’s watch like the Aeronaut; the 150m of water resistance made it a diver like the Hydronaut; and on top of all of that there’s a chronograph, which some variants of the Iconaut even managed to squeeze a tachymeter around as well. What on Earth was going on?

The shakeup of Tudor is one of the most dramatic turnarounds in the watch game, and as far as parent company Rolex is concerned, one of the most successful. As Rolex prices continue to climb way above where they left off a decade or so ago, Tudor has very comfortably slipped in the gap left behind, hoovering up sales from those looking for a Rolex product for a substantially cheaper price.

Tudor brand ambassadors include David Beckham, Lady Gaga, Jay Chou and Beauden Barrett

Tudor brand ambassadors include David Beckham, Lady Gaga, Jay Chou and Beauden Barrett

The Heritage Chrono launched that shakeup with a bang, celebrating the history of the brand, its Rolex connections—and is just a very, very attractive watch. It’s resolved, clear in its focus, and it made plain in everybody’s minds what the brand was up to. This is the difference between leadership and direction and not.

The “and not” part is the Iconaut. Despite its overlap with the Heritage Chrono, it is very much of a previous era lacking direction and drive, and that couldn’t be more accurately summarised by an inanimate object. Multiple design variants with no cohesive link; a slew of functions that bear no synergy with each other; and a whopping 43mm case to top it all off. Yes, that’s right—aside from the Deepsea, this was the largest watch Rolex had ever released under one of its own brands.

The fat, stubby lugs, the bulbous bezel with text that barely fits, the array of hands that bear no resemblance to any other Tudor product—this could have been the end of Tudor entirely, and that’s what makes the Iconaut so intriguing. It’s a funny old thing, but it was also a ticking time bomb, one the company could have sat on long enough to send it to its demise. We know it didn’t, but when they made it, they didn’t.

I’d love to know what happened at that time somewhere between tooling up for the Iconaut and signing off the designs for the Heritage Chrono, what meetings were had, the strained words shared. Did the company start over completely? Rolex has had its fair share of CEO swaps in recent times, and it’s been doing great, so whatever went off over at Tudor, I bet it was loud and I bet it was angry.

Tudor is the sister brand to watchmaking giant Rolex

Tudor is the sister brand to watchmaking giant Rolex

And all that’s left of that definitive moment in Tudor’s history is this, the Iconaut. It reminds me of the scene in Alien Resurrection where Ripley finds all the failed attempts at making a hybrid alien before her, and she stands aghast at the scene. The Iconaut is—granted, less visually disturbing—a failed hybrid of the brands Rolex and Tudor before the success of the Heritage Chrono.

So, it’s about time that this watch was brought out from the shadows and into the light to see how close we came to not having a Tudor at all. With waiting lists on watches and desperate bids to have the latest releases, it’s hard to believe something like this could ever have come from the same company. For its mystery, for its pivotal role—if not in a good way—in Tudor’s future, for its blemish on Rolex’s otherwise spotless record, the Iconaut is a legend.

Do you remember the last time Rolex made a watch that completely missed the mark, only to reinvent it and achieve huge success? Yep, I’m talking about the Daytona. When it first came out, jewellers couldn’t give them away. Then the 16520 was released and the watch turned from zero to hero all but instantly. Remind you of anything? Tudor’s turnaround is as impressive—if not more so—as the Daytona’s, with the Iconaut leading the retreat; and for that, it holds a certain fascination about it. Who knows, maybe one day it’ll be a collector’s dream.

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