Who’s the King?

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We all love ranks, lists, competition and knowing who is the best. In the watch industry many players crown themselves as the king of the industry. Consumers always want to own the best watch. But who is actually the king?

Is Rolex the king of the watch industry, like many people (want to) believe? Or, did Rolex crown itself as the king of the watch industry, and therefore have a crown as their logo?

Rolex Logo

Rolex Logo

Like many people, I always wondered what watch brand was the absolute number 1. But who and what defines the number one? As a small child, I always believed the one that produced the largest quantity of watches, is the number one. Since I was infected with the Swatch virus, that started in 1983 (I was four and had a Swatch on my wrist – I couldn’t even read time), I believed Swatch was the number one. As I grew older, Swatch grew to be a huge international hype. When I grew even older and started to understand the value of money and recognize the diversity of the many brands, I believed Rolex was the number one. Not only because it seemed everybody who spoke about watches, spoke about Rolex; but also because it seemed the ultimate watch brand for many.

When I started high school and started to work in the family business during holidays, I learned there were so many more brands out there. Many of them weren’t even sold in The Netherlands and I started to fall in love with Jaeger-LeCoultre, Patek Philippe and Audermars Piguet. Now that I am working in this industry for more than 10 years, I have the greatest respect and appreciation for the geniuses that are still alive and create amazing, innovative movements (like: FP Journe, Richard Mille, Grubel & Forsey, Renaud & Papi, etc). But also people, like Kurt Klaus, who work for the major brands (I had the honour to have met him on many different occasions and even drove him from one side of The Netherlands to the other – the poor guy, I drilled him for the complete two hours).

At the end of this post I will share my opinion of whom I believe is the king, but first let’s define some means to measure the greatness of a brand. First and foremost, people will always define quantity. But this is tricky, since some Japanese or Chinese manufacturers most probably produce more pieces annually than the complete Swiss watch industry. So, we need to narrow this down. The second definition that pops into my mind is exclusiveness and that is immediately linked to luxury. And, to measure exclusivity one can use recommended retail prices and therefore crown the most profitable watch brand as the king of the watch industry?! But, what about values at auctions? Let’s propose historic and/or market prices as a third definition.
As a fourth definition we could consider is independence as a parameter… We all know “money makes money” and with enough marketing budgets, one can ‘buy’ exclusiveness, market shares, brand awareness and raise auction priceses (Antiquorum Scandal and remember the Omegamania auction?!). So, independent brands should be considered more successful, if they excel in a market that is dominated by huge globalized public listed companies (Swatch Group, Richemont, LVMH and others). And, last but certainly not least, perception is a parameter I want to consider. For my bachelor thesis I did research about brand identity versus brand image of watch brands. This is a very interesting and timeless subject: The self-perception of almost anyone (persons and companies) is different if compared to how we are perceived (but then again, the truth is in the eye of the beholder ;) ).

If we look at these five parameter to define who is the king of the watch industry, we have to analyze each paramter:

1. Quantity
As discussed already, some single Asian brands produce annually more watches than the complete Swiss industry, so we need to narrow it down. In the trade we generalize and split the market in to three segments: Low-end (up to EUR 1.000), mid-range (between EUR 1.000 and EUR 3.000 – some say EUR 5.000) and high-end (a.k.a. Haute Horlogerie – from EUR 3.000 or EUR 5.000) and up. And in the high-end there are many sub-segmentations possible, but we will neglect those for now. In the low-end, Seiko is the king of quantities. In the mid-range, I find it very difficult to quantify, but I personally believe it is Tissot (please share if you have any statistics – I couldn’t find any now). And, in the high end it is indisputably Rolex! Although Rolex does not publicize any figures, there are rough estimates that Rolex manufactures about 1 million watches a year. We can conclude this by the figures the COSC publicizes.

COSC Certificate

COSC Certificate

2. Exclusivity/Profitability
Many watch brand nowadays compete for the title to have created the most exclusive watches. Some say the most expensive watch is the most exclusive (I believe that today this is still the Patek Philippe Sky Moon Tourbillon). Others say that this is not only one of the most expensive watches, but also a watch that has been produced in a limited series… Of course, a piece unique should win this title… lately people say it is the replica of the Breguet Marie-Antoinette. But let’s not forget the IWC Grand Complication Il destriero scafusia, Vacheron Constantin Tour de I’lle and Blancpain Le Brassus 1735 Grande Complication. Of course there are a few more that belong in this list. But measured overall, Patek Philippe is the brand that creates and manufactures the most exclusive watches in the market (you’ll rarely find discounts on these watches – many models will be sold with a premium). Their aim was from the start to create the best watches in the market and even today they live by this promise. Linked to this, I dare to say it is the most profitable company, if measured by market price divided by quantity sold annually (no numbers know, so this is pure my personal hunch).

