Naming the best watch brand is an almost unanswerable question. A cheap Timex that has been running for 50 years is undoubtedly great value. If you want innovation then Seiko would be a good choice. If you want a marketing brand in that sense then Rolex win that combination. And I am a fan of watches full stop – Ingersoll to IWC, Alpha to Zenith. Buy what you like and wear what you enjoy I say.
So I am going to focus this article on perceived quality. No one would argue that Glashutte Original do not make a high quality product, so what sets them a rung on the ladder below say Vacheron Constantin? Perception. Glashutte used to make mass market watches in East Germany, a business pretty much unrelated to what Swatch Group established save for the logo and the town. I am going to put the brands into groups based on perceived quality. People will disagree with some of the groupings, but isn’t that all part of the fun?
The top three.
Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin.
This three share many characteristics. They are all Swiss, and have a continuous history of making outstanding and often innovative new products to the very highest quality. They all have comparatively low annual production, which combined with very high prices keep them exclusive. Unlike a Ferrari, not everyone down the pub will have heard of them either, which is perfect for those who want to be discrete about their addiction to quality. These three brands are oft quoted as the trinity, with some collectors wanting to get an example from each. Not every design will appeal to every person of course, but if you can’t find something you like then I suggest you see a doctor.
The next rung down – outstanding watches in any other company except those listed above.
A.Lange and Sohne, Glashutte Original, Jaquot Droz, Jeager Le-Coutre, Zenith, Breguet, Girard-Perregaux, Franck Muller, Hublot, Piaget, Blancpain.
Beautifully finished watches here, no question. So what sets them below the top three? Some of them lack continuous histories The Jaquot Droz website claims ‘from 1721, but their timeline jumps from 1788 to 2000 with nothing in between! Some of the brands can be bought inexpensively, which dents the exclusive tag. Some of these brands are owned by big business, such as Swatch Group or LHVM, and subconsciously we all like to think our very expensive purchase is made by a highly skilled watchmaker. Not talked about in annual sales targets involving excel filled power point presentations. Since I have now been to the Franck Muller factory my respect has only increased for them, but they are young in this market. A.Lange and Sohne make a valid case for a big four, rather than a big three.
The third tier.
Rolex, Omega, Cartier, IWC, Chopard
Again this is not a balanced, reasoned argument. Just an opinion, so untwist your knickers and read on.
Rolex have a continuous independent history, have been innovative and are high quality – but not the very highest quality. And it is difficult to be considered exclusive when you make an estimated one million watches a year. I admire their engineering (they even have an onsite foundry to produce the metals to their exacting standards! ), but for too many people Rolex are seen as flash. There is the problem of fakes too – no one wants to wear the real version of the waiters “wolex”, bought from the lucky lucky man for €20.
Omega too make some interesting watches that have even been to the moon, but they also went mass market and particularly in the 1970s and 1980s bought out watches that are difficult to get parts for, and are cheap to buy. You could even buy an Omega watch from the UK catalogue Argos at one point, which doesn’t scream high end. Being swallowed into the Swatch Group also dents the brand slightly – Mighty Omega being bought by those plastic watch folk seems a humiliation.
Cartier seem to have some perception of being a bit of a fashion watch – this is wrong, they were pioneers of watchmaking. The Santos has been around since 1904, the reverse since 1931, and both are iconic watches. But the fact that Cartier also make jewellery, pens and other luxury items seems to lose focus on the watch side of things too – Patek Philippe are yet to market a perfume.
IWC are slightly harder to place. You could argue that they belong alongside Zenith, and I would accept that. But the increasing large size watches, mix of in house and bought in movements and sponsorship of Mercedes F1 team devalue them for me.
I have added Chopard, just because I have been impressed with one I have. Completely under the radar, and full of subtle details and high quality.
Longines, Mido, Baume & Mercier, Breitling, Tag Heuer, Oris
These all play on their fine histories, but in reality their business model these days is built around a price point. All use predominantly bought in movements, often re-badging them to make them sound more exclusive than they actually are. This is often a difficult price band to buy a brand new watch in that won’t lose a load of money. There are still some attractive watches, make no mistake, but this is where they sit in the pecking order.
Steinhart, Christopher Ward, Zelos, G.Gerlach and dozens more on Kickstarter
Interesting without breaking the bank, these small brands can innovate and provide great value for money. The lume on G.Gerlach is great, the build on Steinhart is absolutely solid, and Christopher Ward are even modifying movements. If I was looking at a new watch for £300-500 then I would be here rather than most other brands, with Seiko being the exception. An awful lot of the microbrands use Seiko NH35 movements, which is a good thing.
What about Panerai? What about Eterna, Bell & Ross, or Ulysse Nardin? They all fit in somewhere. Seiko make some incredible watches with the Grand Seiko range, but the main brand makes them difficult to quantify in this list.
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