If thinking about a classic luxury watch, you intend to go further than contemplating which Rolex model suits you best, you might be interested in a little introduction. Indeed, there are numerous other icons of the watchmaking industry which have been there for decades and some even for centuries, well worth your attention.
Naturally, you wouldn’t find here any of the quartz watches, smartwatches, or other gadgets with short technological lifespan. For now, we would also skip fashion brand watches and other newcomers with hyper provocative design as they are comparatively new, and there is no proof they will retain their popularity and value.
Instead, let’s focus on classic luxury mechanical timepieces, which will not only make you stand out but also keep happy your banker, making a great investment, and demonstrating steady appreciation over the years. The list below is non-exhaustive and includes only a first dozen of 1st tier brands coveted by most collectors. A simple alphabetical order would help to avoid prejudice from our side, letting facts guide you in making your own top selection.
1. Audemars Piguet
Or shall we name it the Royal Oak? For despite its Swiss origin, respectable history starting from 1875, and achievements, including making the first skeleton watch showing the mechanism through a looking glass in 1928, it was the Royal Oak model which started a new page for the brand. With a price tag of $3,200 in 1972, stainless steel Royal Oak was far more expensive than some gold watches or competing Rolex models. However, being designed and marketed as a luxury sports watch, with the sports watches being anything but luxury at that time, it was a winner.
The brand was further propelled after the Shah of Iran has ordered a Royal Oak watch made of white gold. The stainless steel model also had several limited editions dedicated to great athletes, including Shaquille O’Neal (basketball) and Rory Mcllroy (golf) which are avidly sought by collectors. Featured by other sports stars, including Michael Schumacher (Formula I), Rubens Barrichello (Formula I), Lionel Messi (football), and many other brand ambassadors, Audemars Piguet is considered one of the best brands making classic luxury sports watches today. Prices start from no less than $10,000.
Breguet is one of the oldest watchmakers on the planet founded in 1775 in Paris. In spite of French origin, Breguet is a Swiss manufacturer with all watches produced in Switzerland from 1976. Swatch group, which bought Breguet in 1999, has paid due tribute to its roots and was able to preserve its unique style.
Breguet is easily recognizable by coin-edge cases and ‘Breguet style’ watch hands. Due to the brand’s history and classic designs, it does not fall short of Big Three Swiss brands while offering an excellent value for money with more modest prices.
Breguet model range is enormous with all timepieces deserving special attention. Among those, Breguet Classique on the traditional side and Breguet Type XXII collections on the sportier side are the timepieces you would not miss when looking for a piece of horology with more than three hundred years of watchmaking tradition which makes a difference and is not made by Big Three.
Most of Breguet watches start above $10,000, which is fully justified for the brand of such class and quality. With famous wearers, including Napoleon Bonaparte and Winston Churchill, Breguet has one of the most exquisite fanbase to join.
Another Swiss Brand started as far as in 1735, living on the edge of survival through the previous century before being resurrected in the 80s, Blancpain is of a very few watchmakers keeping the promise never make a quartz watch. Its timepieces are very rare due to the limited quantity of production, not exceeding several dozen per day. The company takes pride in manual production, with each watch made individually by a single person.
With luxury sports watches being in the mainstream, it is no wonder that Blancpain may be most famous for its Fifty Fathoms diving model, chosen as a standard of U.S. combat swimmers and featured by Jacques-Yves Cousteau in his world-famous saga. The brand has other recognizable models, including The Villeret and Le Brassus collections.
While the price tag for the latter starts well above $10,000, you can find Fifty Fathoms for much less than this amount and get a legendary diving watch rivaling the standard-setting Rolex Submariner. With Blancpain being the choice of Francis Ford Coppola and Marilyn Monroe, you will have nothing short of a great company.
A popular Swiss luxury brand with a distinct history, the name of Breitling sounds special for all aviation fans and is considered a synonym for a pilot watch. Founded in 1884 the company specialized on chronographs, introducing a separate start-stop function in 1923, which was warmly welcomed by pilots and race car drivers. Supplying British flyers during WWII, Breitling has further built on this heritage, introducing its iconic Navitimer model in 1952, considered one of its most prominent watches.
Breitling has gone through the quartz crisis hitting the luxury watch industry after the advent of quartz technology and came back with an array of new models, including Breitling SuperOcean with depth resistance of 1,000 m as well as Breitling Colt, being one of its most popular models today. With prices starting below $5,000, Breitling can be a great starter into the world of classic luxury watches.
Cartier is an example of a fashion watch becoming classic. Standing aside from other great fashion brands of modernity, which have yet to fix their claim into the world of watches, Cartier is firmly established as one of the best watchmakers for both its movements and design.
Cartier was founded in Paris in 1847 for production of jewelry. The company went into watchmaking only in 1904 when Louis Cartier has designed his first watch for a friend, a Brazilian pioneer aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont. However, it wasn’t until 1917 when Cartier brand got viral after the introduction of its iconic Tank model inspired by Renault tanks.
