Switzerland is a watchmaking haven. Timepieces from this picturesque European country enjoy a sterling reputation; so much so, that when watch enthusiasts get together, they quickly start gushing about this model and that movement. After all, Swiss timepieces are extremely precise, offer the highest possible level of quality, and are coveted status symbols. Many famous brands have set industry standards through their technical innovations – especially since the 1950s – and created designs that are still momentous in the watch world today. Diving watches and chronographs, for example, are still highly sought-after, though their origins date far back into the 20th century. Ubiquitous examples include the Rolex Submariner and the Omega Speedmaster.
It’s therefore hardly surprising that the most prestigious brands are those that produce unmistakable watches and tie them in with their own rich heritage. Many of the top-10 Swiss watch brands are household names for a wide audience, with the highest spots held by brands even people with little to no watch knowledge are familiar with.
We’re taking a closer look at the 10 most successful (and probably best) brands and tackling some frequently asked questions, like the pricing strategy for Swiss watches, and revealing some exciting marketing data along the way.
How many watch brands are there in Switzerland?
There are over 100 watch manufacturers in Switzerland, including lesser known names and microbrands. Many of the world-famous and formerly independent manufacturers now belong to large corporations.
|Corporation||Brands (not exhaustive)||Global market share in 2022|
|Swatch Group||Breguet, Blancpain, Glashütte, Omega, Longines, Tissot||19.8%|
|Richemont||Cartier, Jaeger-LeCoultre, A. Lange & Söhne, IWC, Vacheron Constantin, Panerai||19.5%|
|LVMH||Hublot, Bulgari, TAG Heuer, Zenith||6.5%|
Industry giant Rolex is privately owned and belongs to the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation, founded by Wilsdorf himself. The foundation’s mission is to preserve and promote the legacy and values of Hans Wilsdorf, most notably through art, science, education, and charitable activities. These pursuits result in various initiatives, such as environmental conservation efforts on Mount Everest and partnerships with prominent Hollywood legends like director James Cameron.
What are the most famous Swiss luxury watch brands?
While there are of course many other well-known players in the industry, for the purposes of this article, we’ll be focusing on the top-10 brands. The list is based on Morgan Stanley’s “State of the Industry – Swiss Watchmaking in 2022” report and Chrono24’s data for 2022.
|Brand||Famous models||Global revenue in 2022 (USD)||Global market share in 2022||Chrono24 GMV
Global 2022 (USD)
|Rolex||Submariner, GMT-Master||10.42 bln||29.2%||1.61 bln|
|Cartier||Tank, Santos||3.08 bln||7%||132 mln|
|Omega||Speedmaster, Seamaster||2.77 bln||7.7%||426 mln|
|Audemars Piguet||Royal Oak||2.25 bln||4.7%||210 mln|
|Patek Philippe||Nautilus, Calatrava||2.02 bln||5.1%||270 mln|
|Richard Mille||RM 11-04 Roberto Mancini||1.46 bln||2.7%||19.2 mln|
|Longines||HydroConquest, Spirit||1.35 bln||3.9%||29 mln|
|IWC||Ingenieur, Portugieser, Pilot’s||1.02 bln||2.6%||131 mln|
|Breitling||Navitimer, Superocean||964 mln||2.6%||193 mln|
|Vacheron Constantin||Overseas, Patrimony||924 mln||2.2%||55 mln|
Source: Morgan Stanley / Chrono24
To no surprise, Rolex is the world’s most popular luxury watch brand, with an annual turnover of over $10 billion and a margin over runner-up Cartier of more than 20%.
Why are Swiss watches so expensive?
While it’s true that expensive watches are also produced in other countries, like Grand Seiko in Japan, Switzerland has always been synonymous with exclusive timepieces with hefty price tags. But what factors determine these high price points?
- Craftsmanship and quality: Luxury watches from Switzerland are meticulously crafted from the finest materials. The watchmaking industry in Switzerland boasts a remarkable level of vertical integration, ensuring consistent and uncompromising quality. While not every manufacturer produces all their watch components on home territory, the production chains are designed to ensure that all essential parts are from Switzerland. The top-10 brands are recognized as manufacturers that produce nearly all the components of their watches themselves. The assembly process is entrusted to skilled watchmakers and jewelers, and each timepiece undergoes a rigorous inspection to guarantee excellence.