Breguet Marie-Antoinette

Breguet Marie-Antoinette

3. Timelessness/Market Values
Although recommended retail prices could indicate how exclusive a timepiece is, but wouldn’t market prices be an even more important tool to classify the exclusiveness of watches? As discussed in the previous paragraph, there are only a few watches that actually sell above the asking price. The first watch that comes to mind is the Rolex Daytona in stainless steel for a watch that is still in production and on auctions almost all vintage Patek Philippe watches break records (In the top 10 of The Most Important Vintage Wristwatches (made before 1990), all 10 watches are by Patek Philippe!). Therefore I believe Patek Philippe is the undisputed king of timelessness and holding its value. Or even more important, proving to be a good investment: It will only go up in price. On top of that, nowadays, almost every new launched Patek Philippe watch sells for a higher price than the recommended list price! But ofcourse the also produces models that make many of us wonder what the designers where thinking while creating these pieces.

Patek Ref. 1415 HU - Most expensive wrist watch (USD 4 million)

Patek Ref. 1415 HU - Most expensive wrist watch (USD 4 million)

4. Market size: Independents vs. Groups
After the quartz-crisis in the 1970s, not many watch companies survived and most of them that survived joint forces. Nowadays, we can conclude that the luxury goods sector is dominated by corporations. And this also counts for the watch industry. Many international watch brands (mostly haute horlogerie brands) are now part of a large consolidated corporation selling watches, jewelry, leather goods, hunting weapons and writing instruments. Although Swatch Group is the only luxury corporation that focuses on the watch industry, it is by far not the largest group, measured in turn over. The top 10 of luxury good companies that manufacture watches is (in 2006 in billion USD):

1. LVMH (Zenith, TAG Heuer, Hublot, Dior, etc.) = 20,2
2. Richemont (Cartier, Mont Blanc, IWC, Panerai, etc.) = 6,3
3. PPR (Gucci, Bedat, Sowind, etc.) = 4,7
4. Chanel = 4,6
5. Swatch Group (Omega, Breguet, Blancpain, Longines, etc.) = 4,2
6. Valentino (Valentino, Hugo Boss, etc.) = 2,6
7. Hermes = 2
8. Giorgo Armani = 2
9. Dolce & Gabbana = 1,4
10. Bulgari = 1,3

Unfortunately all these groups do not publicize the individual figures of the subsidiaries and therefore we can’t analyze and compare individual watch brands. On top of that the individual watch brands also do not publicize their turnovers and profit margins, so therefore we have no clue who is the ‘largest’ watch company by turnover. But if we have to guess what group is the largest, based on their turnover generated by pure watch sales, Richemont is definitely the largest! Although LVMH is more than three times larger, their watch sales most probably do not surpass those of Richemont! We have no clue how profitable Patek Philippe and Audermars Piguet exactly are, but everybody in the watch industry indisputably assumes that Rolex is the largest and most profitable individual watch brand/company. There is no manufacture that produces around 1 million quality watches annually with an average price of approx. USD 8.000! And then we do not even take Tudor in to account, but that is probably pocket change for Rolex S.A.?!

5. Perception
This is a difficult one! As written before, I have written my bachelor dissertation about Brand Identity versus Brand Image. They only way to quantify this is to do a large-scale poll. In this poll one should assess the identity of a brand and compare it with the perception of its consumers. So litteraly compare the image of the consumers with the identity a brand. Again I emphasize that this post is my personal opinion and I am heavily generalizing here. My purpose is to provoke responses, so please do share your opinion. If I have to guess, I believe that Rolex believes they are the king of the watch industry (therefore have a crown in their logo). On the other hand if you ask the majority of the population and ask them what the best watch brand is, probably 80% will say Rolex! Rolex ranks number 72 of the Top 100 Best Global Brands (Newsweek), so that is not very strange. The funny things is two years ago the Swatch Group publicly attacked Rolex (the subject of my next post), by claiming that in three years time Omega will be bigger than Rolex, measured in turn over. So, in 2006 Nick Hayek Jr. claimed that by 2009-2010 Omega will be bigger than Rolex (therefore admitting Rolex is the king) and aiming to be the king of the watch industry.

