They are also among the more useful items to come out of 16th Century Europe. Originally created as novelty items for German nobles, the earliest portable timepieces could barely be bothered with telling time. They had only an hour hand, and their verge and foliot movements were so inaccurate that that one hand tended to be off by several hours.
Worn by high society in Nuremberg and Augsburg, these early watches served as pieces of 16th Century flair, fastened to jackets or worn on chains as necklaces. The dial was not under glass, but rather a curved and carved brass or metal decorative lid. They were shaped like eggs, animals, crosses or even skulls.
Fortunately, the addition of the balance spring in 1657, and the focus on technological advancement during Europe’s late 18th Century period of Enlightenment, greatly improved the accuracy of the next wave of watches. Watchmakers like Abraham-Louis Breguet began creating luxurious timepieces that combined fashion and function.
In 1868, a Swiss up-and-comer named Patek Philippe created the first wristwatch. The ingenuity of the company, founded by two Polish watchmakers and a French colleague who just so happened to invent the world’s first keyless winding mechanism, also includes such milestones as the perpetual calendar, chronograph and minute repeater.
Switzerland’s Girard-Perregaux watchmaker was commissioned by the German Imperial Navy to develop a series of wristwatches for sailors in the late 19th Century. Kaiser Wilhelm I was such a fan that he ordered one for himself.
Cartier got in on the game in 1904. Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont asked his buddy Louis Cartier to create a “hands-free” device that he could use to time his flight performances. The resulting wristwatch, Cartier’s fittingly named Santos model, went on sale to the public in 1911.
Haute horology continues to develop today, with Patek Philippe, Breguet and Cartier joined by the likes of Chopard and Piaget. Fine watches value intricate complications, elegant workmanship and spring-powered mechanisms, while more affordable versions with quartz movements are sold by everyone from high-end designers to humble drug stores.
Our ranking of the world’s 11 most expensive watches spans antique clocks with removable pocket watches, to bespoke wristwatches studded with gemstones, gold and even rare galactic materials like the Rosetta Stone. These pieces elevate timekeeping to a bona fide art form.
Piaget Emperador Temple, $3.3 million
This jewel-encrusted timepiece has a dial made of Polynesian mother-of-pearl, as well as 173 diamonds in brilliant and baguette cuts.
The top of the case does not disappoint, either. It has one emerald-cut diamond, 481 brilliant-cut diamonds and 207 baguette-cut diamonds and an emerald-cut diamond on the top of the case. The bracelet is lined with 350 baguette-cut diamonds.
Patek Philippe 1928, $3.6 million
Sold by Christie’s Geneva in 2012, this watch was previously owned by Eric Clapton.
Patek Philippe Platinum World Time Watch, $4 million
At the time of its creation in 1939, this was the world’s most expensive wristwatch.
Patek Philippe 1949, $4.1 million
The world’s most expensive stainless steel wristwatch, Christie’s sold the 1949 at auction in May 2008.
Louis Moinet Meteoris, $4.59 million
Made with a galaxy of rare materials, the Meteoris set consists of four different timepieces.
Patek Philippe Gold Perpetual Calendar Wristwatch, $5.7 million
Nicknamed the Mona Lisa of 20th Century wristwatches, this Patek Philippe piece was sold at auction at Christie’s in 2010.
Duc D’Orléans Breguet Sympathique, $5.77 million
This clock with a removable pocket watch sold at Sotheby’s New York in December 2012.
The half-quarter repeating gold watch winds automatically, and is both set and regulated via the quarter striking clock.
The rare Sympathique clocks helped bring Abraham-Louis Breguet to the forefront of watchmaking. Dated 1835, it is closely connected to European royalty and aristocracy, and made from ormolu-mounted red tortoiseshell.
Patek Philippe Calibre 89, $6 million
Weighing in at more than two pounds, this pocket watch took five years of research and more than four years to create.
Patek Philippe Supercomplication, $11 million
This yellow-gold pocket watch was created for banker Henry Graves, Jr. in 1932, at which point it was deemed the most complicated watch ever constructed.
The 201 carat Chopard, Over $25 million
This gemstone-studded watch is more jewelry collector’s item than traditional timepiece.
Jaeger-LeCoultre Joaillene Manchette, Over $26 million
Constructed from a thick band of polished and diamond-set links, this bespoke timepiece can be customized to have up to 576 diamonds.
The watch face has a silver-colored dial with sapphire crystal, and a winding crown. It uses the mechanics of the manually wound Jaeger-LeCoultre Calibre 101. There is no list price, but appraisers value it at more than $26 million.