10 of the best 21st birthday gift watchesTom Austin
Ahhh – 21. I remember it like it was yesterday. The real age where you have the world at your feet, the same world that also starts to treat you like an actual adult person, with actual responsibilities. A lot of 21-year-olds will complain that they’re “getting old” (lol), as their youth begins to feel like it’s dwindling away like a flickering candle at the end of its wick. But that couldn’t be further from the truth – the show is just getting started, and there are plenty of new discoveries ahead – just wait ’till knee pain comes around. Some of the most fantastic times in our lives are chiselled into memory in our early twenties, and for us watch enthusiasts, there’s nothing better than having a watch accompany us on that journey. A wristwatch makes for a superb 21st birthday gift, not only as a memorable gesture but especially now that they’re in their 20s, they’ll at the very least have less of an excuse for being late for work.
Nomos Glashütte Orion 38
For the uninitiated, precision watchmaking is reserved as a Swiss industry, but there are plenty of places around the world that would beg to differ, Glashütte being one of them. Located in Saxony, Germany, and inhabited by around 7,000 people, our guess is that approximately 6,999 of them work in the watchmaking industry. It’s the home of Nomos, among other brands, who began producing watches in 1992, and a star of their collection is the Orion 38. It’s a classic, manually wound wristwatch, crafted from stainless steel with Nomos’ trademark extended lugs, making it great to wear on many different wrist sizes. It’s driven by Nomos’ first in-house caliber, the hand-wound Alpha, which is well-executed for the price, and visible through the optional sapphire caseback. Its large, simple and minimalistic dial is typical of Nomos’ design, with a sub seconds dial at six, and slender blue hands. The Orion 38 is a terrific early step for any young watch enthusiast into the world of manual-winding watches, which is something special in itself.
TAG Heuer Carrera Date
TAG Heuer is synonymous these days as the perfect brand for enthusiasts beginning their journey in watches. The Carrera Date is probably the best of the bunch for this very purpose. It’s uncomplicated and subtle, but also timeless and refined – ideal for a post-graduate who’s just beginning their professional career. At 36mm, it’s reasonably sized for a multitude of wrists, and 10mm thick means it can slip under a shirt cuff nicely without looking too big. The case is made from stainless steel and features brushed and polished facets, including a polished thin fixed bezel. Dials are available in silver, blue, green or pink, and each come with H-link bracelets. A big upgrade over the previous Three-Hands collection is the Calibre 7 movement, based on the ETA 2892 and helping with the reduction in thickness.
Longines Master Collection Small Seconds
Milestone birthdays can often call for something classic and timeless. In gifting someone a watch, you’d probably hope that they carry it for the rest of their lives and as such, that it will still suit them when they’re much older. The Longines Master Collection Small Seconds is pretty much spot-on. Longines listened to their audience and has recently unveiled a watch which is more suited to enthusiasts needs, bringing a 38.5mm watch to the table with some subtle details to die for. Firstly, let’s talk about the main thing that catches your eye, which is the dial design. There are three different variations of the Small Seconds available – silver, black, and a vertically brushed salmon, which almost looks rose gold. Each features engraved Breguet numerals, a detailed small seconds hand at 6, and an angled chapter ring with dotted indices. The case is stainless steel with sapphire crystals front and back, along with a 30-metre water resistance – not that it’s really the kind of watch to go for a dip with. Visible through the case back is the ETA-based L893 movement, modified to receive a 72 hour power reserve.
Fears Brunswick 38
Another classic-looking timepiece, but this time from the British watchmaker Fears. The brand was revived in 2016 after a 40-year dormancy, and the Brunswick 38 is one of the most recognisable pieces from their collection. Featuring a softly rounded cushion case, it sits at a comfortable 38mm on the wrist. It’s inspired by watches from the Fears archives from the 1920s and ’30s, decades which are finding their way back into contemporary fashion. There are a number of dial options, but our choice is the lightly frosted champagne, which glows in an almost gold colour. The dial features applied black gold indices and provide the watch with a certain depth which just makes it stand out, along with its skeletonised hands and sunken sub-seconds dial at 6 o’clock – available from the T+T Shop.
