The world’s greatest watch brands are exceptional works of engineering and craftsmanship that sell for tens of thousands of dollars. Because buying a watch from a premium brand such as Rolex, Patek Philippe, or Cartier is such a big investment, it’s vital that you take your time to get to know the brands, what they stand for, and what they do best before committing yourself. This comprehensive guide to the top 10 luxury watch brands in the world can give you an overview of the most respected watch manufacturers internationally and highlight some of their greatest achievements and most impressive models.
It’s impossible to discuss the top luxury watch brands without mentioning Rolex. An icon of both style and horological innovation, the Geneva-based powerhouse is synonymous with luxury. Worn by the biggest stars worldwide, from David Beckham and Kim Kardashian to Barack Obama and John F. Kennedy, Rolex is a household name.
Rolex is known for producing some of the most blinged-out watches; in fact, the brand even has a line of watches that are all set with diamonds: the Pearlmaster. However, Rolex is also highly respected for its handcrafted engineering and impressive features, such as its photoluminescent material, Chromalight, which appears on almost all their models, and the outstanding water-resistant capabilities; the Sea-Dweller, for instance, is water-resistant up to 4,000 ft., thanks to its specialized helium escape valve.
One of Rolex’s greatest successes is that their timepieces are instantly recognizable; no matter the collection, from the sporty GMT Master II to the elegant Datejust, a Rolex is easy to spot. This is true of both their mens and womens watches. Some of the most popular collections include the Cosmograph Daytona, designed to meet the demands of professional racing drivers, and the Oyster Perpetual Submariner, an unforgettable diving watch.
2. Patek Philippe
Patek Philippe is internationally recognized as an innovative maker of stunning luxury watches. Founded in 1839, Patek Philippe has filed more than 80 patents and is one of Geneva’s few remaining independent watchmakers.
A favorite among royalty and celebrities, from Prince Charles to Ellen DeGeneres, Patek Philippe is one of the most prestigious watch brands in the world, with some of the rarest models fetching millions at auction. In fact, in November 2019, Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime Ref. 6300A-010 became the most expensive watch ever sold at auction, reaching the impressive figure of U.S. $31.19 million.
Patek Philippe’s diverse collection of luxury timepieces boasts elegant dress watches and powerful sports watches for both men and women. Lovers of premium sports watches love the Patek Philippe Aquanaut collection, such as the Patek Philippe Aquanaut Mens 5167R-001, with its memorable rounded octagonal case and optional innovative Tropical strap made from a new composite material that is resistant to damage from exposure to UV rays and salt water.
However, it is the Complications and Grand Complications collections that really show off Patek Philippe’s innovations. The brand is known for its complex timepieces, including artfully engineered complications, such as moon phases, dual time zones, and annual calendars. On more than one occasion, the brand has built the world’s most complicated timepiece.
Cartier has been a much-admired Parisian jeweler and watchmaker since it was founded in 1847, and the company continues to create some of the most elegant timepieces around. Known as “the jeweler of kings and the king of jewelers,” Cartier has a deep connection with European royalty; they even crafted the Halo Scroll Tiara, given to Queen Elizabeth II for her 18th birthday and worn by Kate Middleton on her wedding day as her something borrowed.
Cartier watch design is heavily influenced by the brand’s experience with jewelry, giving each timepiece a chic elegance unparalleled by other luxury watchmakers. The brand isn’t afraid to think outside the box to create unexpected case shapes and bracelets, from the classic square Tank Solo to the sophisticated, almost Dalí-esque, Baignoire Allongée.
4. Audemars Piguet
Unlike many luxury watch manufacturers, Audemars Piguet has remained family-owned since it was founded in 1875. This Swiss watchmaker boasts an impressive number of firsts, including creating the first minute-repeating movement, the first jumping-hour wristwatch, the first skeleton watch, and the world’s first sport luxury watch.
However, perhaps the brand’s most famous innovation is the invention of the world’s thinnest watch. The company has produced several extremely thin watches throughout their many decades of watchmaking, but, in 1986, they launched the Calibre 2870 — an ultra-thin, automatic Tourbillon.
This outstanding innovation made way for the introduction of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Selfwinding Perpetual Calendar Ultra-Thin, the world record holder for the world’s thinnest perpetual calendar in 2019. The Royal Oak is Audemars Piguet’s most well-renowned collection, and it includes a wide array of design variations, from bracelet material to complications.
The first Italian brand on this list of top 10 luxury watch brands, Panerai was founded in 1860 in Florence. These days, Panerai timepieces are manufactured in Switzerland, meaning that these unique watches benefit from the best of Swiss watchmaking expertise and Italian design, a powerful combination that’s hard to beat.
In addition to their chic, eye-catching design, Panerai timepieces are respected for their strength and reliability. These enviable qualities lead the brand to become an official supplier of precision instruments and navigation tools to the Regia Marina (the Royal Italian Navy) at the start of the 20th century. The watches worn by the Redia Marina during the Second World War were greatly admired and coveted by the British and German militaries.
From the 1990s, Panerai watches became increasingly popular with civilians who loved having access to military-level precision wristwatches that were enviably stylish. These days, Panerai is considered a luxury watch brand rather than a military one. Models such as the Panerai Luminor, Panerai Radiomir, and Panerai Submersible are loved by watch enthusiasts and athletes worldwide.
Marrying a classic aesthetic with forward-thinking engineering, the Swiss watch manufacturer Jaeger-LeCoultre holds its own against the biggest names in horology. Admired and worn by the likes of Queen Elizabeth II, Matt Damon, and Robert Downey Jr., Jaeger-LeCoultre is a quintessential premium watchmaker that deserves its place on any list of the top 10 luxury watch brands in the world.
