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The World’s Watch Houses

While each watch house boasts of its own lineage, many brands are actually under one of the few powerhouse watch and luxury goods conglomerate. So who owns who? And which watch houses remain staunchly independent? Here’s a crib sheet that covers the major brands.

Roger Dubuis Richemont watch house

Photo courtesy of Richemont

Strength in numbers versus fiercely independent

The worldwide watch market is shared by several conglomerates with multi-brand portfolios and a number of independent watchmakers who choose to fly solo. Industry giants like The Swatch Group concentrate largely on timepieces and watch components, but other groups such as French luxury empire LVMH have diversified holdings in other luxury goods such as champagne and jewelry. Rolex, on the other hand, manufactures watches under two brand names. Of the “Big Three” in the luxury timepieces world, two are fiercely independent: Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet. The third, Vacheron Constantin, is owned by the Richemont Group.

Membership in a group or conglomerate has its perks. A watch brand should expect marketing and distribution support, as well as investments into research, development and manufacturing. A group will also be able to put more pressure on suppliers and distributors for better terms. That is, of course, if the mothership deems the brand as a moneymaker or a long-term asset. A group will also likely have its own set of rules, regulations, & procedures, and a corporate culture that is followed closely.

On the other hand, an independent watch house is largely beholden only to itself and its owners. They may be nimble and quick in terms of decision-making, and can react to market forces swiftly. Their identity is wholly their own. If the watch house manufacturers all its components, then it is shielded from supply problems. Independents that rely on outside suppliers for components, though, are at the mercy of the bigger suppliers.

The Swatch Group

Though the name is derived from the inexpensive plastic watch which helped revive the dying watchmaking industry in Switzerland in the early 80’s, The Swatch Group is no one-trick pony. Currently the second largest watch manufacturer in the world (after Citizen Watch Co. Ltd.), The Swatch Group has nineteen brands in its portfolio, ranging from affordable basics like Swatch and Flik Flak to prestige and luxury brands such as Breguet and Glashutte Original.

It traces its history to the merger of two of the biggest companies in Swiss watchmaking, SIHH and ASUAG, into SMH (Société de Microélectronique et d’Horlogerie) in 1983 under the leadership of Nicolas G. Hayek. That year saw the release of the first Swatch, a low-cost, high-tech artistic and emotional “second” watch. By 1998, SMH was the most valuable watchmaker in the world, manufacturing not only watches under its brands, but also supplying watch parts to the rest of the Swiss watch industry. Ten years later, SMH was renamed The Swatch Group.

Compagnie Financiere Richemont

Richemont, for short, began in 1988 as the spin-off of the Rembrandt Group Limited of South Africa. It started with minority holdings in Cartier Monde and Rothmans International, and expanded to include interests in tobacco and luxury goods, with brands like Alfred Dunhill, Montblanc, Van Cleef & Arpels, and luxury watch houses, including Officine Panerai, Jaeger-LeCoultre, IWC, A. Lange & Sohne, Baume & Mercier, and Vacheron Constantin. The group has majority interest in the Roger Dubuis manufacture and has a joint venture with Polo Ralph Lauren Watch and Jewellery Company. It has since sold Rothmans International to British American Tobacco to focus entirely on the luxury goods sector. Richemont is currently the world’s second-largest luxury goods firm behind LVMH.

LVMH Moet Hennessy – Louis Vuitton

Under the leadership of its chairman and CEO Bernard Arnault, LVMH now has an impressive portfolio of sixty prestige brands across five different sectors: wines and spirits, fashion and leather goods, perfumes and cosmetics, watches and jewelry, and selective retailing. It’s nigh impossible to think of luxury and not name an LVMH brand, and it comes as no surprise that it is the world’s largest luxury goods company. Headquartered in Paris, France, LVMH has business interests and affiliates in other parts of Europe and around the globe. Among the watch brands it holds are Hublot, Zenith, TAG Heuer and Dior Montres.

PPR Group

The French luxury and retail group PPR started out in 1963 as a building material business and only entered the retail trade in 1991. In 1999, the group entered the luxury sector with a 42 percent acquisition of the Gucci Group, a stake they’ve since raised to 99.4 percent. The group also has controlling stake in the Sowind Group, which owns the luxury watch brands Girard-Perregaux and JeanRichard. PPR is the third-largest luxury group, following LVMH and Richemont. 

Rolex SA

Rolex started out in London as “Wilsdorf and Davis,” founded by watch purveyors Hans Wilsdorf and his brother-in-law Alfred Davis in 1905. It became the first luxury watch brand to achieve mass popularity and become a household name. Now headquartered in Geneva, Rolex has been responsible for some of the most iconic watch models in horology history; there’s the Rolex Oyster, the world’s first waterproof and dustproof wristwatch, created in 1926, and the Rolex Day-Date, the first wristwatch to have an automatically changing day and date on the dial. Rolex SA has two brands, the eponymous and premium Rolex, and the more affordable Tudor.

Timex Group B.V.

