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Beginner's Guide to Major Watch Brands

How do all these expensive makes of watches stack up?

  1. How do the major watch brands compare to each other?
  2. Aren't Rolex the best watches in the world?
  3. If Rolex is not the only superior watch brand, why haven't I heard of these other watches?
  4. What are the ranges of luxury watches available?
    What should I expect to pay and get within each range?
    And what brands are in each range?

How do the major watch brands compare to each other?

The actual relationships and who exactly is better than whom is highly debated among wristwatch aficionados. There are so many different attributes of each and so many different things that are important to each buyer or owner that a simple list of "the best" or attempts to rank the brands in detail would be fruitless.

So this guide is merely a starter to help the beginning watch buyer understand the range of brands available. Rolex is covered in more detail here, because they are the single brand that has the broadest public perception of excellence. They have become the yardstick by which most watch layman discussions of the high end watch brands go by.

Any mentions of specific brands in particular categories is intended as a general guide to get you started looking, but is in no way a definitive guide to all these brands have to offer. Beyond that, you will have to do more detailed research on the specific attributes of the watch and watch companies you find of interest to determine which are better for your specific wants and needs.


Aren't Rolex the best watches in the world?

Rolex is clearly the best known and most popular fine watch brand in the world. Rolex has long been known as a maker of superior watches. They pioneered and invented several major watch concepts, such as the first "certified chronometer," the first effective "waterproof" and dustproof watch casing, the first wristwatch with an automatic changing date, and the techniques used in mass-manufacturing of premium watches.

It was in the 1980's that their reputation went from stellar to astronomical from being broadly publicized as the luxury wristwatch of choice of the so-called 'yuppie' movement of young, affluent people who enjoyed conspicuous consumption as a indication of their newfound status. Both the people who embraced and those who decried the yuppie image were very effective in making the name of Rolex a household word. In that time, Rolex prices took a stellar rise to match their popularity. A stainless steel DateJust model that sold new for around US $900 in 1981 rose to US $2350 by 1991, despite only nominal changes to the product. Models in finer metals took even more dramatic increases, leaving many existing owners to joke about the newer models now being made of "unobtanium."

There are several myths about Rolex that need to be dispelled:

  • MYTH: Rolex are individually handmade watches--Most Rolex watches are mass-produced by highly efficient factory machines using a number of techniques pioneered and patented by Rolex. Rolex makes in the vicinity of 1,000,000 watches a year. They do have some very high end models and special editions that are handcrafted.
  • MYTH: Rolex are the most accurate watches in the world--Completely untrue. A $25 Casio will tell time just as well if not better. Spending thousands of dollars on a watch buys you the additional jewelry features of the watch. It does not buy you a more accurate timepiece.
  • MYTH: A Rolex watch takes a year to make--While Rolex has claimed this in their advertising, they have never explained any tangible basis for this claim. This is meaningless advertising fluff to give the romantic illusion that there is a craftsman laboring over your watch for a year to bring it to perfection. This is intended to obscure the fact that they are really mass-produced.
  • MYTH: Rolex watches are a good buy because they have a high resale value--While they do sell used at a higher percentage of their original retail price than many other brands, that does not mean they are always good investments or safer purchases than other watches. You WILL lose money on almost any watch--Rolex or otherwise--you purchase new and later resell. For more information on this, read the article in the Buyer's Guide section titled Watches with a good resale value are a good investment, right?

So are Rolex the best? That depends entirely on your needs, perceptions, and what you want to get out of owning a fine watch. Rolex are extremely good watches with immense popularity and recognizability. But they are not clearly the best watch, best investment, or only fine choice you can make when purchasing an expensive wristwatch. Understand that you do have a number of fine alternatives ranging from comparable quality for a lot less money on up to infinitely more complicated handcrafted timepieces for even more staggering prices.

The best watch purchase decision is one where you research all the pertinent information, but in the end make the decision based on what you feel most comfortable with. The truth is that there are millions of happy Rolex owners, as well as millions of happy owners of other high-end watch brands.


If Rolex is not the only superior watch brand, why haven't I heard of these other watches?

Popularity is only one indication of a superior product. In most cases, the general public knows only certain brands which were well publicized as the 'best of the best' and may be totally unaware of other equal or superior products that are available. If you asked the average person-on-the-street about watches, they would probably tell you the market starts with Timex and Casio, moves up to Seiko, then TAG, and reaches its epitome with Rolex.

