The term “Swiss Made” isn’t just another commodity label for a place of origin, but more importantly a seal of approval and a mark of quality recognised worldwide. Today, more than half of the total of all luxury watches are from Switzerland. In terms of their craftsmanship, sometimes it’s just a subtle difference that distinguishes this group of watch manufacturers from one another. This is also usually why most people don’t make a decision for or against a watch brand based solely on a set of objective criteria but more because of “soft” factors such as the public image that’s connected with a Swiss watch manufacturer.
Even more subjective is the following list of the Top 10 Swiss watch brands. Join us as we take you on a brief trip to the epicentre of mechanical watchmaking. This journey won’t just take us to the watch metropolis Geneva: a city that two of the most famous and renowned brands call home. It will also lead us to the less populated valleys of Switzerland, where there are almost as many watchmakers as there are inhabitants.
10. IWC (Schaffhausen)
Our journey begins in Schaffhaussen. Just a few kilometers away from the German border, where the International Watch Company was originally founded in 1868. Since then, it stands for Swiss watches produced according to the highest possible technical benchmarks. In 1993, IWC constructed one of the most complicated wristwatches in history: the Destriero Scafusia. In the 1950s, IWC produced timepieces as one of a few manufacturers with case sizes larger than 4 centimeters and with pocket watch calibres that were highly accurate and reliable.
Today, IWC is in sync with current trends without the necessity of having had to adapt at some point in time. As far as its recent collection is concerned, IWC’s range of timepieces is more substantial than it has ever been before. There are elegant timekeepers in the form of the Portugieser and Portofino, diving watches like the Aquatimer, and of course the pilot watches genre with which IWC is inseparably connected since the 1930s.
Famous Models: Portugieser, Mark, Große Fliegeruhr (Big Pilot), Portofino, Aquatimer, Ingenieur
9. Breitling (Grenchen)
We’re continuing on to the Canton of Solothurn. Just so you get your bearings: we’re still in the northern part of the country, but farther West, about 80 kilometres south of Basel. We’ve reached the small municipality of Grenchen situated at the foot of the Jura mountains: a mountain ridge that is northwest of the Swiss Alps along the Swiss-French border and where the majority of Swiss watch manufacturers call home.
Breitling stands for high grade aviator chronographs with a multitude of additional functionality, which (in the case of the Navitimer) is activated over a rotating bezel. Fans of this Swiss brand know how to appreciate the rich variety of details on the dials and the sporty-archaic base character of its watches. Breitling’s history began when Léon Breitling founded the company in 1884. Regardless of a temporary closing and a takeover of the proprietary rights by the producer Sicura, Breitling today operates mostly as an independent company.
Whether quartz, hand winding, or automatic winding: all of its watches are COSC certified and are officially designated as Chronometers. Breitling represents multifunctional, precision instruments produced according to the highest standards of excellence. Not only can the legendary Navitimer accurately stop the time, but it can also complete several mathematical calculations. The Emergency with its emergency transmitter has also saved well over a dozen human lives.
Famous Models: Chronomat, Navitimer, Superocean, Transocean, Emergency, Breitling for Bentley, Avenger
8. Omega (Biel/Bienne)
We’re leaving Grenchen and now on our way to the eastern end of Lake Bienne and the city of Biel. Biel, once entirely German speaking, is today bilingual after francophone watchmakers moved to the city.
It’s the home town of Omega and alongside Rolex, perhaps the most famous luxury watch brand in the world. Omega is not just an official partner of NASA, but also the preferred choice of both James Bond and George Clooney. It’s a Swiss watch brand that stands for the scientification of wristwatches and its specs can be broken down into metric data.
The Omega Speedmaster Professional isn’t just the first wristwatch on the Moon, but also the most tested wristwatch in history altogether. In terms of design, its watches shape the definition of the modern sporty-elegant gentlemen’s timepiece. Hardly any other producer has been as media savvy as Omega or has known how to entice and captivate the eyes of both experts and the public alike in the past years. Today, the name of its collections are not any less illustrious than those from Rolex.
The Speedmaster, Seamaster, the De Ville and its sub-collections Planet Ocean and Aqua Terra all belong to its extensive portfolio.