What about the 20% that doesn’t believe that Rolex is the king… Many people who have decided to by a good watch, go out there without analyzing the large selection of watches available and buy a Rolex. They buy a Rolex, because they believe they bought ‘THE’ best watch out there. But, often they are disgusted by the fact that ‘everyone’ has a Rolex (or Lolex – or any other look-a-like). If their passion for mechanical movements grow, they are obliged to look into other brands. If you want a chronograph (and have a Daytona or can’t get one) you are obliged to look at other brands. If you want a watch that is even more complicated, you definitely have to look elsewhere. So, for lovers of mechanical movements and complications, I believe Patek Philippe is the undisputed king, and I simply base this notion on the fact of the auction results! But even the true WatchFreaks often love Rolex watches too! Rolex has made and still makes iconic/minimalistic/qualitative movements and watches! Personally I have loved Rolex, then the love passed, it come back again and now turned into a love-hate relationship…. Yes, I know: Love is complicated ;) Maybe a nice topic for another post! 

Personally I believe that the King of the watch industry is a watch brand that finds a balance between heritage, innovation, quality and timelessness (read: is of will be a legend). Personally, I believe Patek Philippe is the king of the industry, because:

- Like many other watch brands, has an amazing heritage. It is still a family company (but not the Patek or Philippe family – but still independent).

- It is one of the most innovative watch manufacturers out there. I believe Patek was the first one to create silicium spare parts in their movement. But to be honest, Audemars Piguet and Ulysee Nardin are as innovative. But it underlines again that the independents invest more in the long term, versus the short term profit strategy of many groups.

- I believe innovation and quality go hand in hand, but when Patek Philippe was founded their aim was to produce the best movements and watches out there. This is proven by the results on auctions. Today they also produce one of the best watch movements and watches, this is underlined by the huge waiting lists for models and the premiums people are willing to pay for the new watches!

- In the battle of who produces the largest watches, Patek still sticks to the ‘old-fashioned’ small and thin movements. I believe that is very daring, but then again, that shows vision and faith in their own identity and strategy!

- Last, but not least: Exclusivity/Distribution. Even though Rolex doesn’t really have many retailers compared to other brands, Patek is truly exclusive. It only has a handful retailers and they only work with the best retailers in every city/country! No concessions to quality and service! 

The funny thing is, I believe that Patek is the King of the watch industry, I still do not have the urge to run out and get one particular Patek at this very moment. I do love the 5960p, but still I love my Portuguese Chrono more (sorry!). And I always loved the Nautilus (am a huge fan of Gerald Genta – AP Royal Oak is my favourite), but even though the new 5711/1 grew to a good size of a 43mm, I find the watch thin (case and bracelet)! But what an amazing movement and what a finish on every single detail! 

Yes, when I am a bit older and have a lot more grey hair, I definitely want a Perpetual Calendar in white gold (5140G). But still, 37mm is very small. My wrist is not to big and therefore I don’t wear watches over 44mm, where 42mm is ideal for me. 39mm is really the minimum for me, but just for the love for the brand and this model it is a dream to wear the 5140! But first I want the IWC Portuguese Perpetual Calendar (IW502218).

I am very curious who you believe is the king of the watch industry!

A mechanical greeting,

Alon

P.S. Rolex was founded in 1905 and the Crown-logo was registered in 1925.

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25 Responses to “Who’s the King?”

  1. robertjan.broer Says:

    @Alon:

    Great article, an impressive write-up on thought and facts about ‘who is king’. As you write, one can define ‘king of watches’ from different perspectives. I agree with your ‘summarized kingness’ on Patek Philippe. Exclusivity, quality, timelessness, value and innovating are the key ‘quality’-aspects of being or becoming king of watches. However, I think we are about the same age, most Patek Philippe watches are for people who are a bit older :) The watches are a bit too classic and – even more important – small for me. With the exception of the Nautilus 5711/1A. Although I wouldn’t mind having one (I don’t mind the watch being thin) I would go for a AP Royal Oak 15202ST, also known as the Jumbo. Half the price for a similair watch with ditto movement and an impressive (young) history.

