In the market for a showstopping new timepiece? When it comes to luxury watch brands, the industry revolves around a handful of heavyweights, vying with each other to release ever more complex and expensive models.
Alongside these legacy brands, there are hundreds of independent watchmakers gradually carving out stellar reputations for their horological creations. For its sixth consecutive year, our annual Top Watches listing delved into 40 exciting watches from 40 brands; among them were some of the planet’s most cutting-edge timepieces.
With so much choice, deciding where to begin is no easy task. To help, we’ve curated a list of the most influential watch brands that have tirelessly honed their craft over decades, if not centuries. From iconic household names like Rolex to specialty brands like Panerai, you’re all but guaranteed to find a timepiece to suit your tastes.
[See also: Watches & Wonders 2023: The Best New Releases]
Born in the abundantly natural landscape of Vallée de Joux, Geneva, Audemars Piguet presents timepieces that are raw in their alignment with nature. Utilizing the earth’s space for their ateliers, the farmers occupying Vallée de Joux in the 18th century tirelessly practiced horological craftsmanship to produce some of the most complicated mechanisms ever made. Nurtured through these natural resources, the iron ore found within the ice and rocks of this region is what sustained the evolution of its timepieces and rise to renown.
Following the footsteps of its founders, Audemars Piguet continues to practice forward-thinking. Launched in 2019, its Code 11.59 collection ceaselessly impresses through its contemporary, double-curved sapphire crystal face and the shapeshifting illusion of its circular and octagonal blend. The most famous of Audemars Piguet collections, however, is the Royal Oak of which the Flying Tourbillon Extra-thin RD#3 has taken the spotlight. This self-winding watch measures 8.1mm in thickness and features a bidirectional central oscillating weight that celebrates the line’s 50th anniversary.
Jacob & Co
Although Jacob & Co’s offering expands beyond horology with the brand having initially launched with just fine jewelry collections, its timepieces are what cemented its status. Launched in 1986 by Jacob Arabo (who still acts as chairman) the brand is known for pushing the boundaries of watchmaking, with Arabo claiming to be driven by achieving what others deem impossible.
Each new Jacob & Co release is seemingly more outlandish than the next, with increasingly complex complications revealed each time. The famous Astronomia collection, for example, is awash with highly technical rotating parts within the intricate tourbillon. One recent charitable release even included a rock fragment from Mount Everest. Each Jacob & Co piece is more like a snow globe than a wristwatch, with a tiny world existing within every one.
Most recently, the brand raised eyebrows when it launched the Billionaire Timeless Treasure (pictured above), containing 880 carats of rare yellow diamonds and priced at $20m.
With a remarkable legacy spanning over 265 years, Vacheron Constantin is heralded as being one of the oldest watch brands in the world – and undeniably one of the most influential. Vacheron Constantin is regarded for its ability to seamlessly blend innovation and experimentation with the principles of watchmaking tradition that made is so revered in the first place.
In a testament to the brand’s ability to keeping up with the ever-advancing world of horology, Vacheron Constantin managed to push the boundaries to release what was then the most complicated watch in the world. The Vacheron Constantin Reference 57260 pocket watch boasted a remarkable 57 complications, including three full calendar systems, a three-axis tourbillon and a world time indicator. Other stand-out pieces from the Vacheron Constantin archives include the limited-edition Tribute to Great Explorers and the Harmony Chronograph Cal. 3300, which was launched to celebrate the brand’s 260th anniversary.
Omega creates timepieces that are so precise that it has been the official timekeeper for the Olympics since 1932. Yet despite being the sportsman’s most reliable watch, the brand continues to elevate its craft. One of Omega’s most iconic innovations is the Master Chronometer. Twice as precise as any other certified chronometer, water resistant and anti-magnetic, watches employing this mechanism are extremely dependable and durable irrespective of surrounding conditions. Utilizing this mechanism, the Omega Seamaster Planet Ocean Ultra Deep is the world’s first dive watch that has water resistance up to 20,000 ft.
The brand’s Material Difference motto incorporates the industry’s most essential materials but uplifts them to ensure longevity and beauty in every design. As well as metals and alloys, Omega employs unrivaled expertise in the use of ceramics, allowing its watches to be twice as light as those made from stainless steel, hypoallergenic and scratch resistant.
The venerable Swiss watch brand based in La Chaux-de-Fonds has been honing its horology expertise for over 230 years. While it works with the latest technology in developing movements, it continues to use traditional methods when decorating, assembling and adjusting the timepieces by hand.
Celebrating the 230th anniversary of the brand’s founding, the La Esmeralda Tourbillon of the Eternity Edition is a timepiece that boasts the brand’s creative and innovative capabilities. Featuring the complex three-bridge tourbillon with aerial design that distinguishes Girard-Perregaux, and embodying the 275 hours of craftsmanship that went into its production, this masterpiece is the product of meticulous manufacture.