Famous Models: Seamaster Planet Ocean, Seamaster Aqua Terra, Seamaster 300M “Diver”, Constellation, Speedmaster Professional, De Ville
7. TAG Heuer (La Chaux-de-Fonds)
From bilingual Solothurn we’re moving on to the Canton of Neuenburg and have now reached the Romandie: the French speaking western part of Switzerland.
At 992 metres above sea level, the city of La Chaux-de-Fonds is the headquarters of TAG Heuer. While this producer feels right at home in the elegant watch genre, its core competence remains in the discipline of sport chronograph production. Its Monaco, Carrera, and Autavia are genuine watch classics and belong to the most sought after chronograph models among vintage fans.
Its heritage is groomed by several retro references that concentrate on its close connection to racing sports, particularly Formula 1. The most recent examples are the Heuer Monaco Calibre 11 and the Heuer Autavia. TAG Heuer proudly presents itself as an innovator and trailblazer with a keen eye on the future with the launch of a tourbillon model for a price just a bit over 12,000.- GBP and as one of the first luxury watch manufacturers that brought out a Smartwatch on the marke.
Famous Models: Carrera, Monaco, Formula 1, Aquaracer, Monza
6. Zenith (Le Locle)
In Le Locle, in the very middle of the Jura mountain plateau and not too far from the Swiss-French border, there’s been one factory that’s produced watches non-stop since 1865. Originally founded by the 22 year old young entrepreneur George Favre-Jacot, the “Fabrique des Bilodes” was already the source of a lot of buzz.
Swiss watches were produced “industrially” back then: meaning multiple watchmakers delegated the different tasks of production among each other. The way had been paved for Longines and Rolex to become the forerunners of the industrialised luxury watch branch that they are today only after Zenith had been founded.
Nowadays, the brand is famous mostly because of the introduction of the El Primero: the worldwide first automatic chronograph. Today, it’s a calibre with a high frequency of 36,000 oscillations per minute and its accuracy is considered an absolute reference in the watch industry. Rolex depends upon El-Primero calibres for its Daytona collection and there’s a good reason for that: it’s a Swiss brand that stands for know-how and innovative drive. Zenith is one of the few “real” manufactures that creates watch movements entirely on its own and at the same time, has a large watchmaking repertoire at its discretion.
Famous Models: El Primero Chronomaster, El Primero Synopsis, Captain, Pilot
5. Blancpain (Le Brassus)
After a short half an hour drive, we’ve reached the next destination on our list. Where time appears to tick a bit more slowly than everywhere else: almost like a mechanical watch before it comes to a full stop. We’re talking about the Vallée de Joux, known as the valley of watches and the rural counterpart to Germany’s Glashütte.
In about two decades, the small village of La Brassus will celebrate the 300 year anniversary of Blancpain: the oldest still active watch producer in the world. It’s remarkable that even to the present day, not a single quartz watch has ever left through its front doors, but only models with mechanical movements.
This commitment to mechanical timepieces was born out of a passion for luxury watches. Even going so far as Blancpain placing its bets entirely on mechanical based production during the peak of the Quartz Crisis, while other manufacturers had shifted towards quartz based watches. This persistence eventually caused some difficulties during a time where the usefulness of the battery triumphed over gear train and lever escapement purism.
Jean-Claude Biver, today CEO of TAG Heuer, was ultimately responsible for breathing fresh life into the tradition based Swiss watch company and returning it to the road of success in the 1990s. Today, Blancpain is counted among the major production players in the industry with model classics such as the Fifty Fathoms as well as the Villeret.
Famous Models: Le Brassus, Villeret, Fifty Fathoms
4. Jaeger-LeCoultre (Le Sentier)
On serene days, when the sun is high enough in the sky before it slowly descends westward behind the Jura mountain massif, it gets really warm in Le Sentier. The nearby town of Le Brassus is situated a 1,000 metres above sea level and just high enough, that the warmth of the sun isn’t diminished by the cooling of the omnipresent mountain.
Le Sentier is the home town of the tradition based Swiss watch brand: Jaeger-LeCoultre. It takes one of our top spots because it’s perhaps the most innovative of all Swiss watch manufacturers. Hardly any other company can present as many patents, has made so many movement inventions, or has expertise as highly sought after as Jaeger-LeCoultre. Even Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin have relied upon its movements.