    Anyway, as for sales numbers and value for money…. I’d stick to Rolex. An honest watch for an honest price, referring to the stainless steel sports models like the Submariner, GMT-Master II or Explorer (II). Build like a rock, it is there to last and to hold their value. I am very curious about Omega’s plans to defeat Rolex in being king of watches in this price segment.

    Have a nice weekend,

    RJ

  2. alonbj Says:

    @RJ: Thank you. I have two follow-up articles in the pipeline:

    1. The Battle of Giants: Omega vs. Rolex
    2. Rolex: A love-hate relationship

    And maybe we should co-write an article about Gerald Genta… To be continued ;)

    Have a great weekend.

  3. lmcontrol Says:

    It’s obvious that Rolex IS the king of watchmaking. Of the qualities mentioned, I think they display the deepest heritage and remain the standard by which all others are judged. Face it, everyone knows what a Rolex is, but ask Joe Blow on the street what Patek Phillipe is and most wouldn’t know who they were. PP is also for the most part not accessible to consumers not just because of price, but in terms of opportunity. Most cities in Europe and America have a Rolex dealer or two, you have to go to a major metropolis to even see a PP. Face it, Rolex made it possible for the everyman to have a luxury timepiece with their wide variety. PP will always be a niche market.

  4. cliffchan Says:

    Very nice and extensive write up on the subject. I find it very tough to name THE king. I guess I owe you that one. But I do want to share a few thoughts that come to mind upon reading this article:

    – “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.” ;-)
    – In my view, it’s all about perception in this world, perception is everything. I’d say this factor should even maybe given more ‘weight’ than the other parameters mentioned. And in that respect, I have a slight tendency to name Rolex the king (with emphasis on ‘slight tendency’!)
    – Love-hate relationship with Rolex: sounds kind of familiar! Very curious as to your next post!

  5. SteveK Says:

    A very interesting question.

    I’d have to agree with the Rolex answer. Patek Phillipe is probably the best brand on the market, at least in my (and many others) opinion.

    But Rolex is truly iconic. And not only because of the me-too’s who think they have to own one to be “in the club”.

    The look of much of the Rolex family has been copied endlessly. And the standard Rolex “look” has remained pretty much the same for decades. A truly timeless design that works, much like the Porsche 911.

    Would I rather own a Patek or a Rolex? No question there. But I’ll probably never be able to afford my ideal Patek.

  6. rolex watches Says:

    rolex watches…

    Any idea what it would cost to have the dial and bezel on my Rolex Submariner changed from black to blue?…

  7. Ian Says:

    In my opinion Patek Philippe surely is the King of the Watch Industry. As a real Master it does not have to fight like Rolex and Omega. Nevertheless these brands are fantastic as well.

    Personally I cherish my Breitling Windrider Crosswind and for daily use a TW Steel
    TW70
    .

  8. sml Says:

    “the watch of kings, and the king of watches”: patek
    philippe.
    but if you are a poor wis like me, then rolex is the obvious choice.

  9. Van Says:

    “Rolex made it possible for the everyman to have a luxury timepiece” thereby defeating one of the points of ‘Luxury’ (e.g. exclusivity)…

    I respect Rolex, but have no desire to own one for several reasons.
    -You might be buying a respected name, but the value for money fails me. The performance is no better than many other automatics availible for a quarter (or less) of the same price. For the same money, I could have a Panerai.
    -Too many knock-offs and homages; the value of the true thing has been degraded by the flood of counterfeits and copies. The assumption in many circles is that a Rolex is fake unless proven otherwise. I’ve gotten to the point where I won’t even buy a watch with mercedes (Rolex style) hands.
    -The mindless me-toos… This is especially bad in political circles, where everyone tries to dress like the boss, who dresses like his boss, ad nauseum, in their petty and self-serving games of influence and power. These are also the folks who will vapidly chirp “Rolex is the BEST!” without being able to articulate a rational reason why.

    To be fair, my issues aren’t with the watch per se, but the people who kowtow to them, the people who try to pay cash to purchase prestige, and the parasites that exploit Rolex’ style through homages, replicas, and knock-offs.

    It’s sad that a good timepiece has become the hallmark of the inane parvenu.

    What is right with Rolex;
    -A real Rolex is a good watch.
    -I’m very impressed with Rolex certified watchmakers. I won’t take a mechanical watch of any brand to a watchmaker who isn’t a Rolex trained technician.
    -They could double their prices and still sell almost as many, but they have chosen to restrain themselves.
    -They certainly retain their value.

