With Time On Their Side
Swiss Masters Rule the World of Luxury Watchmaking
It may be one of the smallest frill items by physical stature, but watches remain an essential [time] piece in the luxury sphere, and sometimes roar louder than the engine of a Ferrari. Collectors and aficionados often display their assortments with the same grandeur of a custom-designed garage filled with exotic sports cars. Perhaps it’s the small-sized nature of an actual watch that often results in more accumulation than many other luxury goods.
Wearing a rare watch is equal parts prestige and ease. Swapping from your favorite Rolex to a sportier Ulysse Nardin, or dusting off the Patek Philippe heirloom, is simple and part of the accessibility that accompanies owning an exquisite watch collection. If it’s raining, you may be reluctant to take out the 1956 Jaguar Roadster, but putting a $50,000 Jaeger LeCoultre watch on your wrist has limited non sequiturs. It is fair to say that not all watch collectors wear their prized pieces, but many watch enthusiasts view it as an open accessory that is understated.
Predating most other luxury items, watches and watchmaking have a rich European history that goes back centuries, with its most prominent roots in Switzerland. The first Swiss watchmaking guild was founded over 400 years ago in Geneva, and by the end of the 17th century, watchmaking came to dominate the Swiss economy.
Much like their German neighbors to the north who went on to become synonymous with luxury automobile manufacturing, the Swiss are the first name in watchmaking, combining precision with craftsmanship and an unwavering pursuit of perfection. It’s unlikely to change anytime soon, either. Dethroning the Swiss masters in the watch world is akin to another country starting a National Football League and beating out the United States. It’s not only doubtful, but it’s practically impossible.
The competition on the inside, however, is rife and carries on with an historical intensity that rivals Ferrari and Lamborghini, but with a far greater number of players.
A look at the most famous and luxurious watchmakers in Switzerland is filled with anecdotes, rarities and remarkable price tags.
One of the most iconic luxury brands in the world, Rolex was actually founded in London but moved its headquarters in 1919 to Geneva, where it has remained to this day. A perennial leader on the global power brands list, Rolex is the largest single luxury watch brand in the world. Some experts contend it is the unanimous winner among luxury watchmakers, while others argue they have become too commercial – producing close to 2,000 watches a day. Whichever side of the exclusivity fence you sit on, one thing is certain: Rolex IS the first name in luxury watches.
In October of this past year, a Rolex Daytona (model 6239) formerly owned by the late actor Paul Newman, sold at auction for $17.75 million, making it the most expensive wristwatch ever sold. The Daytona model is one of the more prolific Rolexes, generally on a much lower price scale than some of their more luxury models, but it speaks volume to the brand that Newman, a former Oscar winner, valued so dearly. The celebrity factor surely inflated the watch’s worth, but for Rolex it’s simply another beautiful timepiece that commands attention and further increases their position as the premier luxury watchmaker – and a nice record to revel in.
Another Swiss powerhouse based in Geneva, Patek Philippe has become synonymous with producing the most advanced mechanical watches on the planet. Many aficionados consider them the most prestigious watch manufacturers to date. Antoni Patek was a Polish watchmaker working in Geneva when he partnered with Adrien Philippe, a Frenchman credited with inventing the keyless winding mechanism, and in 1851 the company was officially formed.
Numerous functionalities such as the chronograph, split seconds hand, the perpetual calendar and minute repeater were all popularized by Patek Philippe. In 2010, a Patek Philippe wristwatch produced in 1943 sold at auction through Christie’s in Geneva for $5.5 million. In addition to their claim as the premier producer, Patek Philippe remained for many years as the primary watch preference for much of European Royalty. Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, Victor Emanuel of Italy and Princess Louise and Christian IX of Denmark all wore Patek Philippe’s as their exclusive wristwatch or decorative timepiece.
One of their most iconic watches, an anniversary edition created in 1989, marking 150 years, is considered the most complicated mechanical watch ever created. The Calibre 89 is so advanced it can account through its complications a date for Easter, sunrise and sidereal time, and it even adds a day to February for leap years. As further proof of their industry leading technical prowess, in 2005, the company introduced a silicon escapement wheel, the first of its kind.
Known for their precision chronometers beloved by aviators and divers for decades, the Grenchen, Switzerland-based luxury watch producer was sold last year to CVC Capital Partners in deal worth nearly $900 million. Breitling’s beginnings are traced to the late 19th century when Leon Breitling, using only Swiss components, still the modus operandi today, started making exquisite timepieces with certified chronometers.
One of their most famous models, developed in the 1940s, featured a new circular slide rule addition to the bezel specifically for aircraft pilots. The Navitimer, in the following decades, would become the official timepiece of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA). There was even a version of the watch that included the AOPA logo on the dial, cementing the partnership between Breitling and the international aviation community.
Breitling has also had a longstanding partnership with Bentley, the world-class luxury car manufacturer, and produces several anniversary watch models that are favorites among luxury collectors. Perhaps their most memorable collaboration is with the iconic James Bond films, which saw Sean Connery as 007 donning a Top Time model that featured a geiger counter to allow the secret agent to track down stolen nuclear warheads in the smash hit Thunderball.
With forays into space, international espionage and air travel, Breitling has remained a luxury fixture in the watch world, often landing high on the list of the premier Swiss manufacturers.
Perhaps no truer “partnership” exists among the elite Swiss watchmakers than that of the duo responsible for creating the luxury timepieces at Audemars Piguet: Jules Louis Audemars and Edward Auguste Piguet. Both were accomplished watchmakers prior to their 1875 collaboration, but they made a concentrated effort to focus their abilities on their respective strong suits. Audemars took charge of production and all technical and mechanical aspects of the operation, while Piguet focused on the management and sales of the organization.
An exceptional partnership was born indeed in Vallee de Joux, Switzerland, and still bears fruit today with revenues last year topping $900 million. Credited with creating the first repeater wristwatch in 1892, Audemars Piguet was second to none for their mastery of complex watch movements, a hallmark of their ability and craftsmanship. Their current models are no exception to precision and regularly fetch upwards of $200,000, putting them in the upper sphere of luxury, exclusive watches.
Their models from yesteryear have only grown in value as the years have passed, and a triple calendar version model that only yielded a production of 20 watches, half of which are unaccounted for, sold at a Swiss auction last year along with another rare Audemars Piguet for over $800,000. Their most popular collections include the Royal Oak, Millenary and the Jules Audemars – named for the company’s ingenious founder – all of which feature the technical aspects of precision watchmaking prominently.
The Swiss stronghold on luxury watchmaking is centuries old and looks to be well preserved for many more years. True artisanship coupled with an extraordinary pride in their craft has positioned the Swiss as the luxury authority on watches, and that passion for excellence is what continues driving the legendary watch companies from the Alps to keep pushing the boundaries. The newer models continue the legacy of product superiority and the relics only grow larger in value, as celebrities, collectors, auction houses, museums and millionaires keep amassing their priceless variations.