In short: Jaeger-LeCoultre is a producer with heart and soul, constantly seeking total perfection in a continuous and never-ending process. Its designs, compared to other top-notch brands might sometimes be more on the plain side. However, an exception to this is the very detail rich classic Reverso in art deco style.
Famous Models: Reverso, Grande Reverso, Master Ultra Thin, Master Compressor
3. Breguet (L’Orient)
A few kilometres further and not far from the south bank of the Lac De Joux is the tranquil village of L’Orient. Another renowned Swiss watch brand also calls it home here: one that carries the legacy of perhaps the greatest watchmaking genius in history into the present day. We’re talking about Abraham Louis Breguet and the company named after him.
Hardly any other Swiss watch brand embodies the long tradition of Switzerland’s watchmaking craft like Breguet. In the second half of the 18th century, it was already widely regarded as the most renowned of all watchmakers and Marie Antoinette and Napoleon Bonaparte belonged among its clientele’s numbers.
Not only did Breguet create the oldest Swiss wristwatch, but also probably the oldest wristwatch in the world for the sister of Napoleon: Caroline Murat, Reine de Naples. The spirit of the past lives on in its actual collection of watches and multiple Breguet inventions such as the tourbillon and the Breguet spiral are modus operandi in the watch industry today. The designs are Baroque in nature and guilloche, enameled, or diamonds as well as meticulously crafted inlay patterns are all hallmarks of its styles. Some of these design characteristics have had a profound influence on other brands and different names such as the Breguet hand or the Breguet dial have become commonplace sayings in the watch industry.
Famous Models: Reine de Naples, Classique, Héritage, Marine, Type XX
2. Rolex (Geneva)
No list of the best Swiss watch brands can be complete without Rolex and unsurprisingly, our next stop is Lake Geneva. To be more precise: a tranquil suburb in the business and watch metropolis of Geneva.
A presentation about Rolex isn’t really necessary, but we’ve added a brief viewpoint just for the sake of completeness. Rolex’s strength is in both its recognition value and its brand history, where not only its inventions, but also its clever marketing and PR have played integral roles in its recipe for success. Ultimately, a watch can only be as good as it has been designed. Rolex doesn’t concentrate on the production of highly complicated watch movement mechanisms, but rather its main focus is centered on the creation of precise, robust, and maintenance friendly everyday wear pieces and sport watches. It places reliability and quality at the forefront, which remain unsurpassed even today.
Rolex’s automatic movements, constructed according to the highest quality standards, are normally not too demanding and go about their business without a hitch over many decades. More than a dozen of its models have been enshrined for posterity in the Watch Hall of Fame and it’s always concentrated on creating accurate and highly robust watches with long-lasting qualities. If it’s up to Rolex, everything else is secondary.
Famous Models: Submariner, GMT-Master II, Milgauss, Datejust, Day-Date, Oysterdate, Oyster, Yacht-Master
1. Patek Philippe (Geneva)
When watch aficionados start throwing around four digit numbers, then you might be witnessing a discussion about the different Patek Philippe references. That being said, we’ve made our way to the absolute high end scale of the luxury watch world and going to end our list of the top 10 Swiss watch brands with the most prestigious of them all: Patek Philippe. Its references regularly achieve record sums at the largest auction houses, where one of its watches can trade ownership for a two figure million sum.
In 2014, Patek Philippe Henry Graves “Supercomplication” became the most expensive auctioned watch of all time with a price of 16 million GBP. Today, Patek cultivates and grooms its exclusive image and waiting times for certain models are standard fair as the demand far surpasses the supply sometimes. Can we provide any examples? The yearly amount of Patek Philippe Sky Moon Tourbillon can be counted on one hand. Sometimes it’s two, sometimes three, or even five timepieces. If someone wants to get their hands on one of its popular timekeepers, they have to personally meet and greet the company director, Thierry Stern.
Along with its rich company history is an equally rigorous philosophy: the same quality standards apply to all of its watch models. Regardless if it’s a Grande Complication or “just” a Calatrava or Nautilus reference, the watch models from Patek Philippe form in our opinion the pinnacle of horologic creativity made in Switzerland.
Famous Models: Calatrava, Nautilus, Ellipse, Gondolo, Grande Complication models (e.g. Ref. 2499)
Written by: Jessica Söderberg for Parker Watches