With more than 180 years of experience, having been founded in 1833, it’s hardly surprising that the brand has had its fair share of innovations. Among this impressive list of credits is their status as the first watchmaker to use sapphire crystals; the first use of an alarm clock in a timepiece; the invention of the eternal Atmos clock; and the production of the first watch with a magnetic field, shock, and water protection.
One of Jaeger-LeCoultre’s most well-known collections is the Reverso, an elegant line of watches with a rectangular face. In 1994 the company released the first Reverso Duoface, which has two faces, allowing the wearer to flip between two distinct looks easily.
In April 2021, Jaeger-LeCoultre pushed the boundaries once more. Taking the Reverso to the next level, they launched the world’s first-ever watch with four faces. This surprisingly user-friendly timepiece boasts 11 complications and 12 patents, including indications of the synodic, draconic and anomalistic cycles, which have never been seen together on a wristwatch before. This unusual piece has already caused a stir in the world of watchmaking.
Established in 1980, Hublot is one of the youngest brands on the luxury watch scene, but, despite this, it has become a well-respected brand and deserves to be noted alongside the biggest names of horology. The brand came out of the gate, starting as they meant to go on, with an innovative feature: the first natural rubber strap in watchmaking history. This proved popular, and the brand made more than two million dollars in its first year.
Named after the French word for porthole, Hublot’s defining feature is its porthole-like bezel (with aesthetic bolts) and case. This gives the brand’s models a distinctive look that, much like Rolex’s watches, allows each piece to be easily identified as a Hublot. Hublot offers a great deal of potential for watch collectors, as they frequently produce limited edition watches and unique special edition watches, such as the Classic Fusion Takashi Murakami All Black. They also release many iced-out editions, so watch enthusiasts who want to make a glam statement are bound to find a model they love.
8. IWC Schaffhausen
Since 1868, IWC Schaffhausen has been producing premium-quality, classically designed, luxury timepieces that are admired by watch aficionados around the world. The brand’s motto is “Probus Scafusia,” meaning “good, solid craftsmanship from Schaffhausen,” and that is exactly what they promise, time and time again.
IWC Schaffhausen doesn’t shy away from tradition; instead of creating wacky design features, they stick to timeless styles that work, preferring to invest their time in the quality of their product. Offering tourbillons, chronographs, automatic Sellita movements, manual in-house movements, and three-hand watches, IWC Schaffhausen has enough variety for any true lover of timepieces. The company has various collections, each with its unique features, such as the IWC Aquatimer. Its impressive water resistance and quick-change bracelet, allowing the wearer to easily switch between a sporty waterproof strap and a dress bracelet, are ideal for watersport lovers.
Founded in 1735 by Jean-Jacques Blancpain in Villeret, Switzerland, Blancpain is the oldest of the Swiss watchmakers still in business, though the brand name has not always stayed the same due to legal issues. It is not only the company’s age that makes Blancpain one of the most respected watch manufacturers around; the brand is well-known for producing high-complication watches in classically beautiful designs. In 1991, they revealed one of their greatest engineering achievements: the memorable caliber Blancpain 1735, which boasted a Perpetual Calendar, a Minute Repeater, a Split Chronograph, and a Tourbillon.
Blancpain also played a vital role in the boom of dive watches in the 1950s and beyond. Their Fifty Fathoms five-watch series — worn by Jacques Cousteau in the movie Le Monde du Silence — was the first to include a rotating bezel, allowing divers to time their dives accurately and easily. This innovation continues to be featured on dive watches manufactured by most brands today. In addition to engineering innovations, Blancpain has a vast catalog of aesthetically diverse watches. From men’s sports watches to women’s jewelry watches, the brand is not afraid to push the boundaries of watch design.
One such piece is the Villeret Metiers d’Art “The Great Wave.” While not the most technically complicated of Blancpain’s watches, this is a stunning timepiece that, once seen, is never forgotten. Sitting on the handcrafted, calfskin wrist strap is one of the most artistic dials seen in the world of watches: a 3D recreation of the Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai.
The Breitling company was started in 1884 in Switzerland by Léon Breitling at the tender age of 24. Despite the founder’s young age, he led the company to great success and established it as the go-to manufacturer of precision timepieces for military and sports events.
Breitling specialized in accurate chronographs from its inception and, due to its impressive craftsmanship, collaborated with the air force industry. One of their most memorable timepieces is the Breitling Navitimer, which included a logarithmic scale specifically for use on aircraft and is commonly thought of as the world’s most famous pilot’s watch.
In addition to their selection of timepieces designed for aviation, Breitling has branched out into other arenas over the years, particularly impressing with its line of dive watches, Breitling SuperOcean, known for its durability and extreme power reserve.
Like all luxury watch brands, Breitling watches are loved by the rich and famous, but Breitling has the distinction of one of its watches (Breitling Navitimer, reference 806), appearing prominently in the 1965 Bond movie Thunderball. This link to one of the coolest fictional characters in cinema certainly gives Breitling extra cachet.
Choosing a Brand
All ten of the watch brands highlighted in this guide should be celebrated for their incredible achievements in the world of horology. They have pushed the boundaries of engineering, daring to dream big in order to innovate. The results are beautiful pieces of craftsmanship and outstanding design.
Although watch enthusiasts appreciate the work of all these top brands, they often have a favorite. This could be informed by a particular design feature or complication that they find useful or enjoy wearing, or it could simply be motivated by an unexplainable affinity for a particular brand.
If you aim to build a collection of luxury watches, you won’t go wrong by including pieces from any of the 10 brands featured in this list and exploring the Luxury of Watches selection to find your perfect timepiece.
Rustic and Watches/Shutterstock.com