Counting Down the 15 Oldest Watch Brands in the World

Counting Down the 15 Oldest Watch Brands in the World

Watchmaking is a trade that goes back to the 16th Century, and building mystique and legitimacy on a long, historical legacy is a common theme we find in many companies that make watches today — particularly those whose roots reach back for a century or more. But which companies have really been making watches the longest? In a way, it’s a sticky question, one that can lead one into a minefield of semantics and trivia. Jaquet Droz, for example, claims a founding date of 1738 but the modern version of the company was established in 2000 when Swatch Group acquired the name. A. Lange & Söhne carries on the tradition of the original company founded in Saxony in 1845 but has really been in operation only since 1990 (and to be fair, the company is very transparent about this). The Swiss-based Graham brand traces its legacy all the way back to the London atelier of British watchmaker George Graham in 1695 but has no connection to it other than design inspiration. In assembling the following list of the oldest watch brands still making watches today, I went with the companies that, in my judgment, can legitimately claim a direct lineage to the original founding, even allowing for ownership changes and periods of dormancy along the way. Without further ado, here is a countdown of the 15 oldest watch brands in the world today; you may be surprised by who is included as well as by who is excluded.

15. Zenith (1865)

Zenith's founder Georges Favre-Jacot was only 22 when he founded the maison now known as Zenith in 1865. It was one of the first watch factories to integrate all aspects of the watchmaking process under one roof, from case manufacturing to movement production to final casing and assembly, Zenith has long prided itself on its quest for timekeeping precision, earning a record number of chronometry prizes over the years, and its most influential contribution to watchmaking history is the El Primero chronograph caliber, released in 1969 as the first chronograph movement with automatic winding. This foundational achievement for the brand helped it forge through the Quartz Crisis years and into the recent revival of the luxury mechanical watch. Zenith has built much of its modern collection around the El Primero and its simpler offshoot, the Elite, and since the caliber’s 50th anniversary in 2019 it has heavily relied on some of those now-iconic and collectible El Primero watches to guide the growth of its core Chronomaster and Defy collections. Less renowned but just as distinct are Zenith’s Pilot watches, which received a contemporary makeover in 2023.

14. TAG Heuer (1860)

The company we now know as TAG Heuer began in 1860, founded by Edouard Heuer; “TAG” would be added to the family business’s name in 1985, when the Techniques d’Avant Garde (TAG) Group obtained a majority share. Many, albeit not all, of the firm’s most influential and memorable watches were born in the pre-TAG era, the brainchildren of founding family scion and former CEO Jack Heuer, who ramped up the brand’s involvement in motorsports and race timing. Foremost among these are the Carrera, launched in 1964 and named after a treacherous road race; and the Monaco, inspired by the Monaco Grand Prix and famously worn by Steve McQueen in the 1971 auto-racing movie Le Mans. TAG Heuer has also dabbled in aviation-style watches, with the Autavia, and diving watches, with the Aquaracer. While mechanical watches, many of them chronographs, remain at the core of TAG Heuer’s identity, the “Avant Garde” aspect has not been forgotten: TAG Heuer was one of the first traditional Swiss watchmakers to enter the smartwatch arena, launching its multi-purpose and versatile TAG Heuer Connected Watch in 2015 and offering updated and optimized versions of it in the subsequent years.

13. Panerai (1860)

Officine Panerai could be considered one of the watch industry’s oldest overnight successes. Tracing its roots to 1860, when it was established as a watch shop and watchmaking school in Florence by Giovanni Panerai, the company started making watches at the request of the Italian military shortly thereafter. Worn by frogmen of the Royal Italian Navy, Panerai’s original model, the Radiomir, took its name from the proprietary luminescent material (originally developed for use in firearms) applied to its dial to enhancer underwater legibility. The Radiomir, one of the first dive watches, was superseded by the Luminor, which added a newer luminescent dial material and a patented crown protection device to seal the case against water penetration. These watches, originally built for Panerai by Rolex, were exclusively available to military clients until 1997, when Panerai was swallowed up by Richemont and finally started offering its watches for commercial sale. When the modern-day Luminor and Radiomir caught the eye of alpha-male Hollywood actors like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone — and worn on screen in their blockbuster films — Panerai’s status as a luxury watch brand with masculine, retro-military appeal was assured.

