When we talk about "the Holy Trinity of Watches" or "Holy Trinity of Swiss Watchmaking," or "the Big Three," most of us watch aficionados agree on which watchmakers we're referring to: Vacheron Constantin, Patek Philippe, and Audemars Piguet (that would be in ascending order of age). How did this triumvirate of historical maisons — one of which has been making watches since before the 19th Century, two of which remain family-owned — ascend to the highest echelons of prestige in the eyes of the watch connoisseur community? Each has its own intriguing history and can claim its own milestones in the evolution of modern watchmaking. Here, we briefly tell each of their stories and spotlight some of the timepieces that have made them immortal.
Founded: 1839; Headquarters: Geneva, Switzerland; Ownership: Stern Family; Notable models: Calatrava, Nautilus, Aquanaut, Sky Moon Tourbillon
Since its founding in 1839 in Geneva, Patek Philippe has been a leader in high watchmaking, pioneering many complications and design elements that are now seen widely throughout the watch industry. Polish watchmakers Antoine Norbert de Patek and Francois Czapek partnered to form the original company, Patek, Czapek, & Cie.; French horologist Jean Adrien Philippe, who invented the keyless winding and setting system still standard on watches today, joined in 1845, and the Genevan manufacture has been known as Patek Philippe ever since. Among its many horological milestones are the first annual calendar watch and the first wristwatches with perpetual calendars and split-seconds chronographs.
In 1932, brothers Jean and Henri Stern acquired Patek Philippe and the same year launched the watch that would become its signature, the Calatrava, inspired by the ancient Calatrava cross that had served as the maison’s logo since 1887. The following year, Patek Philippe made timekeeping history when it commissioned a record-setting complicated pocket watch for American banker Henry Graves. The so-called “Graves Supercomplication” was for decades the world’s most complicated watch, eventually selling at auction for $24 million in 2014. Patek continues to push the envelope in the area of multiple high complications in the 21st Century, as in the Grandmaster Chime timepiece that it launched in 2014 in commemoration of its 175th anniversary. The double-faced wristwatch (below), which incorporated no less than 20 complications, sold for $31.19 million in 2019.
In the 20th Century, Patek Philippe helped usher in the era of the luxury sports watch with the release of the Nautilus (modern reference pictured below) in 1976. Designed by Gérald Genta, the same visionary who had developed Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak several years earlier, the Nautilus, defined by its smooth octagonal bezel, integrated bracelet, and horizontal-grooved sunburst dial, went on to become one of the most coveted timepieces in the world, even more so since Patek’s recent decision to discontinue its core reference 5711. In 1997, the brand leaned further into a sportier arena with the release of the Aquanaut, an offshoot of the Nautilus with a rubber strap, bold Arabic applied numerals, and checkerboard dial texture that was targeted at a younger, more active consumer.
Patek Philippe’s array of complications, found mostly in the elegant and historic Calatrava line but also in some pieces within the sportier Nautilus and Aquanaut collections, includes annual calendars, perpetual calendars, chronographs, world-time functions, minute repeaters, and, in some of its most coveted and priciest watches, combinations of two or more of the above. A recent example from Watches & Wonders 2022 is the Calatrava Annual Calendar Travel Time (below). As its very descriptive name would imply, it is the first Patek Philippe watch to combine two of the maison’s signature (and patented) complications, the Annual Calendar that it first launched in 1996, and the hallmark Travel Time mechanism that it unveiled one year later, in 1997.
The Stern family continues to own and operate Patek Philippe, which is one of the world’s few remaining family-owned independent watchmakers. While its newest watches are continually in high demand, its vintage and historical pieces are a dominant presence on the auction market: eight of the ten most expensive watches ever sold at auction are from Patek Philippe.
Founded: 1755; Headquarters: Geneva, Switzerland; Ownership: Richemont Group; Notable models: Patrimony, Overseas, Historiques, Traditionnelle
Vacheron Constantin is one of the oldest watch manufacturers in the world — literally older than the United States — and indisputably one of the most prestigious. Founded in 1755 by Jean-Marc Vacheron and François Constantin, the venerable watchmaker boasts an uninterrupted history of watchmaking and a brand motto that states, “Do better if possible, and that is always possible.” Throughout its centuries of history, Vacheron Constantin can claim a number of horological milestones and wearers drawn from the ranks of royalty, like Egypt’s King Fuad I, who commissioned the historically significant, highly complicated Ref. 402833 pocket watch in 1929. The gold-cased timepiece, equipped with a perpetual calendar, chronograph, and minute repeater with a grand and petite sonnerie, became one of the most expensive watches ever sold at auction in 2005, fetching $2.22 million.
Vacheron Constantin became part of the Richemont Group in 1996, and has showed no signs of slowing down or resting on its considerable historic laurels in the 21st Century. The maison offers a wide and diverse lineup of timepieces, with its flagship Patrimony and Traditonnelle collections populated by everything from elegant three-handers to perpetual calendars, minute repeaters, and tourbillons. Vacheron Constantin continues to challenge for supremacy in the arena of horological milestones, developing the world’s thinnest manually wound movement, Caliber 1003, in 1955 and the world’s thinnest minute repeater in 1992. At the summit of its technical accomplishments is the Ref. 57260 “Grand Oeuvre” pocket watch (above), unveiled in 2015, which holds the title of the most complicated watch ever made, packing 57 total complications.
