The name on a watch face can say a lot. It can represent a range of intangible qualities, from history, pride and prestige to a reputation for quality and interesting design. But for those getting into watches, there’s a lot to learn.
Ideally, it’s best to develop your own impressions and relationships with brands over time and experience. Everyone has their own tastes and each watch should ideally be judged on its own merits, but you may want to have a basic orientation to the most prominent brands when browsing or buying watches.
There are hundreds of watch brands today, each with its own personality and approach to watchmaking. The brands below aren’t necessarily “the best” or the only ones worth knowing, but they are some of the companies you definitely need to know about. Together they will help you establish a base from which you can do your own exploration.
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Surely you already know Rolex. Appropriately represented by a crown-shaped logo, Rolex is the undisputed king of luxury watches, worn by countless historical figures and contemporary celebrities. New models can sell for above MSRP in the secondary market, and the vintage Rolex is the subject of the most active and passionate watch collection. You don’t have to know anything about watches to know or want a Rolex. Naturally, the company bases its reputation on impeccable quality.
Internationally, Seiko has long been associated with affordable yet reliable “everyone” watches. Today, the Japanese watchmaker is a global superstar appreciated for its quality and value, but it also rivals the biggest Swiss luxury brands with excellent workmanship and innovative technology (notably with its Grand Seiko spin-off brand). Seiko produces almost all of the components in-house for its watches, which range from the lowest three digits to five.
Year of foundation: 1892
RRepresentative model: Prospex “Turtle”
Cartier is sometimes considered a jeweler first, but it is also one of the most important historical watchmakers in the world. The French company pioneered the first wristwatches and continues to make some of the most recognizable models today. The often formal style of Cartier is such that it is difficult to talk about the brand without using the word “elegant”.
The tech company is, like it or not, a major presence in the watch industry. Since its introduction in 2015, the Apple Watch has continued to ahead of the entire Swiss watch industry in terms of units sold. It’s the gold standard for smartwatches, and has caused many traditional watch wearers to change for good, not only because it’s a technological marvel, but also because it’s been carefully crafted based on watchmaking principles developed over the centuries.
Year of foundation: 1976
Representative model: Apple Watch (thrift store)
From the moon landings to James Bond to its role as Official Timekeeper of the Olympics, Omega has a range of notable partnerships and watches to go along with them. The Moonwatch alone would make the brand a notable force, but it has several bonafide icons, from diver and dress watches to more chronographs.
The International Watch Company is among the brands that come to mind when talking about watches and their connection to aviation. IWC offers several notable product lines, but is best known for its various collections of pilot’s watches, which are inspired by its military history.
Year of foundation: 1868
Representative model: Large Pilot’s Watch (second-hand store)
Jaeger-LeCoultre has a history of notable models, but is best known for the Reverso, a watch with a unique reversible case first introduced for polo players in 1931. Also colloquially referred to as “JLC”, the company produced a range of mid-range products from everyday luxury to high-end complicated timepieces and ultra-thin watches.
Year of foundation: 1833
Representative model: Reverso (second-hand store)
A strong association with motorsport and chronograph watches characterizes TAG Heuer, known simply as Heuer until 1985. The modern brand is the most affordable and youngest in its parent company LVMH’s stable of watchmakers. , but it produces its own movements internally. as well as some high-end parts. Its current catalog oscillates between heritage models for collectors and more modern watches aimed more at first-time buyers.
Year of foundation: 1860
Representative model: Carrera (second-hand store)
Panerai does more or less one thing, very well, in a myriad of mostly subtle variations: the Italian brand makes large, legible watches with an unmistakable retro military look. Despite its pragmatic roots supplying Italian Navy divers, the brand today focuses on relatively high-end watches with in-house movements. Fun fact: Actor Sylvester Stallone is often credited with “discovering” the brand and kickstarting its modern popularity.
Breitling is best known for its decades-old chronographs and pilot’s watches. Modern Breitling watches have long been characterized by bold sizes and a brash military attitude, as well as a focus on rugged use. Many recent releases from the brand have focused on re-issuing vintage models, following current industry trends.
Tudor is owned by Rolex and many of its watch components are produced in the same facilities as Rolex watches. The brand offers superb fit and finish, in-house movements and an irresistible connection to Rolex prestige at remarkably reasonable prices. Tudor is widely recognized as offering one of the best value for money luxury watches.
Audemars Piguet is often considered one of the most prestigious names in watchmaking, focusing on high-end, highly finished in-house movements and complicated horology. The Swiss brand is essentially synonymous with its Royal Oak and derivative collections of luxury sports watches.
A. Lange & Söhne
Since its relaunch in 1990, A. Lange & Söhne has become famous and ranked among the oldest and most respected Swiss watchmakers. The brand’s passion speaks to the appeal of its sensible German approach, strong character and refined, hand-finished details.
Although Swiss-owned since the 1970s, Hamilton places its American roots at the heart of its DNA. Hamilton has a rich history to build on and today offers an entry-level (often sub-$1000) luxury watch experience with a wide range of collections and models. The brand is also known for its connection to Hollywood and the many films in which its watches have featured.
Year of foundation: 1892
Representative model: Khaki Field Mechanical (Used in store)
Timex’s old slogan “Takes a licking and keep on ticking” is one of the best known in advertising history. The historic American watchmaker has long placed affordability at the heart of its brand and continues to do so today with a wide range of quartz and mechanical timepieces, very few of which cost more than a few hundred dollars.
Yesgrounded ear: 1854
Representative model: Weekender (thrift store)
Japanese watchmaker Casio also makes other electronics, but is in many ways almost synonymous with digital watches and calculators of the 1980s. Under its name are several watch sub-brands, the most notable of which is its famous durable G-Shock collection.
Yesgrounded ear: 1946
Representative model: G-Shock 5600 (second-hand store)
Citizen is a watchmaker but also owns a range of other brands, including movement maker Miyota, which supplies many smaller companies. The vast majority of Citizen watches use quartz movements with batteries that are recharged by light via a technology they call Eco-Drive.
Year of foundation: 1918
Representative model: diver promaster (second-hand store)
Richard Mille is known for its extravagant prices and association with high-flying celebrities, and you’ll occasionally see the brand appear in the news. Costing mostly in the six-figure range, Richard Mille watches typically feature complicated movements, tourbillons, non-traditional materials, aggressive size and flamboyant styling.
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