12. Omega (1848)

Few Swiss luxury watch brands have had more historical impact on our popular culture than Omega, founded by Louis Brandt in 1848 (and taking up the name Omega, from one of the Brandt firm’s leading calibers, in 1903). One of the watch industry’s most trend-setting leaders, Omega created some of the first minute repeaters and tourbillons for the wrist, and was the first to use the revolutionary co-axial escapement in its calibers. By far its best known watch model is the Speedmaster Professional, aka the “Moonwatch,” which in 1969 became the first watch worn on the moon and has been a mainstay of NASA space missions ever since. Omega has been a timing partner of the Olympics since 1932 and regularly releases collectible special editions in concert with the Games. Since 1995, Omega has been the official watch of James Bond, with both Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig sporting the naval-inspired Seamaster model in various iterations on the big screen. In recent years, Omega has upgraded its in-house movements to “Master Chronometer” status, a prestigious certification that speaks to their robustness, accuracy, and industry-leading levels of resistance to magnetic fields.

11. Cartier (1847) 

Cartier enjoys a worldwide reputation as the “King of Jewelers and the Jeweler of Kings,” but its founder, Louis-François Cartier, was a watchmaker first. The company, founded in Paris in 1847, is responsible for some of the most iconic and influential timepieces in history and continues to build on that legacy to this day. One of those icons sprung from a request by pioneering aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont to his friend Louis Cartier, grandson of the founder, for an easily readable watch he could wear during balloon flights. Cartier’s answer, today called the Santos watch and first marketed to the public in 1911, is now regarded as the first purpose-built aviation watch as well as the first wristwatch aimed at men. The Santos begat the square-cased Tank watch in 1919, an Art Deco-era milestone that continues to exert its influence over watch design today, and the Pasha in 1932, one of the earliest and most stylish waterproof watches. Cartier has also in more recent years distinguished itself with in-house high complications like the “Mysterious” movements at which it has excelled, in which the dial elements appear to float in midair thanks to cleverly obscured mechanical parts.

10. Ulysse Nardin (1846)

A watch maison whose very name conjures up romantic images of seagoing adventure and oceanic exploration, Ulysse Nardin, founded in 1846 by its eponym, carved out its place in Swiss watch history as a revered maker of marine chronometers for many of the world’s navies in the 19th and 20th centuries. Long regarded as the “standard bearer of nautical timekeeping,” Ulysse Nardin also entered the 21st Century as one of the most technically innovative and boldly experimental watchmakers on the scene. In 2001, Ulysse Nardin shook up the watch world with its introduction of the Freak, a wildly unconventional timepiece with a “flying carrousel system” in which there are no hands, only a baguette-shaped movement rotating on its own axis, with a bridge to indicate the minutes, while a rotating disk mounted on the mainplate indicates the hours. The Freak was also one of the first watches to use silicon for several of its vital movement parts, a material now widely used in the industry. The brand’s maritime history lives on in the Diver and Marine Torpilleur models, many of which are designed to echo the look of classical marine chronometers, with Roman numerals, cathedral hands, and a stacked arrangement of subdials. The Freak and its various descendants, like the recently released Freak One, remain the flagships of the fleet, displaying the pinnacle of avant-garde haute horlogerie.

9. Patek Philippe (1839)

Since its founding in 1839, 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. The Stern family, who purchased Patek Philippe in 1939, still own and operate it today and have built it into what is almost certainly the most prestigious Swiss luxury watchmaker and definitely the one most valued on the auction scene. Patek Philippe’s array of complications, found mostly in its elegant and historic Calatrava line  in production since 1932) but also in some pieces within the sportier Nautilus and Aquanaut collections, include 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. Patek created the first annual calendar and the first wristwatches with a perpetual calendar and a split-seconds chronograph. The Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime Ref. 6300A-010 contained no less than 20 complications and sold for $31.19M in 2019.

8. Jaeger-LeCoultre (1833)

Jaeger-LeCoultre, established in 1833 in the heart of the Vallée de Joux in the Swiss Jura Mountains, has been called “The Watchmaker of Watchmakers,” and the maison has worked hard to earn the reputation, producing more than 1,242 in-house calibers over its long history — and for much of that history supplying some of them to other major heritage brands like Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin. Jaeger-LeCoultre’s most iconic watch is undeniably the Reverso, made since 1931 and recognizable by its swiveling, reversible case, which was initially conceived as a sports watch for polo players to wear during matches. Another signature innovation from Jaeger-LeCoultre came in 1968: the Polaris Memovox, a diver’s watch equipped with a mechanical alarm, which exerts its aesthetic and technical influence on an entire collection of Polaris sport-luxury models today. On the technical side, Jaeger-LeCoultre is responsible for some of modern high horology’s most advanced innovations, several patented, like the twin-barrel, dual-escapement Duomètre winding system, and the triple-axis Heliotourbillon; and is lauded for its rigorous 1,000-hour “Master Control” testing regimen.

