In any conversation about watches some derivation of the question “who is the best Swiss watch brand?” will typically lead to lengthy and healthy debate about the watchmakers we all know and love. While many Swiss watch brands serve different collectors markets, and can't always be compared as equals, it's still something we try to do anyway as we seek order in the chaos.
While brands, rather understandably, don't refrain from hyping themselves up, the answer to the question is often deeply subjective in nature as personal preferences often play a large role in what we like and wear. In this article, we're going to explore what we think are the top 10 Swiss watch brands and explain what makes some of their most famous watches so iconic, to hopefully give you an idea of some best Swiss watches there are on the market today. In no particular order:
10) TAG Heuer
Founded in 1860 by 20-year-old Edouard Heuer in St. Imier, Heuer began making pocket watches made from silver. Heuer would go on to make accurate stopwatches and dashboard times that would ultimately tie the brand to the automotive industry for the entire 20th century, where it still exists today. Heuer's heyday is typically considered to during the 70s and 80s when their watches were familiar sights on car racer's wrists. Heuer would go on to merge with TAG in 1985 to become TAG Heuer, which caused the brand suffer a small decline in prestige, which has recently reversed. However, you view modern day TAG Heuer, the original Heuer brand will always remain one of the best Swiss brands with numerous innovations and often setting the standard for their competitors to follow.
It is no surprise that Heuer's most iconic models are closely tied to the brand's automotive past. As such, their most iconic model is the Monaco. Released in 1969, the Monaco was the first automatic chronograph on the market. Steve McQueen also championed it, which catapulted it to the position of an icon – both on and off the track.
Founded in 1865 by Georges Favre-Jacot in the Le Cocle canton of Neuchâtel, Switzerland Zenith was founded so every craft within watchmaking could be merged under one roof. His goal at the time was simple – to make the most precise timepiece possible. They most certainly achieved this too, for a period, with their El Primero movement. One of the most accurate chronograph movements ever, so good, in fact, the Rolex Daytona was powered by it for 12 years from 1988 to 2000.
The El Primero is probably what Zenith is most known for. Released in 1969, Zenith was competing with Heuer, Breitling and several other brands to create the world's first automatic chronograph movement. While Heuer’s movement beat them to market, Zenith announced theirs months before Heuer did, so the debate regarding which movement was first rages on. What isn’t a debate, however, is how iconic the El Primero still is to this day and its position as one of the best Swiss watches on the market.
Founded in 1735 by Jehan-Jacques Blancpain, Blancpain is the oldest watch manufacturer in the world. While Blancpain hasn't been in operation for its entire history, it still displays the brand's experience in making fine timepieces. Founded as a small workshop in the upstairs of Jehan-Jacques' house, Blancpain began to become more modern at the turn of the 1800s when Jehan-Jacques' great-grandson took control of the company. Despite the brand changing ownership, and its name to 'Rayville' - a legal requirement as the family no longer owned the firm, Blancpain remained true to its roots. Blancpain has gone through numerous owners and had a challenging time during the Quartz Crisis but has rebounded to maintain its position as one of the greatest brands in the world.
Blancpain's most successful model would have to be their Fifty-Fathoms diving watch. Released in 1953 on commission for the French 'Frogmen' – an elite military group of combat swimmers, the Fifty-Fathoms had a strict list of requirements that it had to fulfil. From its large luminous hands and indices to its thick bezel, black dial and impressive water resistance at the time, the Fifty-Fathoms was one of the pioneering diving watches.
Founded in 1848 by Louis Brandt in La Chaux de Fonds, Omega began with Louis assembling pocket watches with parts supplied by local craftsmen. Following his sons' involvement and his death at the turn of the century, Omega started to turn into an industry giant with around 240,000 watches made per year – a lot by today's standards still. Omega began to acquire its competing brands and vertically integrate its supply chain in what was seen as a race to become the king of Swiss watchmaking with Rolex. Whether you prefer Rolex to them or not, you have to admit they make incredible watches, still to this day.
Omega is most known for having the watch that made it to the moon. In 1969 their Speedmaster model was selected by NASA to accompany the Apollo astronauts on their Lunar landing mission. The Speedmaster, and several watches from other brands, had to pass a set of rigorous tests and the Speedmaster triumphed over all and was the first watch on another celestial body.
6) International Watch Company
IWC was founded in 1868 by American watchmaker Florentine Aristo Jones. After having the idea of combining Swiss craftsmanship with American engineering, he started the brand. Jones opened his factory in Schaffhausen in the east of Switzerland after having been convinced by Heinrich Moser to see the potential in being the only large watch manufacturer in the region. In the 1900's the brand became famous for their watches accuracy, longevity and in particular their pilot's watches, the market that they are still most known for.
IWC's best-known watch is probably the Portuguese, which has evolved into their current Portugieser range. Made on request for two Portuguese businessmen that visited IWC's factory with the desire for a watch that could marry the accuracy and readability of a marine chronometer with a wristwatch, the Portuguese was as much a surprise for IWC as it was everyone else. With a diameter of 43mm, and made to the specifications of a third-party, the Portuguese is the best watch IWC has built that they practically didn't even conceive, and that's what it takes in business sometimes.