Swiss watch brands that do not operate their own production facilities source their cases and calibers from industry suppliers, such as movement manufacturers ETA (Swatch Group) and Sellita. Manufacture Ruedin, which also belongs to the Swatch Group, supplies many of the well-known watch brands with cases. In general, at least 60% of the manufacturing costs must be incurred in Switzerland and 60% of the main production steps carried out in Switzerland for the timepiece to qualify for the prestigious “Swiss Made” label.
- Reputation and lore: The brand name, history, and status always influence prices for sought-after Swiss watches. Take the Rolex Submariner, for example, which is widely regarded as the world’s first diving watch, despite the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms being the true pioneer. Another notable timepiece, the Cartier Tank, was inspired by tanks used in World War I and (rightfully) holds the title as the first mass-produced wristwatch. The Omega Speedmaster Professional Moonwatch is forever tied to the Moon landing, while different iterations of the Omega Seamaster are associated with movie icon James Bond.
- Supply, demand, and artificial scarcity: Many Swiss watch brands strictly limit their timepieces, enhancing their exclusivity and thereby driving up prices. Even standard series models are subject to defined production runs. For instance, while Rolex manufactures hundreds of thousands of stainless steel watches for their highly sought-after models, demand still far outpaces supply. Waiting lists at official retailers are long, and prices on the secondary market are cause for great speculation. Similarly, brands like Patek Philippe and Richard Mille are highly selective when it comes to distribution and clientele, opting for only a few exclusive boutiques in specific regions. This is yet another factor that increases prices.
- Research and development: Renowned Swiss watch manufacturers invest a great deal of time and money into research and development for new technologies and materials to fine-tune their products. Richard Mille is one of the forerunners when it comes to developing innovative case and movement materials, such as carbon TPT and quartz TPT. Rolex holds patents for a number of inventions, including the Paraflex shock protection system and Chronergy escapement. Proprietary precious metal alloys such as Everose gold are also the fruit of the manufacturer’s own endeavors.
What is the best Swiss watch brand?
Although the top-10 brands are the crème de la crème of the Swiss watch industry, it’s impossible to definitively declare one the best. Furthermore, numerous luxury watch manufacturers, although not featured in this list, offer comparable quality and equally innovative timepieces. There is no way to measure individual preferences on paper. It’s a bit like the Billboard Hot 100; the number one song is certainly the most successful, but that doesn’t necessarily indicate its musical quality. Ultimately, each luxury watch brand has its own strengths and specializes in certain types of watches, although there is of course some overlap. It’s important to consider your own preferences and decide exactly what you want from a watch. Careful research will determine the best brand and model for you.
What’s the most expensive Swiss watch?
The most expensive Swiss watch ever sold was the Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime ref. 6300A-010, a special edition released to celebrate the company’s 175th anniversary. One of only seven copies was sold at auction by Christie’s in Geneva for $31 million in 2019. This Grandmaster Chime is the most complex wristwatch ever made: it boasts 20 complications, including a perpetual calendar, alarm, and chiming mechanism with five different melodies.
At the time of writing this article in early May 2023, the five most expensive watches sold on Chrono24 were all from Patek Philippe. The number one spot is securely held by the Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime Grand Complications ref. 6300G Double-Faced Blue Dial at $9.2 million. The sixth most expensive watch is Richard Mille’s limited-edition RM056 Sapphire Tourbillon, which sold for almost $5.7 million.
What are the oldest Swiss watch brands?
Many watch brands were founded in Switzerland in the 18th and 19th centuries. But seniority doesn’t guarantee global success, so you might not have heard of all of them. Here are the three oldest brands:
- Blancpain: 1735
Blancpain is Switzerland’s oldest watch brand. The company was founded by Jehan-Jacques Blancpain in the Swiss village of Villeret in 1735 and is best known for the diving watches in their Fifty Fathoms collection. The original model was released in 1953 – one year before the Rolex Submariner.
- Favre-Leuba: 1737
Despite being the second-oldest watch brand, Favre-Leuba isn’t exactly a household name. Founded in 1737 by Abraham Favre, the company was one of the most highly renowned manufacturers in Switzerland until the quartz crisis in the 1980s. Favre-Leuba didn’t return to the market until the mid-2000s.
- Jaquet Droz: 1738
Luxury watchmaker Jaquet Droz was founded in 1738 by Pierre Jaquet Droz as a workshop for grandfather clocks. Jaquet Droz later specialized in elaborately decorating pendulum clocks with bird motifs, among other things. Today, the company belongs to the Swatch Group and is known for artfully-designed wristwatches of the highest class.
And that wraps up our overview of the most successful, popular, and oldest Swiss watch brands. Which would you consider “the best?”