7. Longines (1832)

Headquartered in Saint-Imier, Switzerland since its founding in 1832 by Auguste Agassiz, Longines takes its name from “les longines,” or the “long meadows” that surround that picturesque Swiss village. The brand has been a pioneer in sports timing throughout its history, developing timing technologies for racing and a host of equestrian competitions as well as being a one-time Olympic Games timekeeper. Longines remains heavily involved in equestrian sports today, acting as official timing partner of horse racing’s Triple Crown and other events. The company also looks back on an enviable history of involvement in early aviation, designing the legendary Hour Angle watch with Charles Lindbergh in 1931 and supplying watches to pilots like Howard Hughes, Amy Johnson, and Amelia Earhart; these watches inspired the popular Spirit collection models that take pride of place in Longines’ portfolio today. Longines was also one of the first Swiss brands to embrace quartz technology in the 1950s, with its line of Conquest VHP (Very High Precision) quartz-powered models. All together, this collection of history and savoir-faire yields a very versatile collection of both distinctly modern and charmingly retro timepieces, all offering immense value for their price.

6. Baume & Mercier (1830)

Brothers Louis-Victor and Célestin Baume founded Frères Baume in 1830 and partnered with Paul Mercier in 1918 to form the Baume & Mercier firm that we recognize today. The firm became one of the first to dabble in shaped watch cases and to design jewelry-oriented watches specifically aimed at women. Since joining the Richemont Group in 1988, Baume & Mercier has offered tastefully designed Swiss-made timepieces at solid values compared to many of its peers, including complications from day-dates to chronographs to a perpetual calendar, all outfitted with outsourced Swiss-made calibers and modules. In recent years, Baume & Mercier has forayed into making its own in-house calibers, including the so-called Baumatic movement that it has installed inside several models within its sporty-elegant Clifton collections, like the recently launched Clifton Moon Phase models. In 2021, Baume & Mercier revived its Riviera model from 1973, its own answer to the mega-popular trend of integrated-bracelet sports watches, adding a chronograph in 2022 and a diver’s watch, the Riviera Azur, in 2023.

5. Girard-Perregaux (1791)

The long and somewhat convoluted history of Girard-Perregaux begins in 1791, when watchmaker Jean-François Baute established a watchmaking atelier under his name. Another watchmaker, Constant Girard, founded Girard & Cie. in 1852, which became Girard-Perregaux after he married Marie Perregaux in 1854. Constant’s son took over the company in 1906 (still following?) and acquired the Baute company to merge it into the family firm. This series of business maneuvers allows the modern Girard-Perregaux to claim a pedigree back to 1791 even though neither Girard nor Perregaux had yet been born. In any case, Girard-Perregaux boasts an undeniably historic pedigree in the annals of high horology, the most notable being the Three Gold Bridges Tourbillon, Constant Girard’s patented, award-winning take on Abraham-Louis Breguet’s hallmark horological invention, the tourbillon; the “Bridges” design continues to influence Girard-Perregaux’s watch innovations today from both an aesthetic and technical standpoint. A more recent milestone, the Laureato sport-luxury watch, conceived in the 1970s’ heyday of that genre, has since its 2016 relaunch taken up the leader position in Girard-Perregaux’s collection, with recent models designed in collaboration with the brand’s automotive partner, Aston-Martin.

