You know the names, but do you know the stories behind them? These watch brands are bigger than the fashion industry. Larger-than life. Status symbols. Icons. Practically mythological. From deep sea explorations, to revolutionary battles, to missions on the moon, these watchmaking wunderkinds have made history.
There’s no shortage of impressive timepieces out there for horology enthusiasts, but these iconic watch brands consistently produce the crème de la crème of the watchmaking world.
Rolex is now the largest single luxury watch brand, but before becoming one of the most recognizable names on the planet, it was known as Wilsdorf and Davis after its two founders. Brothers-in-law Alfred Davis and Hans Wilsdorf established the company in London in 1905. A few years later, in 1908, they registered the trademark “Rolex” and opened an office in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. Operations moved to Geneva in 1919 and were renamed the Rolex Watch Company, then Montres Rolex, SA and finally Rolex, SA.
Wristwatches were rarely worn at the time of Rolex’s founding. They were considered inelegant, unreliable and not masculine enough for male wearers. Wilsdorf set out to change all that with innovative timepieces equipped with small, precise movements manufactured by a Swiss watchmaking company. In 1910, a Rolex became the first wristwatch in the world to receive the Swiss Certificate of Chronometric Precision, granted by the Official Watch Rating Centre in Bienne. It was the first of many innovations for the company, including the first waterproof wristwatch (Rolex Oyster), the first wristwatch with an automatically changing date on the dial (Rolex Datejust), and the first wristwatch to show two time zones at once (Rolex GMT Master).
At the age of 27, Florentine Ariosto Jones – an American engineer and watchmaker, and the deputy director and manager of the E. Howard Watch and Clock Co. in Boston – journeyed across the Atlantic to Switzerland. He was a man with a plan: to combine the legendary watchmaking craftsmanship of the Swiss with modern engineering technology from America. The watches were to be made in Switzerland and imported into the United States, hence the name International Watch Company. IWC was initially met with scepticism, but eventually a hydro-powered manufacturing facility was established in Schaffhausen and production began in 1868.
It wasn’t smooth sailing. Jones was forced to file for bankruptcy and relinquish control of IWC in 1875. The company changed hands and directors multiple times over the next decades, never quite finding its footing until World War II. IWC created the first oversized anti-magnetic pilots watch, followed by the famous Mark X with its new in-house Calibre 83 movement. The company had a close call in 1944 when the Allies mistakenly bombed Schaffhausen, but the factory survived destruction and, in the aftermath of the war, IWC finally lived up to its name to become the international phenomenon we know today.
Omega, the final letter of the Greek alphabet, symbolises accomplishment and perfection – two qualities that are at the heart of the OMEGA watch brand. The company was founded by 23-year-old Louis Brandt in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, in 1848. After his death, his sons took over the business, moved it to a factory in Bienne in 1880, and brought all manufacturing in-house. Their four successors included Paul-Emile Brandt, in whose hands the company became an institution. Under his leadership, OMEGA and Tissot merged in 1930 to become the group SSIH, Geneva. The SSIH Group continued to grow and absorb companies until, by the 1970s, it had become Switzerland’s #1 producer of finished watches and #3 in the world.
OMEGA has won countless awards over its 150-year history. The company has been the official timekeeper at more than twenty Olympic Games. OMEGA’s Speedmaster was chosen by NASA as its official chronometer in 1965 and became the first watch worn on the moon four years later. OMEGA watches have also been seen on the wrists of multiple James Bonds, athletes, models, musicians, actors, politicians and even royalty. OMEGA continues to build on its reputation for precision and innovation, earning it a very special place in many enthusiasts’ collections.
The Patek Philippe story spans more than 160 years. Polish watchmaker Antoni Patek began making pocket watches in Geneva in 1839 alongside fellow Polish migrant Franciszek Czapek. The two separated in 1844 and a year later, Patek joined forces with French watchmaker and inventor of the keyless winding mechanism Jean-Adrien Philippe. Patek Philippe & Co was founded in 1851. The company was sold to brothers Charles and Jean Stern in 1932 when the Great Depression took its toll on Patek Philippe’s operations.