Yet the most popular or well known choices frequently are not what the true aficionado would select. I'm sure you would find your man-on-the-street sample would also be unaware of the true collectors' choices of wines, cigars, audiophile equipment, sports cars, or writing instruments. Similarly, they will unlikely know the additional fine watch brands such as Alain Siberstein, Audemars Piguet, Blancpain, Chopard, Fortis, Franck Mueller, IWC, Jaeger-Le Coultre, Patek Phillipe, and Ulysse Nardin to name a few.

In many products, the well-known brands like Bose, MontBlanc, Sony, and Rolex dominate their markets from global name recognition. While they do have quality products, they are not always the only superior choice. Success can spoil the innovation, the competitive edge, and the uniqueness that was what built the reputation these companies and products enjoy today. Sure, if you want to impress the general public, you buy names anyone will recognize--sometimes even without regard to outrageous premium prices or quality and features that are less than one would expect from their "leader of the pack" reputation.

But the true connoisseurs and aficionados buy what impresses *them*, which may often include brands that the general population would not even recognize.


What are the ranges of luxury watches available?
What should I expect to pay and get within each range?
And what brands are in each range?

The actual relationships and who exactly is better than whom is highly debated among wristwatch aficionados. This table is intended only to show very broad, general groupings of brands based on what each of these brands are most known for and what the bulk of their product lines represent. Many brands have a few special higher-end collections and some have lower-end models.