Like its two siblings within the acknowledged Holy Trinity, Vacheron Constantin helped lay the foundation for the sport-luxury watch category in the 1970s. For its 220th anniversary in 1977, and in the wake of Audemars Piguet’s hugely influential Royal Oak and Patek Philippe’s boldly groundbreaking Nautilus, the manufacture released the 222 model (Ref. 44018), deemed radical at the time for its use of a monobloc steel case with scalloped, screw-down bezel and its integrated steel bracelet with hexagonal center links. The so-called “Triple Two” was short-lived in its original release, but its spirit and many of its elements were resurrected in the first Vacheron Constantin Overseas in 1996, the sport-luxury collection widely regarded as its modern successor. Revamped in 2016, the Overseas (above) retains the signature six-sided bezel design, inspired by the brand’s Maltese cross emblem, and integrated bracelet, the latter now equipped with a quick-change mechanism, but has expanded from its original three-hand design to become a diverse collection in its own right, encompassing a raft of complications including a breathtakingly skeletonized perpetual calendar version (below).
Some of Vacheron Constantin’s most intriguing modern watches are those that evoke echoes of its prestigious past. The vintage-inspired Historiques series engages enthusiasts with modern re-editions of classical timepieces from Vacheron’s extensive archives, like the Historiques 222 (below), unveiled to great fanfare at Watches & Wonders 2022, which re-creates the aforementioned sport-luxury model from 1977; the Historiques Cornes de Vache 1955, a revival of a retro-cool bicompax chronograph with “cow-horn” lugs; and the Historiques American 1921, which revives an Art Deco-era “drivers’ watch,” with a rakishly tilted dial design and cushion-shaped case. In 2021, for the original model’s 100th anniversary, Vacheron painstakingly and faithfully re-created the historical watch, using tools and machines of its era to restore its case, dial, and movement in period-appropriate detail. It was a powerful statement that one of the world’s oldest watchmakers still honors its roots while it moves into the future.
Founded: 1875; Headquarters: Le Brassus, Switzerland; Ownership: Audemars Piguet Holdings SA; Notable models: Royal Oak, Royal Oak Offshore, Millenary, Code 11:59
Audemars Piguet began making watches in 1875, when founders Jules Louis Audemars and Edward Auguste Piguet first registered the brand in Switzerland’s Vallée de Joux. Now headquartered in the town of Le Brassus, it remains one of the very few privately owned firms in the watchmaking industry, still in the hands of the Audemars family. Renamed Audemars Piguet & Cie in 1881, the company primarily manufactured movements for other firms in its earliest days, including Tiffany and Co., but later gained renown for milestones like the world’s first-minute repeater movement for wristwatches in 1892 and the first jumping-hour watch in 1921. Audemars Piguet also gave the world the first self-winding tourbillon wristwatch in 1986, which was also the first series-produced wristwatch with a tourbillon and also the first use to use ultra-light titanium in the construction of a tourbillon cage.
Without a doubt, however, Audemars Piguet is best known for one watch, the Royal Oak, designed by Gérald Genta and released in 1972 as the first true luxury sports watch — which, it’s fair to surmise, exerted some inspiration on the Nautilus and Overseas from the other two Holy Trinity brands we explore here, as well as numerous others. The Royal Oak, whose origin story I cover in much more detail here, has been at the forefront of Audemars Piguet’s collection ever since and has spawned popular sub-collections. The first of these emerged in 1993, when the renaissance of the mechanical luxury watch after years of quartz dominance was starting to show promise. The Royal Oak Offshore (perpetual calendar version in blue ceramic pictured above) was a bigger and brassier version of the Royal Oak, meant to appeal to the tastes and trends of a new generation. Whereas the original Royal Oak “Jumbo” was notable for its thinness and its classical three-hand dial, the Offshore projected an aggressively sporty spirit, with a 42-mm case, an even more in-your-face tapisserie textured dial, and, for the first time ever in a Royal Oak watch, a chronograph movement. Hollywood heavyweight Arnold Schwarzenegger helped popularize the Offshore by wearing it in 1999’s End of Days, and even worked with AP on subsequent special editions of the watch.
Audemars Piguet saves its most ambitious and experimental forays into high horology for its Royal Oak Concept series, consisting essentially of testing grounds for radical new materials, techniques, and technologies. Among the boldest examples are 2015’s Royal Oak Concept Supersonnerie, a minute repeater whose chiming mechanism achieves a sound 10 times louder than that of a traditional chiming watch by applying the principles of stringed instruments like acoustic guitars. A more recent one is 2021’s Royal Oak Concept “Black Panther” Flying Tourbillon (above), which features a hand-engraved motif inspired by the high-tech uniform of its namesake, Marvel’s Black Panther, aka Prince T’Challa of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, who is is also fully rendered on the dial as a carved, hand-painted 3D figure in white-gold. Audemars Piguet’s manufacture Caliber 2965 features a flying tourbillon cage at 6 o’clock on the dial side, which shares the main stage with the Black Panther figure.
In 2019, Audemars Piguet made an attempt to diversify its Royal Oak-dominated collection with a new series called Code 11.59, which features its own distinctive design and complex calibers. Taking its name from the minute before midnight, an allusion to the anticipation of a new day, the Code 11.59 collection channels some of the most successful design innovations from the maison’s past, namely the octagonal shape of the emblematic Royal Oak bezel, used on the Code 11.59 models instead for the case middle, while the bezel and caseback are rounded. Another defining aesthetic feature of the family, which ranges from three-hand timekeepers to high complications (like the flying tourbillon model above), are the cases’ open-design lugs, their upper segments welded to the round bezel while the lower segments lean into the caseback. Like both its siblings in this timekeeping triumvirate, Audemars Piguet continues to honor its innovative history by pushing the envelope on technical triumphs like the Star Wheel (below) introduced into the Code 11.59 collection in 2022, a gold-and-ceramic timepiece that reveals the time on a series of satellites that orbit the dial's minute scale in an arc. This "wandering hours" style of timekeeping actually originated in the 17th Century, but making the ancient seem avant-garde is one of the things that the Holy Trinity watch brands do best.