Although many people consider Rolex to be the premier name in watchmaking, this would be akin to calling BMW or Lexus the best car in the world. Rolex, much like the aforementioned automakers, makes a very good timepiece but it is also a relatively mass produced product with yearly production figures topping one million units; the following eight watchmakers’ annual outputs are measured in the thousands with certain flagship models being one-off or limited to production runs in the dozens.
While Rolex is known for its quality mechanical watches, the brand’s key innovations have come in case design and not in the actual meticulous engineering of the timekeeping mechanism. Complications, tourbillons, and minute repeaters require a complex level of watchmaking design and engineering expertise, and these are not features you will see mentioned in Rolex literature because the brand does not dabble in these ultra-luxury timing mechanisms.
Watches like the Rolex President and Rolex Submariner are quality timepieces and carry a hefty price tag, but the level of watchmaking excellence, and corresponding lofty prices, of the following eight watchmakers shows that there are a significant number of watchmakers that are better than Rolex. These prestigious high-end makers of luxury timepieces produce watches that are more technically advanced, more exclusive, and more expensive than the watches made by Rolex.
Origins: Founded in Villeret, Switzerland in 1753 by Jehan-Jaques Blancpain.
Headquarters: Paudex, Switzerland
Ownership: Blancpain is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Swatch Group.
Trademark: The Fifty Fathoms diving watch has been the archetype for men’s diving watches since its 1953 introduction and was worn by Jacques Cousteau, representing the brand’s sporting side. The Blancpain 1735 displays the watchmaker’s technical mastery as the watch is a true grand complication timepiece meaning that it contains a tourbillon, perpetual calendar, split chronograph, and minute repeater.
Prestige: Blancpain is one of the most exclusive watchmakers in the world, making just three watches per day. The above-mentioned Blancpain 1735 is an ultra-exclusive timepiece limited to a total production run of 30 watches, with only one 1735 timepiece leaving the factory…err workbench…every year.
Origins: Founded by Abraham-Louis Breguet in Paris, France in 1775.
Headquarters: Vallée de Joux, Switzerland
Ownership: Breguet is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Swatch Group.
Trademark: Nearly every Breguet timepiece contains styling cues giving the brand a distinct style across its entire range of watches. Coin-edge cases, distinctly engraved dials (called guilloche dials), and blue hands are hallmarks of Breguet’s trademark aesthetic and visual appeal.
Prestige: Breguet has always been and continues to be one of the most exclusive watchmakers in the world. Early adopters of Breguet’s timepieces in the 1700s included French royalty and aristocracy like Louis XVI (King of France), Marie-Antoinette (Queen of France), Louis Philippe I (Duke of Orleans), and Napoleon Bonaparte.
Origins: Founded in Geneva, Switzerland in 1791 by Jean-Francois Bautte.
Headquarters: La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland
Ownership: Girard-Perregaux is owned by the Sowind Group which is a subsidiary of Kering, a luxury good conglomerate.
Trademark: While other ultra-exclusive watchmakers tout their tourbillon movements, Girard-Perregaux patented its hallmark Tourbillon movement with three gold bridges in 1884, a movement that the Swiss watch company still offers to this day as one of its flagship watch mechanisms.
Prestige: In 1880, Girard-Perregaux became the world’s first watchmaker to commercially produce wrist watches when it took an order for 2,000 units for German Naval officers.
Origins: Founded by Antoine LeCoultre in Le Sentier, Vaud, Switzerland in 1833.
Headquarters: Le Sentier, Vaud, Switzerland
Ownership: Jaeger-LeCoultre is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Richemont Group.
Trademark: The Reverso is the iconic watch of the Jaeger-LeCoultre brand. Originally designed as a watch capable of enduring the beating of polo events, the swiveling case of the Reverso wrist watch has become a hallmark of distinguished watchmaking excellence and gentlemanly style.
Prestige: Jaeger-LeCoultre is a name associated with some of the most highly technical advancements in the world of ultra-exclusive luxury watchmaking. The watchmaker is renowned for building the world’s smallest mechanical watch movement, as well as the world’s most complicated wristwatch.
A. Lange amp; Sohne
Origins: Founded by Ferdinand Adolph Lange in Glashütte, Germany in 1845.
Headquarters: Glashütte, Germany
Ownership: A. Lange amp; Sohne is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Richemont Group.
Trademark: A. Lange amp; Sohne offers a distinctly German alternative to the typically Swiss-made high-end luxury watches. The watchmaker’s movements use “German silver” which is a copper/nickel alloy, as opposed to the plated brass favored by the Swiss. High-end Swiss movements are noted for their multiple bridges, cocks, and wave finishes, but A. Lange amp; Sohne favors three-quarter plate construction and striped finishes on its movements. Even if these terms are unfamiliar to you, a side-by-side look at an A. Lange amp; Sohne movement and a comparable Swiss movement tells the story of the Teutonic approach to watchmaking taken by this legendary Glashütte-based watchmaker.
Prestige: A. Lange amp; Sohne does not offer stainless steel or silver watch cases, preferring to create its cases from gold or platinum, creating a high cost of entry for this German-based maker of fine timepieces.
Patek Philippe amp; Co.
Origins: Founded by Polish watchmakers Antoni Patek and Franciszek Czapek in Geneva, Switzerland in 1839.
Headquarters: Geneva, Switzerland
Ownership: The brand’s website proudly touts the fact that “Patek Philippe is Geneva’s oldest independent family-owned watch manufacture r.”
Trademark: Patek Philippe is widely considered the “halo” of complicated high-end timepieces. The Swiss watch company created complications that would become staples of the high-end luxury watch world including the chronograph, minute repeater, split-seconds hand, and perpetual calendar.
Prestige: Patek Philippe is regarded by watch connoisseurs as the best maker of high-end complicated watches. Due to the high level of appreciation of these fine watches from aficionados, the best examples of these timepieces often command prices well into the millions, and sometimes tens of millions of dollars. Queen Victoria, Hussein Kamal (Prince of Egypt), Victor-Emanuel III (King of Italy), Christian IX and Louise (King and Queen of Denmark), and Pop Pius IX all owned Patek Philippe timepieces.
Origins: Founded in La Côte-aux-Fées, Switzerland by Georges Piaget in 1874.
Headquarters: Geneva, Switzerland
Ownership: Piaget is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Richemont Group.
Trademark: The Piaget Polo watch and the Piaget Cuff line of wrist watches gave the Swiss watchmaker iconic timepieces that became hallmarks of the brand’s attention to fine watchmaking and jewelry design.
Prestige: In addition to Piaget’s excellence in crafting mechanical watch movements with intricate and precise complications, the company is also closely associated with the fashionable aesthetic of its timepieces. Piaget has established itself as a maker of not only quality high-end Swiss watch movements, but also of artistic jewelry thanks to the company’s dedication to old-world enamel craftsmanship and the fact that they own the largest jewelry workshop in Geneva.
Origins: Founded by Jean-Marc Vacheron in Geneva, Switzerland in 1755.
Headquarters: Geneva, Switzerland
Ownership: Vacheron Constantin is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Richemont Group.
Trademark: The Vacheron Constantin Kallista is the flagship of the Swiss watchmaker’s line of timepieces. The exterior of the watch features over 130 carats of diamonds and takes over 6,000 man hours to assemble.
Prestige: Vacheron Constantin watches have been owned by some of the world’s most famous and most powerful people including Pop Pius XI, Napoleon Bonaparte, Harry Truman, and the Duke of Windsor.