    My big concern about the market is the Rolex versus Omega issue, as it highlights the Swatch Group’s growing domination of the under $5000, European made, market. Even MontBlanc uses a Swatch Group, ETA movement. I’d much rather see a more diverse market where the king has to really stay on his toes to retain the crown.

  10. mike Says:

    I respect every thing you said nice article will like to add more but this article is well made.

  11. bruce Says:

    Great Article, and fanstatic analysis!!!

  12. chee wai Says:

    i think the king of watches only needs to be rated on 1 criteria, and one only. quality. longevity, reliability and accuracy are all determined by its quality. price, quantity perception, means nothing to me when it comes to ‘who’s the king?’ in a way, the article answers nothing. not that it was a bad article.

    in my opinion, 1 and only 1 criteria should determine the king.

    i don’t have the info or resources to find that out. but i’ve always been told, perceived rolex is the king. but… i don’t have all the info to make a correct judgement.

  13. ali Kutlu Says:

    In the last 6 months I bought two Hublot watches,
    one Big Bang and one Big Bang King.
    The look of the watches are amazing.
    I compaired Rolex with Hublot but I bought anyway Hublot

  14. Victor Liew Says:

    Hi,

    I would have to say Rolex is the King.

    In my experience, here in Malaysia, most “beginner” watch collectors, especially those with new found riches would initially avoid Rolex because of the perceived “Chinese businessman” stigma attached – so they perhaps they try a Patek, Vacheron or one of those outrageously priced “new” brands to show so class and individuality. But…

    They inevitably get a Rolex. Why?

    Call it a nagging feeling somewhere at the back that perhaps they are missing something. It may be the power of Rolex’s marketing over the years, but for me personally, it is an honest watch with only one thing in mind – to make the most accurate, durable mechanic wristwatch. In that sense, that is why their Celini collection has been a total failure because it has deviated from what the public perceives as a Rolex.

    Then there is the issue of real selling price.

    Here in Malaysia, the sought after Rolexes (usual culprits) are sold at a premium. Whereas Patek and Vacherons are available for between 25 – 40% off! The more expensive, the higher the discount. The reason is obvious…

    The retailer has to face the cost of holding a relatively little in demand watch. It is a business decision. Patek etc can’t do anything as the retailer has fulfilled it’s obligation of carrying the stock and there are previous few retailers/distributors who can afford to carry the product, so the watch company can’t be too fussy about price protection.

    What is going to be interesting is the situation with the financial calamity.

    Who is going to survive?

    Without a doubt your Rolex, Patek, Vacheron, Cartier, Piaget… will survive but what about those so-called new brands that have flooded the market recently which IMHO have only have superflous decorations to justify a high price

    Great article. A real gem.

    Victor Liew

  15. Badir Mo Says:

    You have perfectly explained Rolex positioning in the market and how the perception that it is the best watch out there came about. Excellent observations. I would like to ask you about Breitling and Ulysse Nardin positioning and how would you rank them among the above mentioned brands

  16. donald shue Says:

    Swatch is beyond a shadow of a doubt is “The King!!!!!” Not because of the number of watches they actually sell or even produce under their labels,but because of their ownership of Eta-Valjouix.You have Swatch ranked 5th on your list,but those conglomerates ranked 1 through 4 all purchase many of their movements through #5.Remember the old Pam’s with eta 6497 and the many chrono’s using Valjouix 7750,7751,7736,7720etc……………even Franck Muller uses eta.Swatch deserves the crown.Poor,poor Rolex.

  17. wristwatches Says:

    That is an remarkable stance you took. When I read the title, I instantaneously had a disagreement of opinion, but I do see your side.

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  19. Atima Maru Says:

    Another great post, good going!Thanks for information.

  20. Atima Maru Says:

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  24. Bob Simon Says:

    After owning a 1970’s Submariner and later an Oysterquartz I was profoundly disappointed with the performance of the watches. They are certainly status symbols but as time pieces they were a disappointment. The Submariner would only run slow never fast no matter how much it was serviced and adjusted. Several of the Oysterquartz hour marker dots came loose and were drifting around the face like Chopard diamonds. The Patek Philippe Nautilus line is certainly more exclusive and a better investment than most high end brands but the conversation doesn’t ever seem to go past style and exclusivity. I want style and exclusivity too, but I also demand precision performance. I am disappointed that it’s difficult to find performance comparisons that validate the quality and value of the Nautilus.

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