Tudor Black Bay Pro
Tudor’s popularity among tool watch enthusiasts was reaching fever pitch, when this retro explorer’s watch was revealed and sent everyone into a tailspin. Possibly a little bit inspired by the Rolex Explorer II 1655 from 1971, (strangely named the “Steve McQueen” despite him never even being pictured wearing it), the Black Bay Pro is cased in a 39mm steel case, perfectly sized for most wrists, and features a brushed finish with a fixed 24-hour steel bezel. The dial has a cool matte black finish with lumed ceramic plots, contrasted by the legible handset with the bright orange GMT hand. The built in GMT function is a feature of the automatic MT5652 movement, and is brilliant for tracking an alternative timezone, making the watch the ideal companion for travelling.
IWC Pilot’s Watch Mark XX
When I first started out in my working life, I was surrounded by young trainee engineers, and one of them had an IWC Pilot’s Watch, specifically the Mark XV. There was something so cool about the fact that he was working in a tough metalworking shop, with sparks, swarf and other dangerous things flying around, while wearing a fine Swiss wristwatch. However, this was living the very essence of a tool watch, which is what the Mark XX is, albeit positioned as a flieger. It features a 40mm stainless steel case, with a screw-down crown and 100-metre water resistance, with long lugs which add to its burly look. The sapphire crystal is convex and with anti reflective coating on both sides, which when paired with the well-lumed dial means the watch is highly legible in low lighting conditions. I wish I had one when I was a trainee engineer.
Rolex Oyster Perpetual 36
Typically penned as Rolex’s entry level watch, the Oyster Perpetual is the most simple piece that the crown produces. Purely a time-only three hander, the Oyster Perpetual serves a purpose, but does it exceptionally well. Special birthdays, weddings, first-borns, that new killer job – all of these are the kinds of events that people love to mark with a Rolex, it’s part of why they are so successful as a brand. The Oyster Perpetual is the ideal first Rolex for the young collector. It’s a 36mm stainless steel case with a water-resistant Oyster case, which means it has a screw down caseback and crown system. The dial is a simple affair – unless you go with a Bubbles – with white gold applied indices and hands, which are lumed. Finishing the watch off is the stainless steel Oyster bracelet, which despite what you may think, is one of the best on the market. The movement powering the watch is the Rolex 3230, an in-house, chronometer-certified automatic movement, brilliantly accurate and offering 70 hours of power reserve. The only elephant in the room is availability, which sadly is not that great given the current demand and allocation strategies. If you want one for that birthday gift, you had better get on that list right now.
Omega Seamaster Diver 300M
One of Omega’s most celebrated models in its collection, the Seamaster Diver 300M is an ideal selection for young professionals making their way in the world. There’s a good chance your 21-year-old will recognise this watch too. Over the years, James Bond was always a solid driver for capturing the imaginations of budding wannabe super spies, and for the childhood era of any current 21-year-old, Daniel Craig’s watch of choice was this. It’s a 42mm diver’s watch, so it’s built for some action, with a stainless steel case, ceramic dial and bezel, and available on one a steel bracelet or a versatile rubber strap. Inside the watch is the calibre 8800, offering 55 hours of power reserve and on display through the sapphire case back. I know I wanted a Seamaster that fires a red laser from the bezel. I’m still waiting, Omega – what gives?
TAG Heuer Carrera Glassbox
Easily one of the coolest releases from TAG Heuer for 2023, the Carrera Glassbox dragged TAG Heuer back to its roots. Perhaps a reaction to the ever-growing popularity of the awesome Heuer chronographs of the vintage world, this new release is an exceptional take on its past, something we’ve wanted to see from the brand for some time. It’s a well-sized, 39mm stainless steel watch with a reverse-panda, tricompax layout, a signature of the Heuers of old. The domed sapphire crystal covers almost the entirety of the watch, with an internal tachymeter also domed as part of the dial to retain its readability. The sub-dials are in azurage silver, which gives it the classic reverse panda look that everyone loves.
Cartier Santos de Cartier Medium Automatic
As one of the most expensive watches on this list, it’s probably reserved for the most appreciative of 21st birthday gift recipients. The Santos de Cartier is one of those iconic pieces which has stood the test of time for more than a century. First designed by Louis Cartier himself in 1911, it became known as the first men’s wristwatch, made specifically for Alberto Santos-Dumont who was tired of his pocket watches being troublesome while flying. It’s since gone on to become one of Cartier’s most revered watches, and rightly so. Its square design and significant thinness makes the Santos an incredibly elegant watch to wear, and while it obviously looks best a little dressed up, it can equally look at home with some jeans too. The Santos may be the ultimate in unisex style and sophistication for anyone celebrating a milestone birthday and a timeless icon which will never go out of fashion.