High-End Luxury
There are always superb options when money is no object.
Expect To Get:
A particularly refined watch recognized only by people "in the know." Very exclusive in design and craftsmanship, produced in small numbers, available through only very specialized dealers. In short, these are the Rolls Royce class of timepieces.
Examples of Brands in this Range: Expect Retail Prices To Be:
A Lange and Sohne, Alain Silberstein, Audemars Piguet, Blancpain, Breguet, Franck Muller, JLC, Parmigiani, Patek Phillipe, Ulysse Nardin, Vacheron Constantin starting at $5,000 for Steel models
starting at $10,000 for Gold on a leather strap
starting at $20,000 for Gold on a Gold bracelet
with the sky as the limit. Some watches can exceed $2,000,000.
Design/Style: On The Outside: On The Inside:
Either highly distinctive or ultra-conservative. Very to extremely limited production. Partially to completely handcrafted. Hand finished mechanical movements either developed and produced by the same company ('in-house') or bought from specialty movement houses and highly customized. Additional mechanical complications--from obvious ones like moon phases and power reserve indicators to very subtle ones like correctly handling all the obscure conditions of the Gregorian calendar.
As NEW watches: As USED watches: As VINTAGE watches:
Sold mainly through very exclusive and high-end jewelry dealers. While some modest discounts are customary, larger discounts are rare. Some of these are available through gray market dealers. But on such exclusive and expensive products, it is not usually a good idea to buy through unauthorized sources. Because of high new watch prices and limited production, used models are in notable demand and still command quite decent prices. Always collectible, always valuable.
Summary:
If you have the kind of money necessary to play in this field, then you likely do understand what the true merits and values of world-class luxury items have to offer. These are the products that impress those in the know, not the average Joe on the street. Exclusivity and extremes of refinement and jewelry value are king here.
Luxury
The largest, most widely known class of luxury timepieces
Expect To Get:
An elegant, valuable, stylish and prestigious watch that will serve you well for a long time. Of quality and durability that the watch can be passed down to your children. If maintained in good condition, can be resold whether it is 6 months or 30 years old.
Examples of Brands in this Range: Expect Retail Prices To Be:
Breitling, Cartier, Ebel, Omega, Rolex, TAG Heuer $1,000-$4,000 for Steel models
$2,500-$8,000 for Gold on a leather strap
$5,000-$20,000 for Gold on a Gold bracelet
Only modest discounts available through most brand-authorized dealers. Moderate discounts available from unauthorized "gray market" dealers.
Design/Style: On The Outside: On The Inside:
Trend-setting styles that range from traditional to highly original. Each brand usually has at least one or two very distinctive styles. Cases and bracelets mass-produced, but with the superlative fit and finish of fine jewelry. Surgical grade steel. Solid gold of 18 karat or sometimes 14 karat. Highly scratch-resistant sapphire crystals. High-end movements mass produced by the brand, or by a different company and then often customized by the brand. Dominantly very high-grade quartz and chronometer-grade mechanical. Digital quartz not seen at this level except for a few very specialized aerospace watches.
As NEW watches: As USED watches: As VINTAGE watches:
Sold officially mainly through dealers of higher-end jewelry. Though several forms of unauthorized resellers exist. Discounts through authorized dealers are restricted by the manufacturers to avoid cheapening the brand image. Superb market. Watches in this class are well sought after, but their high initial pricing encourages many buyers to seek used ones to better suit their budgets. Superb market. Watches in this class can last for many decades and are readily available through many reputable used watch dealers.
Summary:
This is the main tier of true luxury watches. Overall, these can be a good value because manufacturers at this level are not skimping to offer 'luxury' products at more moderate prices--yet they mostly do not go to outrageous excess in details without regard to cost of the highest-end brands. Better durability and modest depreciation rates make the long-term cost of ownership of these watches quite reasonable. Used watches in this tier can be an outstanding value.
Pseudo Luxury Watches
When you want a better luxury watch, but don't want to spend so much
Expect To Get:
An elegant and stylish watch that will serve you well for a moderate number of years.
Examples of Brands in this Range: Expect Retail Prices To Be:
Baume & Mercier, Raymond Weil $500-$2,000 for Steel models
$750-$4,000 for Gold models
Moderate to heavy discounts available through various dealers.
Design/Style: On The Outside: On The Inside:
More trend following than trend leading. Mass-produced with adequate fit and finish. Steel. Filled or solid gold. Crystals may be mineral glass, acrylic or sometimes synthetic sapphire. High-volume mass-production. Mostly analog quartz and non-chronometer grade mechanical. These brands tend to focus mostly on luxury-style exteriors equipped with very common, unexceptional watch movements.
As NEW watches: As USED watches: As VINTAGE watches:
Sold as the 'better' brands in department stores and mall-type watch store chains. Sometimes sold as the 'low-end' brands in fine jewelry stores. Limited market. Despite some of these being priced new close to brands in the true Luxury category, the heavier discounting when new, trendy styles that become dated and poorer long term durability depreciate their value rapidly. Most of these brands cannot claim any meaningful vintage heritage, even though some are operating under names of bought out companies that were well reputed in earlier decades.
Summary:
This is the transition tier--these watches are the high-end brands of the mass market stores, but the low-end brands at the finer jewelry stores. Overall, these can be the weaker value in luxury watches. They still have hefty prices, yet lack many of the better durability and long-term value benefits of the only slightly more expensive watches. Used watches from brands in the next tier up bought from reliable used watch dealers are usually a much better value.
Basic Luxury Watches
When you want something finer than average
Expect To Get:
An elegant and stylish watch that will serve you well for a number of years.
Examples of Brands in this Range: Expect Retail Prices To Be:
Epos, Fortis, Movado, Oris under $1,000 for Steel models
under $2,000 for Gold models
Moderate to heavy discounts available through various dealers.
Design/Style: On The Outside: On The Inside:
Mostly classic or trend following, though some brands in this class depend on style uniqueness as their real value. Mass-produced with adequate fit and finish. Steel. Plated or filled golds. Crystals are usually the scratchable but inexpensively replaced mineral glass or acrylic type. High-volume mass-production. Mostly analog quartz and non-chronometer grade mechanical. However some offer very unique complications at modest prices relative to most of the luxury watch market.
As NEW watches: As USED watches: As VINTAGE watches:
Sold in department stores and mall-type watch store chains, though some of these brands are unique enough that they only appear in watch specialty stores. Sometimes sold as the 'low-end' brands in fine jewelry stores. Limited market, main point of resale for this class of watches is pawn shops. Once these watches reach a 'vintage' age, their style, condition and values are seldom appealing enough to create any significant demand for them--except for those in virtually unused condition.
Summary:
This is the first tier of 'luxury' caliber watches. While there is a broad range, many brands at this level are excellent values as they are not trying to be more than they are. Some concentrate more on 'fashion' watches, others focus on affordable yet horologically sound products. The more modest prices make these a less risky purchase--you haven't invested so much that long-term value is of such concern.

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