4. Breguet (1775)

Abraham-Louis Breguet (1747 - 1823) was one of the most important figures in the history of watchmaking and his signature invention, the tourbillon, finds some of its most creative and ambitious expressions in the modern Breguet watch brand, whose history can be traced all the way back to 1775. (Patented in 1801 as a solution to the effects of gravitational fields on a watch’s movement precision, the tourbillon is of course now a staple of many other watchmakers as well.) Breguet made the first watch to be wound by means of its crown in 1830, an era in which watches were wound with a key, and Breguet watches throughout history have adorned the waistcoats and wrists of important figures from England’s King George III to Queen Marie-Antoinette to Sir Winston Churchill. The maison even established its own signature set of hands, called Breguet hands, back in 1783, which are found on pieces from Breguet’s modern Classique collection as well as models from many other brands. In addition to its well-curated selection of tourbillon-equipped timepieces (like the super-thin “Extra-Plat” Classique references) and rare complications like the world-time Hora Mundi and its Equation of Time models, Breguet produces luxury with both a nautical and a classical aeronautical flair with its Marine and Type XX collections, respectively.

3. Vacheron Constantin (1755)

In contrast to some others on this list, Vacheron Constantin, founded in 1755 by Jean-Marc Vacheron and François Constantin, can boast an uninterrupted history of watchmaking, from its origins to today. Now well into its third century, Vacheron Constantin can also claim a number of horological milestones and wearers drawn from the ranks of royalty, like Egypt’s King Fuad I. Vacheron Constantin’s Ref. 57260 pocket watch, unveiled in 2015, holds the title of the world’s most complicated watch ever made, packing 57 total complications. Vacheron Constantin offers one of the most comprehensive lineups among high watchmaking brands, with pieces in its Patrimony and Traditonnelle collections that range from elegant three-handers to perpetual calendars, minute repeaters, and tourbillons. Its sport-luxury Overseas collection, which draws its influence from the legendary 222 reference from 1977, encompasses its own raft of complications, and the vintage-inspired Historiques series engages enthusiasts with modern re-editions of classical timepieces from Vacheron’s extensive archives like the Historiques Cornes de Vache, which revives an Art Deco-era wrist chronograph in its original gold case, with bicompax dial and “cow-horn” shaped lugs.

2. Favre-Leuba

Probably the least well-known watchmaker on this list is also the second-oldest in the world (by a scant two years). Abraham Favre founded his independent atelier in 1737 in Le Locle, Switzerland, after years as an apprentice. His son Abraham, Jr., partnered with Auguste Leuba in 1815 to form the joint company that exists today. It would remain in the hands of the Favre family for eight generations before being sold in the 1980s, and contributed several notable watches throughout its long history, including the Bivouac in the 1960s, the first mechanical wristwatch equipped with a barometer and an altimeter to measure air pressure. Favre-Leuba also made some notable dive watches in the ‘50s and ‘60s, like the Deep Blue and Bathy, the latter of which could measure dive times, durations, and depths. After years of dormancy, the firm re-emerged in 2011 under new ownership by the India-based Tata Group (which makes cars as well as many other products) and its watchmaking subsidiary, the Titan Company. Today, Favre-Leuba has revived many of its past models in contemporary form, like the Raider Harpoon dive watch, with an impressive 500-meter water resistance, and a modern version of the Bivouac, capable of measuring altitudes to an astonishing 9,000 meters above sea level and of measuring a wearer’s elevation with a built-in aneroid barometer that reacts to air pressure.

1. Blancpain (1735)

 

The distinction of being the oldest existing watchmaker goes to Blancpain, founded in 1735 by Jehan-Jacques Blancpain, years before the United States was even a country. The maison offers a plethora of small and high complications  in its extensive and elegant Villeret collection, named for the Swiss village where it originated before moving to the Vallée de Joux in 1983, including a so-called “complete” calendar, a signature complication. These days, however, Blancpain is perhaps best known for the milestone it contributed to watch history in 1953 — the Fifty-Fathoms, one of the very first purpose-built diver’s watches. Designed in collaboration with the French Navy’s Nageurs de Combat (combat swimmers, and later worn by U.S. Navy SEALs and other American military diving units, the Fifty Fathoms has become a pillar of Blancpain’s product range today. A subfamily based on a particular model from the late 1950s, called Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe, has a more modest, retro look and has become a popular collection on its own. For the model’s 70th anniversary in 2023, Blancpain released a special “bronze gold” limited edition of the Fifty Fathoms and followed that up with a crowd-pleasing, more wearable 42mm version in 2024.

Just missing the cut of the top 15, and rounding out the top 20, are IWC, founded in 1868; Piaget (1874); Audemars Piguet, Bulova (both 1875); and Seiko (1881). Breitling comes along in 1884, and Rolex, not until 1905, making it the second-oldest watchmaker founded in the 20th Century, one year behind Oris, established in 1904.

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