Under the Stern family, which still leads Patek Philippe today, the company has continued to grow and revolutionize the watchmaking world. The brand has become known for producing some of the most complicated mechanical watches ever made, as well as some of the most expensive watches ever sold at auction (we’re talking multiple millions of dollars). Many of their watches have become icons, such as the Patek Philippe Calatrava, the Nautilus, and the Grande Complications. In fact, Patek Philippe timepieces are so luxurious and so carefully crafted that the company will only make around 50,000 watches each year. It’s no surprise they’ve become such highly sought-after collector’s items.
In 1983 – in the wake of the Swiss watchmaking crisis – the first ever Swatch watch was born. At the time, Japanese companies like Seiko and Citizen were growing at an explosive rate and digital watches had achieved mass popularity. Then Swatch came along, with its bold styling and disruptive marketing, to put Swiss manufacturers and analogue watches back on the map. Under the leadership of Nicolas G. Hayek, the idea of a “second watch” took hold – a timepiece that wasn’t an expensive piece of jewellery, but rather an expression of mood and personal style. And because it didn’t cost a fortune, that second watch could become a third watch, a fourth watch, a fifth watch…
Today, Swatch is one of the biggest brand names on the planet, known around the world for making colourful, on-trend watches that combine exciting aesthetics with technological innovation. Swatch watches take the best of Swiss watchmaking tradition and combine it with forward-thinking materials that range from plastic, to stainless steel, to rubber, to silicone. Thanks to Swatch, mechanical watches are accessible to a wider audience who want to cut costs without sacrificing quality, and who put a premium on personal expression.
Officine Panerai’s history begins on Ponte delle Grazie in Florence, where Giovanni Panerai opened his watchmaker’s shop in 1860. By 1900, under the leadership of his grandson Guido Panerai, Officine Panerai had become an official supplier of watches and precision instruments to the Royal Italian Navy. To meet the military’s unique needs, Panerai created a radium-based powder that gives luminosity to the dials of devices in 1916. They called it Radiomir, and it became the first of many patents filed over the course of Panerai’s history.
The Royal Italian Navy asked Panerai to develop a watch able to withstand extreme conditions, and the Panerai Radiomir watch began to take shape. Production on the new Radiomir model began in 1938, and it went on to become one of the most famous watches in the Panerai family. The Panerai brand continued to rise in popularity throughout the 20th century, forming partnerships with the likes of Sylvester Stallone (who has his very own edition of the Panerai Luminor called Slytech, which bears his signature on the case back) and Ferrari. Panerai limited editions are some of the most coveted in the watchmaking world, so expect to find yourself on a long waiting list if you’re looking to get one around your wrist.
TAG Heuer traces its history back to 1860 when Edouard Heuer founded Uhrenmanufaktur Heuer AG in St-Imier, Switzerland. The company became TAG Heuer (which combines the abbreviation for Techniques d’Avant Garde with Heuer’s surname) when it was purchased by TAG Group in 1985. It was sold again to French luxury goods conglomerate LVMH in 1999, which remains its parent company today. In between, TAG Heuer made quite a name for itself.
Edouard Heuer patented his first chronograph in 1882 and five years later patented an ‘oscillating pinion’ that’s still used in mechanical chronographs by major watchmakers. Those two patents were just the beginning of TAG Heuer’s long tradition of technological innovation. A Heuer stopwatch became the first Swiss timepiece to go to space. Heuer, working in conjunction with Breitling and Hamilton, introduced the world’s first automatic chronograph watch. The brand is especially well known for its association with the sporting world. It has provided official timing services for the Olympic Games, FIS Ski World Cup, FIA Formula 1 World Championship and other major international sporting events since the early 20th century. TAG Heuer continues to be at the forefront of watchmaking advancement, earning awards and accolades all along the way.
A. Lange & Sohne
Most watchmakers spoken of with this level of reverence have been in business for decades. But A. Lange & Söhne, despite being one of the most esteemed watchmakers in the world, has more or less only been producing wristwatches since its re-birth in 1994. Rewind to 1845, when Lange was founded by Ferdinand Adolph Lange in the town of Glashütte, near Dresden. Lange turned out quality pocket watches through generations of the Lange family until 1948, when the post-war Soviet administration seized the company’s property and the Lange brand was dismantled.
Following the collapse of the East German government in 1990, the founder’s great-grandson teamed up with several Swiss watchmakers, including IWC and Jaeger Le Coultre, to reform the company in Glashütte. A. Lange & Söhne presented its first range of wristwatches in 1994 after more than 50 years of inactivity. Now they manufacture fewer than 5000 watches per year, all of which are brilliantly beautiful and unparalleled feats of horological engineering. We’d say they may even produce the best movements in the game, but they operate at such a high level that sometimes it doesn’t even seem like they’re playing the same game as everyone else.
