Family-owned watch companies run by successive generations of artisan watchmakers are rare today. There are exceptions, but most historic Swiss watch brands you can probably think of belong to one of a few big corporate groups. Understanding how Swiss and other watch companies are related and the resources they share will help put your favorite brand into perspective next time you buy a watch.
What does it mean when you buy a Hamilton Khaki Field or an Omega Speedmaster — are you buying something from that brand itself, or from a faceless conglomerate? Though there are complicated business relationships involved, it's possible to understand a large chunk of the watch industry by looking at its major groups: The Swatch Group, Richemont and LVMH.
Is Being Part of a Group Good or Bad?
Some watch fans worry that when previously independent brands are acquired it'll mean a top-down, profit-driven new approach — and the end of the brand's individual vision and creativity. The company might be restricted to the particular market segment that benefits the parent company's strategy. This can happen and is sometimes felt in marketing and product development, but each situation is unique: the degree to which a brand retains its independence depends upon a number of factors.
If a watchmaker is in financial trouble due to ineffective management, a big group stepping in with capital and new management can save it from disappearing completely. Many of the brands that belong to groups today could be considered lucky for having survived the Quartz Crisis, as many others didn't. At the same time, there are major benefits to joining a group, including shared resources.
For example, while ETA movements (like the common 2824-2) are used across the watch industry, it's mostly been Swatch Group companies that have benefited from a new generation that's been improved in various ways, including by the addition of extended power reserves. R&D into materials like ceramic might also be shared, and brands that are good at making watches but less talented at marketing, e-commerce and web design can also get the expertise they need.
The image of an old watchmaker patiently assembling watches by hand with a snowy Alpine backdrop is only partially accurate. It's part of a larger picture in which watch companies need to survive and compete, in some cases leading to products you like and in other cases, perhaps not. In the end, the group structures are a major (perhaps necessary) force in the ever-evolving watch industry, and understanding their influence might help you appreciate your favorite brand more.
First, don't be confused, as the maker of affordable plastic watches called Swatch is but one brand under the umbrella of the larger Swatch Group. The Swatch Group consists of many entities, from its consumer-facing watch brands to the companies that support them in various ways. As of 2020, there are about 17 (active) brands under the Swatch Group producing watches and jewelry, and they span everything from affordable fashion accessories to esoteric, high-end horology. Unlike Richemont and LVMH, the Swatch Group's products are primarily watches.
At the upper tiers are Breguet, Harry Winston, Blancpain, Jaquet Droz, Glashütte Original and Omega. These companies develop and build many of their own components, including movements. Their products range from luxury tool watches like Omega's Speedmaster to complicated and expensive artistic creations with the likes of tourbillons from Breguet.
The mid-tier brands, Longines, Rado and Union Glashütte, use sourced movements from sister company ETA but sometimes develop their own technology and offer a high level of fit and finish with refined details. Entry-level luxury is represented by Hamilton, Tissot, Mido and Certina, using ETA movements, luxury materials like sapphire crystal and solid construction, all while staying reasonably affordable. Finally, the brands Swatch, Flik Flak and Calvin Klein can be considered makers of inexpensive "fashion watches."
In addition to the names above which you will find proudly emblazoned on watch dials, there are even more companies involved in various aspects of production behind the scenes. The most recognizable (for watch nerds, at least) are ETA, the prolific maker of movements found in watches from the Swatch Group brands and many more, and Nivarox, a company that specializes in producing escapement parts including hairsprings.
There are then many more companies that even hardcore watch enthusiasts haven't heard of producing the likes of cases, dials and hands, as well as companies that specialize in materials or specific parts such as crowns and pushers. Finally, there are segments for corporate management, distribution companies and even museums — it's a massive organization.
The first quartz watch was introduced in 1969, and by the 1980s competition from the likes of Seiko with accurate, affordable, mass-produced, often plastic-cased quartz watches was set to kill the Swiss watch industry. Some call this the Quartz Revolution, but in Switzerland it's known as the Quartz Crisis.
The solution was two-pronged: first, Switzerland's entire watch industry needed to be restructured for efficiency; and second, the Swiss needed to compete at the lower end of the price spectrum with an answer to cheap quartz watches "for the masses." To execute this latter strategy, Swatch was created in 1983, and it continues to make playful, often plastic, design-driven watches today.