Ever since Cartier Tank and other models were worn by Cristiano Renaldo, Bill Clinton, Ben Affleck and many others. As a fashion brand, Cartier watches are naturally popular with women, including Princess Diana, Angelina Jolie, and Michelle Obama. With a vast price span starting below $10,000 and ending with several million dollars, Cartier occupies a firm place in any top list of classic luxury watches.
This is another luxury Swiss brand, which dates back to 1791 with more than 200 patents, designing its own cases and movements. The history, design, and craftsmanship make it a perfect alternative for any of the Big Three watches.
Girard-Perregaux has its own stars including the Laureato model with a distinctive octagonal shape resembling another well-known design, already mentioned above, as well as the Sea Hawk dive watch being tangibly cheaper than competitors in the same category and representing a piece of best Swiss horology for its time. The list would not be complete without mentioning Girard Perregaux 1966 Chronograph, priced nearly half as much as comparable timepieces.
As such, Girard Perregaux offers a great alternative to any watch aficionado with the intention to stand out from the mainstream. With Quentin Tarantino and Peirce Brosnan in the same lane, it could not be different.
One of a few Swiss brands with particular relation to aviation, the International Watch Company was founded by an American in 1868. IWC got light after the introduction of wristwatches for flyers including IWC Special Watch for Pilots and IWC Mark’s Pilot series with clear lines, large size, and design resembling cockpit dials.
However, it was only in the late 30th when IWC has stood up after the introduction of its Portuguese model made under the request of Portuguese merchants, becoming IWC all-time classic due to its size, large numerals, and railway-style chapter ring which was a novelty for the time. The brand has further reinforced its presence in the minds of watch lovers after the introduction of its water-resistant Aquatimer sports model.
Seen on the wrists of Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, and Boris Becker, with prices starting below $5,000, IWC represents a great opportunity for an introduction into the world of classic timepieces and is a must for anyone having a passion for everything airborne.
JLC is a legendary Swiss watchmaker, producing movements for other major world brands at some point in their histories, including Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, Cartier, and others, which might be the only reason for Big Three not encompassing Jaeger LeCoultre and becoming Big Four.
For a very long time, the JLC model range was dominated by its Reverso wristwatch having a unique case with two faces on each side, which can slide on its base and flip on one side to show up the second dial. Today Jaeger LeCoultre offers a range of other exceptional models, including serene Master Control, sporty Master Compressor, and Aston Martin inspired AMVOX collection.
Most of Jaeger-LeCoultre models, except only a few fairly complicated watches, start under $5,000, which is one of the best opportunities to get one of the most well-made and unique Swiss timepieces. Much appreciated by kings, queens, politicians, businesspeople, and pop-idols alike, including Queen Elizabeth II, General Douglas MacArthur, and Jay-Z among others.
9. Lange & Sohne
A rare non-Swiss luxury watch brand, A.Lange &Sohne is a German watchmaking company founded in 1845. Similar to other best watchmakers, Lange makes all of their movements in the house. The main facility is located in Germany, having lived through the WWII, ceasing existence during Soviet occupation and reviving in 1990 thanks to the efforts of Walter Lange, pillared by Swiss manufacturers, including IWC and Jaeger-LeCoultre.
The company follows its traditions producing watches with very distinct designs avoiding copying other brands. Even the metal of its movements, known as the German silver, is different from the plated brass of Swiss watches. Due to the supreme quality, exquisite design, and craftsmanship, Lange & Sohne is challenging the ‘Holy Trinity’ and despite breaks in its existence and comparatively short new history is often described as German Patek Philippe.
Lange’s most famous models are Lange 1, which was among the first produced after a revival in 1990, Saxonia, and Datograph. Included in watch collections of Brad Pitt and President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, among others, with prices starting from well above $10,000, Lange & Sohne timepieces are rare and highly appreciated on the very top of most best-of lists.
Even if you are not a watch fan, most likely you have already heard about Omega, whose wristwatch was the first to be worn by astronauts landing the Moon. For the time being, Omega watches remain the only mechanical timepieces certified for a spacewalk by NASA.
It comes with no surprise that Omega also comes from Switzerland. The brand has a bonanza of successful models which are so numerous that they are even competing among themselves. With an average model priced below $10,000, Omega is an excellent starter into classic luxury watches.
The best-known Omega model, the Speedmaster Professional, more often referred to as a Moonwatch after being used during the Appolo mission in 1969, is a highly desirable piece for any watch lover. Omegas were the choice of Daniel Craig, George Clooney, and The King of Rock and Roll among many others.
The only Italian watch brand which has made its way through underground into the world best watches. Founded in 1860 in Florence, the company had emerged from obscurity in 1997 when it was bought by Richemont Group. Clever marketing, together with a hundred-year-old tradition allowed the brand to build a strong demand. Add to that comparatively small volume of production, especially for earlier models, and you will know why Panerai watches are priced at the same level as the strongest brands on the market.