Breitling had the good fortune to be in exactly the right place at the right time. Léon Breitling established his first factory in St-Imier, Switzerland in 1884. He devoted himself exclusively to manufacturing chronographs and timers – precision instruments intended for sports, science and industry. The Breitling company’s rise coincided perfectly with the boom of competitive sports and the automobile, not to mention the first feats of aviation’s pioneers.
Breitling had probably already earned itself a place in the history books, but its spot was indelibly secured in 1915, when the company invented the first independent chronograph pushpiece. The patented innovation was tweaked repeatedly over the course of the 20th century, each time producing an horological breakthrough more impressive than the last. In 1934, Breitling created the second independent reset pushpiece. In 1969, the company introduced the first selfwinding chronograph movement. In 1984, Breitling piloted the rebirth of the mechanical chronograph with the launch of the famous Chronomat model. In 2009, the celebrated Caliber 01 selfwinding chronograph movement debuted. Today, Breitling maintains strong ties with sporting and aeronautical endeavours, and continues to keep the watchmaking world on its toes.
Sometimes the biggest achievements take place on the smallest scale. Jaeger LeCoultre is responsible for some of the greatest inventions in watchmaking history. The brand has hundreds of innovations, around 400 patents, and over a thousand calibres to its name (yes, you read that correctly – over a thousand). Included on that list are distinctions like the world’s first instrument capable of measuring the micron, the world’s thinnest movement, the world’s most complicated wristwatch, and the Atmos, a timepiece of near-perpetual movement that requires no human intervention and almost no energy.
It all began in Le Sentier, a village in Switzerland, where Antoine LeCoultre founded a small watchmaking workshop following his invention of a machine to cut watch pinions from steel. His work over the next two decades earned him a gold medal for timepiece precision and Mechanization at the first Universal Exhibition in London in 1851. The company continued to grow, establishing the Vallée de Joux’s first full-fledged manufacture, eventually partnering with Paris-based watchmaker Edmond Jaeger. The name was changed to Jaeger-LeCoultre in 1937 and the company officially became the exclusive, innovative brand we know and love today.
Vacheron Constantin is one of the oldest watch manufacturers in the world with an uninterrupted history. The company was founded in Geneva, Switzerland in 1755 by an independent watchmaker named Jean-Marc Vacheron. Miraculously, the company survived through the French Revolution and began exporting internationally. When it became clear that the business had grown beyond its current capacity, François Constantin was brought on as an associate in 1819 and the name was changed to Vacheron & Constantin. The company continued to grow and thrive under its motto, “Do better if possible and that is always possible,” logging innovation after innovation.
Vacheron Constantin pushed boundaries throughout the 20th century and now into the 21st. A full list of the company’s extraordinary timepieces could be an article all its own, but we’d be remiss not to mention at least one of its remarkable pieces. Take the 1979 Kallista, for example, one of the most expensive wristwatches ever made. It took watchmakers 6,000 hours to create Kallista and about 20 months for jewellers to enrich the watch with 118 emerald-cut diamonds. Its initial price was $5 million, but today its value is more in the $11 million range.
The story of Seiko begins in 1881, when 22-year-old Kintarō Hattori opened a watch and jewellery shop called K. Hattori in the bustling Ginza area of Tokyo. 14 years later, Hattori built his first pocketwatch and in 1892, he began to produce clocks under the name Seikosha (which translates roughly to “House of Exquisite Workmanship”). The first watches produced under the brand debuted in 1924, but it wasn’t until later in the century that Seiko really made its mark.
In 1969, Seiko introduced the Astron, the world’s first production quartz watch (fun fact: at the time it cost the same as a medium-sized car). The company’s firsts continued, including the world’s first multi-function digital watch, the world’s first diver’s watch with a titanium case, and the world’s first watch with computer functions. Seiko served as official timer for multiple major sporting events, including several Olympic Games. In more recent years, Seiko has introduced the world’s first GPS solar watch and the first watch to use active matrix EPD e-Ink. On screen, Seiko watches have been worn by James Bond, Jason Bourne and one Ellen Louise Ripley in Alien. Not a bad list of achievements to have accomplished by your 100th birthday.