The watch industry in Switzerland at that time consisted of hundreds of companies, but there were two groups that owned many of the prominent brands and the movement maker ETA. Merging these groups in 1983 would create the conglomerate that was eventually (in 1998) renamed the Swatch Group. It worked: this plan is often credited with "saving" the Swiss watch industry. Nicholas Hayek was the man largely responsible for it, and his son Nick Hayek Jr. is the Swatch Group's CEO today.
Richemont's wares are more diverse than just watches and include a range of other luxury goods. With prestigious and important names in horology, however, they are a major watch industry force, and the 11 Richemont watch brands are overall weighted toward the higher-end. A. Lange & Söhne and Vacheron Constantin, for example, are two of the most prestigious watchmakers in the world, and Roger Dubuis focuses on bold, technical watches starting well into five figure prices.
Panerai, Jaeger-LeCoultre, IWC and Cartier are historic watchmakers that offer robust collections for each important watch genre in the mid-range luxury segment. Montblanc and Baume & Mercier begin with price points above entry-level luxury but offer the most accessible watches from the Richemont Group. Each of these brands has in-house movements and also dabbles in more technical or artistic watchmaking, which is the primary focus of watches from Piaget and jeweler Van Cleef & Arpels.
The Richemont company was founded in 1988 as a spinoff from diverse holdings owned by South African billionaire Anton Rupert. The real story of the Richemont group's watch brands, however, starts with Cartier. Investors in Cartier had begun consolidating its businesses and then buying up other watchmakers and luxury brands, eventually forming the Vendôme Luxury Group. Richemont bought out other stakeholders, acquiring complete control and dissolving Vendôme in 1998. Then, in 2000, the conglomerate acquired Les Manufactures Horologes, adding A. Lange & Söhne, IWC and Jaeger-LeCoultre to its stable.
The Rupert family still controls Richemont with Anton's son Johann as the current chairman. The company's role in the watch industry has grown since major watch trade show Baselworld declined and Richemont's own event called Watches & Wonders (formerly SIHH) expanded significantly.
Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy, more commonly known as LVMH, is the top luxury goods company in the world in terms of sales, according to Deloitte. There are around 75 brands under its diverse umbrella producing everything from whisky to leather shoes and bags to yachts (and much more), and only a handful of watchmakers — but they are important, highly visible watchmakers.
Watches at LVMH can be best understood in terms of two groups: there are companies that are primarily watchmakers, and companies that are mostly known for other luxury goods but which are also important players in the watch industry. Those specializing in watches are Hublot, Zenith and TAG Heuer, each of which is positioned at a different price point but which together reflect direction from the corporate parent with similar approaches (more on that below). Broadly speaking, Hublot is focused more on the higher-end; Zenith competes strongly in the mid-range luxury segment; and TAG Heuer's average price point tends to be lower than Zenith's but above "entry-level luxury."
Bulgari and LVMH's namesake Louis Vuitton are commonly associated with jewelry or leather goods and other products, but both are also serious watchmakers. Both make watches that range from relatively accessible and design/fashion oriented to high-end, innovative and often esoteric horology. Bulgari also benefits from owning the rights to prestigious watchmaking brands Gerald Genta and Daniel Roth.
LVMH was founded in 1987, but the story of its modern watches largely revolves around one man: Jean-Claude Biver. Responsible for successful business turnarounds at Blancpain and Omega through marketing initiatives such as product placement and celebrity endorsements, Biver took his approach to Hublot in 2004. The brand became synonymous with partnerships, glitzy brand ambassadors, material innovation and sporty, ultra-aggressive styles. It also sold a lot of watches.
Biver became president of LVMH's watchmaking division in 2014 (and interim CEO of TAG Heuer). His touch is evident in certain collections of Zenith and TAG Heuer in which one finds hyper-modern, often skeletonized sport watches. TAG Heuer's aggressive marketing and product development mirror's Hublot's in this way, but balances its edgy, youth-oriented watches with vintage-inspired models in a similar manner to Zenith.
While Louis Vuitton and Bulgari mostly don't fit into the same patterns as those above — in part because they are in LVMH's fashion and leather goods division — Louis Vuitton offers a smartwatch using Google's Wear OS, just as Hublot and TAG Heuer do.