You know those stunning travel photographs of fairy-tale destinations you sometimes come across on Instagram? The ones with the lushly carpeted valleys juxtaposed by staggeringly high, snow-capped mountains, a glittering river and perhaps a medieval church and charming wooden bridge thrown into the mix?
Yep, it’s probably Switzerland.
Home of the Swiss Alps, Swiss chocolate, Swiss bank accounts, and some of the world’s best skiing, Switzerland is so gloriously beautiful, to add a filter to any photograph taken of its landscapes is to commit a blasphemous crime of the most unforgivable nature. But for all the exports for which Switzerland is internationally beloved, none are quite as legendary as the Swiss watch.
For in the world of the luxury timepiece, Switzerland is King.
The royal families of Swiss watchmaking
Swiss watches are profoundly iconic and, depending on the make and model you desire, profoundly expensive. In fact, in 2019, a one-of-a-kind Patek Philippe was sold at a charity auction for $31 million, making it the most expensive wristwatch ever sold. Before that, the title belonged to a Rolex Daytona, which sold in 2017 for $17.7 million (granted, it had belonged to Paul Newman). And, of course, both Patek Philippe and Rolex belong to the Swiss royal family of luxury watchmakers.
What is it about these timepieces that are so desirable? It is the expensive and rare metals and gems from which they are artfully crafted? Is it the masterful micro-engineering that goes into their teensy, tiny puzzle-work of springs, wheels, and rotors? Or is it the statement these watches make of luxury, prestige, and style?
The answer is undoubtedly “all of the above.”
Now throw into the mix the limited availability of certain watch models and you have a recipe for a happily maxed-out credit card. Let’s meet a few members of the royal families of Swiss watchmaking.
Patek Philippe has been turning out the highest of the high-end timepieces since its inception in 1839. To give you some meter of this Swiss brand’s prestige, of the world’s top ten most expensive watches ever sold at auctions, seven were made by Patek Philippe. Also, Queen Victoria, John F. Kennedy, Pablo Picasso, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, and our very own Nelson Mandela were all patrons of this dazzlingly opulent brand.
To experience the Patek Philippe story, you can head on over to the Rue des Vieux-Grenadiers in Geneva, Switzerland to visit the Patek Philippe Museum. Here, over five centuries of Swiss watchmaking history are housed in a charming, restored Art Deco building, featuring two astounding collections of timepieces, the accumulative cost of which could probably rival the GDP of the European continent.
In 1926, when it seemed that high-end, American-made timepieces would permanently nudge Switzerland out of the North American market, Rolex rolled out the Oyster, the world’s first waterproof watch. The very next year, a young British secretary called Mercedes Gleitze swam the English Channel, wearing the Rolex Oyster, which was found to be in perfect working order when she emerged on the other side of the gruelling 10-hour swim.
This innovation is really testament to the spirit of Rolex, which was founded by Hans Wilsdorf in the early 1900s at a time when timepieces weren’t worn on the wrist but rather carried around in the pocket. Today, Rolex is a firmly established status symbol for affluence and is used so pervasively as a pop culture reference.
The Swatch Group Ltd.
Founded in 1983, the Swatch Group is the younger of the royal families of Swiss watchmaking, but what it may lack in history it more than compensates for through sheer prolificacy. The group has a constellation of luxury watch brands under their umbrella, including, amongst others, Breguet, which was actually founded in 1775 but became a subsidiary of the Swiss Swatch Group in 1999.
Then there’s, amongst many others, Harry Winston, Longines, Tissot, and OMEGA, the lattermost of which has been worn on every piloted mission NASA has sent into space, including all six moon landings. OMEGA has also served as the Official Timekeeper of the Olympic Games since 1932.
Home of luxury
World’s best skiing, chocolate, banking, progressive thinking, modern architecture, and sparklingly clean cities…it seems that whatever the Swiss set their minds to, they do so with unrivalled attention to detail and an unfaltering consideration for both function and aesthetics. Yet, in no way is this more impressively demonstrated than in the Swiss luxury timepiece, which, for all its purpose as timekeeper, is a timeless status symbol.