While the mothership of the Timex Group is a holding company headquartered in the Netherlands, there’s no mistaking the American identity of the Timex brand. Founded in 1854 as the Waterbury Clock Company—a subsidiary of a local brass manufacturer—it evolved into the Waterbury Watch Company in 1880, when the company transitioned from clocks to wristwatches. It was renamed as the United States Time Corporation toward the end of WWII. In 1950, it released the Timex brand with the slogan “Timex—Takes a licking and keeps on ticking.” to wide appeal.

Today, four companies comprise the Timex Group, each with its own stable of brands. Timex watches, of course, are still the group’s main line, produced by the Timex Business Unit. Swiss company Sequel AG manufactures and distributes Guess and Gc watches. Timex Group Luxury Watches take care of the Salvatore Ferragamo watch brand, while Vertime handles the Versace and Versus brands.

Groupe Franck Muller Watchland SA

Known as the “Master of Complications” for his outrageously complicated timepieces, Franck Muller markets his own brand Franck Muller Geneve, but also holds several small watch brands in his group. “Watchland,” his Genthod estate near Geneva, serves not only as Muller’s headquarters but also houses workshops for boutique watch brands such as Pierre Kunz. In 2009, however, watchmaker Rodolphe Cattin left the group, accusing it of disinterest in developing the small brands under its wing.

Festina-Lotus Group

Born in Switzerland in 1902, the Swiss watch brand Festina was purchased by Spanish industrialist Miguel Rodriguez in 1984 and transformed into the Festina-Lotus Group, with headquarters in Barcelona, Spain. The group owns six watch brands, including Festina and Lotus.

Fossil Group Inc.

Apart from its own Fossil brand of vintage-inspired watches and accessories, Fossil manages a multi-brand watch business, creating and manufacturing watches for several owned and licensed brands. It owns the Swiss brands Zodiac and MICHELE, and Danish brand Skagen. Among its licensed brands are Emporio Armani, DKNY, and Diesel. 

Seiko Holdings Corporation

The “Quartz Crisis” that befell the Swiss watchmaking industry in the 70s and early 80s was largely due to advances in quartz technology, spearheaded mainly by Seiko. The Japanese watchmaker launched the world’s first quartz wristwatch, the Astron, in 1969. By 1978, quartz watches had overtaken mechanical watches in popularity. While the Swiss watch industry has since recovered, quartz is here to stay, with Seiko continuing to innovate in both quartz and mechanical movements. Seiko’s brands currently include Seiko, Grand Seiko, the high-end Credor, Alba and Pulsar.

Citizen Watch Co. Ltd.

Established in 1918 as the Shokosha Watch Research Institute, Citizen has subsidiaries in electronics, precision machinery, and business machines, but its core business remains the design, manufacture and selling of wristwatches. Its product lineup includes the solar-powered Citizen Eco-Drive watches, outdoor-oriented Promaster, and the female-oriented xC. In 2008, Citizen acquired American watchmaker Bulova. Together, they are among the biggest watch manufacturers in the world.

The Independents

Patek Philippe

Patek Philippe, of course, remains one of the most celebrated watch brands in watchmaking. This family-owned independent Genevan watch manufacturer produces its own components and assembles its watches in-house. It has created some of the most stunning works of haute horlogerie ever, such as the Sky Moon Tourbillon and the 33-complication Caliber 89 pocket watch. Rightly so, Patek Philippe markets itself as not just a watch, but an heirloom.

Audemars Piguet

The last name among the Big Three is Audemars Piguet, based in Le Brassus, Switzerland. Founded in 1875, this independent produces all its components in-house as well. Its iconic model is the octagonal Royal Oak, the first luxury sports watch, introduced forty years ago. Each watch is made by hand, the way Jules Audemars and Edward-Auguste Piguet did over a hundred years ago. 

Breitling

With its own history intertwined with that of modern flight, independent watchmaker Breitling is a favorite among aviators. Its Navitimer was equipped with a circular slide rule that allowed pilots to perform navigation calculations while in flight. While these calculations are now typically done by computer, the Navitimer still remains in production as a cult object among those who fly. Breitling specializes in precision chronographs, and each of the watches they’ve made since 2000 have been equipped with chronometer-certified movements.

Ball

If Breitling is associated with aviation, Ball watches are inextricably linked to the history of American railroads. Its founder, Webster C. Ball, was a jeweler and a watchmaker, but he was also a Chief Inspector for the Lake Shore Lines. In 1891, two trains collided, a terrible accident due to one engineer’s watch failure. Ball was called upon to investigate. He devised and implemented a timekeeping standard. Demanding uniformity and accuracy. His jewelry business grew into the Ball Watch Company. It was kept within the Ball family until the 1990s when the rights to use the name were sold.

Chopard

Chopard began as a luxury watch manufacturer when it was founded by Louis-Ulysse Chopard in 1860. It has since expanded to include jewelry and accessories. Purchased by Karl Scheufele from the Chopard family in 1963, Chopard regained its manufacture status with the opening of its independent movement factory in Fleurier in 1996. Chopard’s first in-house movement of the late 20th Century was the much-lauded calibre 1.96.

This piece was originally published in the print version of Lucerne Luxe Magazine, and condensed for brevity.

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