Dynamism is also a distinguishing feature of the brand, as birthed from collaboration with movement designer Yaman Sonite, Girard-Perregaux has cultivated an acrobatic tour of its timepieces. Telling the story of time and its place within it through the language of dance, the agility and art of Girard-Perregaux’s watches is paraded and celebrated.
Most recently, the brand released the Green Ceramic Laureato Aston Martin Edition, the fourth watch to come of its partnership with the car company.
Since first launching in 1884, Breitling has proudly stood as one of the dominant names in the world of luxury watch brands. Although Breitling is now led by watchmaking alumni George Kern, for the first 90 years of its life the brand was firmly family-run, having been initially founded by Léon Breitling in his St. Imier workshop.
The most iconic Breitling is easily the Navitimer. First revealed in 1952, the Navitmeter was initially designed for pilots – in fact, by 1960 an official cooperation with Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) had begun, cementing Breitling as the watchmaker of pilots. The Navitmeter acted as a mini computer for its wearers, with the ability to calculate the rate of climb or descent and fuel consumption, as well as complete accurate currency and distance conversions. Since then, the timepiece has been re-released a number of times, with its versatility and practicality meaning it is no longer reserved to the skies.
No list of the world’s most influential luxury watch brands would be complete without a mention of Rolex. While the luxury watchmaker is now based in Switzerland, it was initially founded in England in 1905 with the intention of bringing practicality and durability to the watch market. Indeed, the brand is often heralded as being one of the first large-scale wristwatch manufacturers (as opposed to the pocket watch).
Over the last century, Rolex’s reputation has grown to see the brand become one of the most revered and respected in the world; the Rolex logo is now a hallmark of luxury. And, as any brand with a following like it has should, Rolex has adeptly grown with the world around it and as the climate crisis grows ever more worrying, has committed to playing its part in limiting its environmental impact. The brand’s ‘Perpetual Planet’ mission sees Rolex collaborate with individuals and companies on a series of projects designed to safeguard the future of the planet.
While like the majority of the world’s leading watchmakers Panerai is headquartered in Switzerland, the brand breaks the mold by remaining true to its Italian heritage. Now part of the wider Richemont Group, Panerai was initially founded in Florence in 1860. Since then, it has become the go-to for reliable, high-quality and effortlessly stylish deep-sea diving watches.
And, as expected of a brand so intrinsically linked with the natural world, in recent years Panerai has also examined the environmental impact of its operations with the bold aim of becoming net-zero. Part of this mission involves reassessing the materials in each watch and how they are procured, becoming certified by the Responsible Jewellery Council and introducing waste and energy management systems to its headquarters.
Known for its thoughtful, wearable and highly collectible timepieces, FP Journe is an undisputed leader in horology. But, despite its solid reputation the Swiss brand is surprisingly infantile having only been founded in 1999. While it may be the relative new kid on the block, FP Journe timepieces are as classic and as high quality as any of its contemporaries, with founder François-Paul Journe dedicated to longevity and precision.
To ensure that each FP Journe watch is as valuable in 200 years as the day it was made, the watchmaker only uses evergreen materials – silicones and plastics are a no go. The brand’s logo, Invenit et Fecit which is Latin for “[he] invented it and made it” relates to the fact that each component of every watch is designed and bult in house, with each movement completely original. Virtually every piece of work is performed within Journe’s Geneva studio (unlike many watchmakers who simply have showrooms in the city), with most operations performed under the watchful eye of Journe himself.
Another watchmaker catering to the world’s adventurers is Ulysse Nardin which, having been founded in 1846, has a serious legacy under its belt. The brands’ eponymous founder was himself fascinated by the ocean, leading him to create the world’s first-ever marine chronometer. The influence of the brand was so large in fact, that by the early 1900s, Ulysse Nardin was delivering watches directly to the US Navy.
Like Panerai, Ulysse Nardin has also come to realize that as a watch brand that has the ocean to thank for its success, it has a moral obligation to work in harmony with the natural world. As such, Ulysse Nardin has outlined a series of sustainable development goals that align with the UN goals for ocean protection. Embodying this commitment is the Diver Net concept watch, made entirely from upcycled plastic fishing nets.
Last but by no means least in our list of the top luxury watch brands is Patek Philippe. In most horology experts’ opinions, if watchmaking was an Olympic sport, the iconic brand would take home gold every time. The family-owned brand dominates the list of the most expensive watches ever sold at auction with its pieces some of, if not the, most coveted on the market. However, despite this amazing insider reputation, the brand hasn’t achieved the household status of some of its counterparts – but for those in the know, it is this level of elusiveness that makes Patek Philippe what it is.
Dating back to 1839, all Patek Philippe watches are manufactured to painstakingly specific standards in a vertically integrated production line. Everything is done in-house by skilled horologists, using a series of niche techniques and processes – so niche, in fact, that the brand has over 100 patents, securing the exclusivity of its timepieces.