The name on a watch dial can tell you a lot. It might represent a range of intangible qualities, from history, pride and prestige to a reputation for quality and interesting design. But for those just getting into watches, there's a lot to take in.
Ideally, it's best to develop your own impressions and relationships to brands over time and through experience. Everyone has their own tastes and each watch should ideally be judged on its own merits, but you might want to have a basic orientation to the most prominent brands when learning about or shopping for watches.
There are hundreds of watch brands in operation today, each with its own personality and approach to watchmaking. The brands below aren't necessarily "the best" or the only ones worth knowing about, but they're some of the companies that you should absolutely be familiar with. Together they'll help you establish a base from which you can do your own exploring.
Surely, you already know Rolex. Appropriately represented by a crown logo, Rolex is the undisputed king of luxury watches, famously worn by countless historic figures and contemporary celebrities. New models can sell for above MSRP on the secondary market and vintage Rolex is the subject of the most active and passionate watch collecting. You don't need to know anything about watches to know or want a Rolex. Naturally, the company backs up its reputation with unbeatable quality.
Internationally, Seiko was long associated with affordable but reliable "everyman" watches. Today, the Japanese watchmaker is a global superstar loved for its quality and value, but it also rivals the top Swiss luxury brands with excellent finishing and innovative technology (particularly with its Grand Seiko spinoff brand). Seiko produces nearly every component in-house for its watches, which range from the low three figures to well into five.
Year Founded: 1892
Representative Model: Prospex "Turtle"
Alongside Rolex, Patek Philippe is widely regarded as one of the most prestigious and collectible names in watches — though the so-called (by some collectors) "holy trinity" of watchmaking historically consists of Patek, Vacheron Constantin, and Audemars Piguet. The historic brand is known for its highly refined, highly complicated watches that often auction for stratospheric prices. Even new, functionally simple "Patek" watches start in five-figure territory.
Cartier is sometimes thought of first as a jeweler, but it's also one of the most important historical watchmakers in the world. The French company pioneered early wristwatches and continues to make some of the most recognizable models today. Cartier's often formal style is such that you can hardly discuss the brand without using the word "elegant."
The technology company is, like it or not, a major presence in the watch industry. Since its introduction in 2015, the Apple Watch has gone on to outpace the entire Swiss watch industry in terms of units sold. It's the absolute standard for smartwatches, and has caused many wearers of traditional watches to switch for good — not least because it's a technological wonder, but also because it was thoughtfully designed based on horological principles developed over centuries.
From the moon landings to James Bond to its role as the Olympics' official timekeeper, Omega has a range of notable partnerships and watches to accompany them. The Moonwatch alone would make the brand a notable force, but it's got multiple bonafide icons, from dive and dress watches to more chronographs.
The International Watch Company is among several brands that first come to mind when speaking of watches and their tie-in to aviation. IWC has several notable product lines but is most recognized for its various pilot's watch collections, which draw upon its military history.
Jaeger-LeCoultre has a history of notable models but is best recognized for the Reverso, a watch with a unique reversible case first introduced for polo players in 1931. Also colloquially called "JLC," the company produced a range of products from mid-tier luxury for daily wear to high-end, complicated horology and ultra-thin watches.
A strong association with motorsports and chronograph watches characterizes TAG Heuer, which was known simply as Heuer until 1985. The modern brand is the most affordable and youth-oriented in its parent company LVMH's stable of watchmakers, but it produces its own in-house movements and some higher-end pieces as well. Its current catalog ranges between heritage models for collectors and more modern watches aimed more at first-time buyers.
Zenith is largely synonymous with its El Primero automatic chronograph movement, which today powers a wide-ranging collection of both modern and historically inspired models. The brand is also known for pilot watches as well as more technical, experimental and high-end collections.
Panerai more or less does one thing, really well, in a myriad of mostly subtle variations: the Italian brand makes large, legible watches with an unmistakable retro military look. Despite its pragmatic roots supplying Italian navy divers, the brand today is all about relatively high-end watches with in-house movements. Fun fact: actor Sylvester Stallone is often credited for having "discovered" the brand and kicked off its modern popularity.
Breitling is best known for chronographs and piilot's watches going back many decades. Modern Breitling watches have long been characterized by bold sizing and a brash military attitude, as well as a focus on rugged use. Many of the brand's recent releases have focused on reissuing vintage models, following current industry trends.
Tudor is owned by Rolex and many of its watch components are produced in the same facilities as those of Rolex watches. The brand offers superb fit and finish, in-house movements and an irresistible connection to Rolex prestige for remarkably reasonable prices. Tudor is widely recognized as offering some of the best value in luxury watches.
Audemars Piguet is often held up as one of the most prestigious names in watchmaking, focusing on high-end, highly finished in-house movements and complicated horology. The Swiss brand is essentially synonymous with its Royal Oak and spinoff collections of luxury sport watches.
Since its relaunch in 1990, A. Lange & Söhne has shot to stardom and come to rank among the oldest and most respected Swiss watchmakers. The brand's passionate following is testament to the appeal of its sensible German approach, strong character and refined, hand-finished details.
Though Swiss-owned since the 1970s, Hamilton makes its American roots central to its DNA. Hamilton has a rich history to draw on and today offers an entry-level luxury watch experience (often sub-$1k) with a wide range of collections and models. The brand is also known for its connection with Hollywood and the many movies in which its watches have featured.
Timex's past slogan "Takes a licking and keeps on ticking" is one of the best known in the history of advertising. The historic American watchmaker has long made affordability central to its brand and continues to do so today with a wide range of quartz and mechanical watches, very few of which cost more than a couple hundred dollars.
Japanese watchmaker Casio also makes other electronics but is in many ways almost synonymous with digital and calculator watches from the 1980s. Under its name are multiple watch sub-brands, the most notable of which is its famously durable G-Shock collection.
Citizen is a watchmaker but also owns a range of other brands, including the movement maker Miyota, which supplies many smaller companies. The vast majority of Citizen watches use quartz movements with batteries that are recharged by light via a technology they call Eco-Drive.
Richard Mille is known for its extravagant prices and association with high-flying celebrities, and you'll see the brand even pop up in the news sometimes. Mostly costing in the six-figure range, Richard Mille watches typically have complicated movements, tourbillons, untraditional materials, aggressive sizing and flamboyant styling.