In the earliest days of the watch industry, just about all the various brands and manufactures were independently owned and operated by a small staff of only those absolutely essential to producing and selling the watches. This was a time when every brand had an equal fighting chance, and your prominence came only from the quality and of your offerings as well as the boundaries which they pushed. A “big business” approach is more or less what we see in the trade today, with most brands under the wing of luxury conglomerates, aside from a limited selection of independents. Though the structuring and ownership of watch brands may not seem relevant to the average collector, it can prove to be quite useful in understanding the roles played by particular releases and in making sense of trends that ultimately improves one’s ability to collect timeless watches. Let’s take a closer look.
As many will know, one of the biggest players in watches today is the Swatch Group, a Hayek-run parent company that was founded in 1983 through the merger of two other watchmaking groups that were facing bankruptcy (SSIH and ASUAG). Through extensive reorganization and the launch and acquisition of several notable brands, the Swatch Group evolved into one of the most powerful names in watches. At this time, the Biel-based company owns 18 major brands including Omega, Blancpain, Breguet, Swatch, and Glashütte Original, along with several watchmaking component producers, including the greatly important movement manufacture ETA. Some would even suggest that ETA has been one of their most valuable assets, in that the number of brands inside and outside of Swatch Group that rely on ETA movements for their watches is remarkable.
Another name that must be mentioned when discussing luxury goods holding companies in the watch industry is Richemont. After being founded in the late 1980s, Richemont began acquiring a number of strong brands in both the watch industry, and luxury goods industry in general, yielding an impressive roster with names like Cartier, Jaeger LeCoultre, IWC Schaffhausen, Vacheron Constantin, Panerai, Montblanc, and A. Lange & Söhne.
Some have attributed their success in recent years to actively analyzing collectors’ tastes, which can be seen through the range of vintage-inspired pieces put out across all brands, in response to the rise in popularity of vintage watches. This method of satisfying the collector surely pays off, seeing as Richemont reported their revenue in 2015 to be in excess of $10 billion.
Now while the bulk of brands may be subsidiaries of a larger luxury group, many older independents like the 141 year old, family-owned watchmaker Audemars Piguet still exist to this day. New players in the market like F.P. Journe, Laurent Ferrier, and the always exciting MB&F have begun to emerge in recent years. The distinct advantage that these companies have over their Goliath-esque competition is that they’re able to steer the brand through the production of more unique pieces and define the brand’s identity to a greater degree, instead of simply covering another sector of the market effectively. With that said, it should be noted that there are downsides to owning watches made by smaller independent brands, namely the lack of infrastructure in place for after sales service, but this is a reality that must be accepted if you are to collect such pieces.
Last, but most definitely not least, is one more breed of watch company that some like to refer to as “powerhouse independents”. These are the brands that have such strong followings and demand that they choose to do business on their own and sometimes set the bar for a number of industry practices. Need an example? Think about Rolex and Patek Philippe, two icons of the watchmaking world that are not only recognized as pioneers of the craft but international symbols of success and sophistication. There’s no need to worry about how to tackle future servicing when buying a watch from manufacturers like these, because they’ve been around forever, and they’re certainly not going anywhere soon.
During your next visit to the local retailer, or even when going through your own personal collection, take a look around and see what it is that you tend to gravitate towards. Do you have a soft spot for Richemont brands? Are you a supporter of strictly independents? Or is it the tried and true offerings of iconic, privately held manufactures that tickle your fancy? You’ll be sure to incite some collector’s self-examination.