5) Jaeger LeCoultre
Founded in 1833 by Antoine LeCoultre on the back of an invention to produce watch pinions, Jaeger LeCoultre began its life like most other watch brands, as a small workshop with one man. By 1870, Jaeger LeCoultre had mechanised significant parts of their production process – impressive at the time as most brands didn't even have all of the crafts within watchmaking under the one roof. By the 1900s they were known as the Grande Maison of the Valleé de Joux and were making parts for Patek Philippe. With more than 1200 in-house calibres to their name, 400 patents and hundreds of other inventions, Jaeger LeCoultre's pedigree as one of the finest watchmaking brands in the world speaks for itself.
Jaeger LeCoultre's standout model that is synonymous with the brand is their Reverso. Released in 1931 as both, a sports watch and a dress watch, the Reverso's name hints at what makes it so unique. Reversible along horizontal axis, it can be turned around so that its case back is on display and thus protect its crystal and idal. Designed with polo players in mind, so they don't damage their watch while playing, the Reverso has become a particularly unique piece of watchmaking history, with it playing an important role for JLC to showcase their most intriguing complications. Take for example, the Reverso Hybris Mechanica, a $1.5m watchmaking behemoth.
Founded in 1905 in London by Hans Wilsdorf and Alfred Davis, Rolex is the king of modern luxury watchmaking. Starting out by assembling other manufacturer's cases and movements, they are now almost entirely vertically integrated and control almost every process that goes into creating their watches. After moving to Geneva following WWI to avoid taxes on luxury goods, Rolex has gone from strength to strength. With numerous inventions to their name such as the automatic movement, screw-down case backs and crowns amongst other things, Rolex is a watchmaking powerhouse.
As we all know, every watch from Rolex is an industry icon, but the most recognisable watch from them would have to be the Submariner. Released in 1953 (or ’54, depending who you ask), it was their first true diving watch and has since remained as their flagship tool watch. While they have numerous other watches with just as revered histories, it is the Submariner that gave rise to their position within the market as the quintessential tool watch manufacturer, and all these years later that reputation is still untouchable, and so, the Submariner is still recognised as one of the best Swiss watches on the market.
3) Audemars Piguet
Founded in 1875 by childhood friends Jules Audemars and Edward Piguet, Audemars Piguet has become one of the most highly renowned watch manufacturers in the world. With both of its founders particularly gifted watchmakers, it only makes sense that the tradition of making exquisite timepieces has been carried through the brand's history. With numerous industry firsts to their name such as the first wristwatch minute repeater, first jumping hour display, numerous thinnest movement accolades and being the founders of openworking, Audemars Piguet goes down as one of the all-time best Swiss watch brands, and are considered one of the brands in the ‘Holy Trinity’.
Without question, Audemars Piguet's most iconic watch is the Royal Oak. Designed by Gerald Genta, the Royal Oak was released in response to the industry shattering Quartz Crisis. The first luxury steel sports watch ever, the Royal Oak effectively created what is now the most significant market segment within the industry. With its large 39mm case, integrated bracelet and octagonal bezel, it was a distinctive watch that turned the industry on its head and sent its competitors scrambling to compete.
2) Vacheron Constantin
The longest continuously running watch brand in the world, Vacheron Constantin was founded in 1755 in the Swiss canton of Geneva. First to create a horological complication and the current holders of the most complicated timepiece with a pocket watch that has 57 in total, Vacheron Constantin's reputation as one of the best watchmakers in the world is genuinely deserved. While Vacheron Constantin isn't a household name like other brands on this list, they have always let their watchmaking do their talking. With such an impressive and well-deserved reputation they have been endorsed by numerous dignitaries, royal family members and other notable wearers in the past and will more than likely continue to be worn by them.
One of their most famous watches is the Overseas, derived from their earlier 222 model which was released in 1977 in response to the Audemars Piguet's Royal Oak. Much like the 222, the Overseas is a steel sports watch with an integrated bracelet and a thin profile. Featuring a distinctive Maltese cross-shaped bezel and bracelet links that have detailing lent from the Maltese cross too, the Overseas is one of the best Swiss sports watches on the market, and certainly a stunner too.
1) Patek Philippe
Within any conversation about Swiss watch brands and the best Swiss watches, Patek Philippe is always an utterance away, and for a good reason. Founded in 1831 by Antoni Patek and Franciszek Czapek as Patek, Czapek & Cie the company went through a long process before it became Patek Philippe, as it is today. Throughout its history, however, Patek Philippe has continuously endeavoured to make some of the finest examples of watchmaking the world has ever seen with several of their contributions being some of the most significant made to the craft. They created the first Swiss wristwatch and numerous significant complications. It is without a doubt that Patek Philippe is regarded as the best watchmaker in the world.
Patek Philippe's most famous watch is their Nautilus. Beginning its life as a response to the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, it was released in 1976 and designed the Royal Oak's designer, Gerald Genta. While Patek Philippe did indeed get beaten to the punch, they certainly didn't allow that to stop them creating what is arguably one of the most desirable watches in the world. With its integrated bracelet, distinctive case and bezel and impressive list of references with any number of complications, the Nautilus has to go down as one of the best Swiss watches of all time, regardless of personal opinion about market valuations and so on.