Brand popularity was boosted by Sylvester Stallone who was taken away with Panerai Luminor in Italy in 1995 while preparing for his role in Daylight movie. Sly has bought several other models asking to make “Slytech” inscription with his signature, intended as presents for friends, including Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Iron Arnie has also featured Panerai in Eraser movie and is often seen wearing his Luminor on various occasions. Panerai powerful looks have fascinated many other Hollywood strongmen, Jason Statham, who is also a great fan of the brand.
With prices starting below $10,000 and so many masculine role-models being loyal to the brand, it is no wonder that Panerai watches are included in most top lists during the last years, having a strong fanbase and challenging the unquestioned leaders of the industry.
12. Patek Philippe
Often mentioned as Rolls-Royce of mechanical watches, Patek Philippe stands aside as probably the world’s most exclusive watch brand for its supreme craftsmanship, design, and history. The company was founded in 1851 and located in Geneva, producing the most exquisite watches, considered unanimously as a pinnacle of watchmaking craft.
They hold value exceptionally well for several other reasons, including being one of the rarest watches with less than 1 million Patek Philippe timepieces produced from the moment of company foundation. In comparison, other manufacturers exceed this number during a single year. The company allows tracing any of their timepieces from their archives, listing the date of manufacturing and date of the first sale.
Patek Philippe watches were worn by Queen Victoria, Dalai Lama, and Vladimir Putin. These timepieces were seen on the wrists of Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, as well as Brad Pitt. Brad owns a platinum Patek Philippe chronograph, bought to him by Angelina Jolie for $3 million.
The prices reflect brand exclusivity and are naturally on the highest end of the spectrum, starting from approximately $20,000. Each Patek Philippe model is a masterpiece of its own and worth a separate story. As such a description would exceed the frame of this overview, let’s mention Patek Philippe Calatrava and Nautilus as those which are most often bought for wearing rather than for keeping them in a safe.
Rolex is mentioned and featured so often that it has become almost a synonym for a classic luxury watch. Almost everybody has heard about Rolex watches notwithstanding the ability to have one. This attention is well-deserved and is not based on just plain marketing. Rolexes are exclusive timepieces, manufactured under the best standards and practices with limited numbers, and having a universal appeal due to their design.
Unlike other top brands, most of which originate from Switzerland, Rolex takes its roots from Great Britain. The facility was moved to Geneva only in 14 years after opening the company in London in 1905. Ever since, Rolex has made its way to establish itself as a status symbol for the American rich, being first to invent the waterproof case and watch with a calendar, positioning its timepieces as watches for activewear, and actively promoting its image in Hollywood movies.
If one is asked to identify the three most iconic Rolex models, still produced at the moment, one would undoubtedly mention Submariner, GMT, Oyster Perpetual, and Rolex Daytona priced in the range of $10,000-$30,000. According to market stats, Rolex and Patek Phillippe are best in holding their value and showing the highest appreciation and considered as the most reliable for watch investments.
14. Tag Heuer
If you are looking for a luxury Swiss watch with close ties to everything automotive, you will not find a better match than TAG Heuer. And it could not be different with a brand focusing on car dashboard watches from as early as 1911. Most of its movements are not produced in-house and are made by Valjoux, which is one of the reasons why these watches are sometimes considered as middle or even entry-level.
Today, TAG Heuer is included in most top lists and given a lot of floor space in most jewelry stores selling watches. With such models as Monaco, Carrera, Aquaracer, or Formula I, worn by all known athletes, celebrities, and racing legends, including Ayrton Senna, Kimi Räikkönen, and Fernando Alonso, just to name a few, this is absolutely no wonder.
Tag Heuer is an official sponsor of Formula I teams, having been a partner of Ferrari F1 and McLaren. The brand is saturated with the automotive spirit, which is deeply incorporated in its design, including even the racing stripes on some of the TAG dials. TAG’s legendary Monaco Steve McQueen model has won the souls of the racing fans after being featured by the King of Cool in “Le Mans” racing saga. With all that being said, Tag Heuer is nothing short of the most automotive Swiss luxury watch brand on the planet.
15. Vacheron Constantin
Vacheron Constantine is one of Big Three Swiss watch brands along with Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet, founded in 1755. Being truly one of the best watchmakers, Vacheron Constantin produces its movements and all parts in-house.
With a very limited number of models and the number of timepieces not exceeding 20,000 per year Vacheron’s watches are one of the rarest and most appreciated timepieces in all respect. This comes in no surprise for a brand with a motto “Do better if possible, and that is always possible.”
During its history, Vacheron Constantin has always specialized in the most exquisite timepieces worn by Napoleon Bonaparte, Pope Piux IX, and Donald Trump, among other figures of high society. The brand is famous for its dress watches, including most exquisite ones like Historique American 1921 and Patrimony as well as for iconic Vacheron Constantin Overseas and Quai de L’lle collections of luxury sports watches. Prices match the exclusivity of the brand with top models going well above several hundred thousand dollars.
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