Breitling 1884 Superocean

Wristy Business

Originally published in Crème de la Crème, January 2009

Dickie Jackson

The watch remains the ultimate male status symbol. But before you splash the cash on an extravagant timepiece, you might want to learn something about the brand’s rich heritage. Crème de la Crème introduces some of the world’s most prestigious watchmakers.


Louis Brandt started hand-assembling watches from locally sourced components in 1848. His sons created the brand Omega in 1894 and, following a merger with Tissôt in 1930, the combined firm  eventually became one of the largest in the horological world. In 1932, Omega were appointed official timekeepers for the Olympic Games. But it is their association with the space race that is their most  unique claim to fame. When NASA put a range of wristwatches through a series of tough tests, only the Omega Speedmaster came through unscathed. As a result, the Omega is the only watch to have  been to the moon.   



In 1847, Louis-François Cartier took over his master’s workshop and the watchmaking legend began. By the end of the century the firm had moved to one of Paris’ most expensive addresses and the head of the family dispatched two of his sons to New York and London to establish branches and the empire quickly started to grow. The London shop became famous as the jeweller to royalty, but it was the creative energies of the Paris operation that made the innovative jewellery that made the Maison’s name. It was the advent of flying that drew the firm into making watches – a Brazilian pilot friend asked for a watch that he could look at without taking his hands off the controls. Cartier made it for him, and the firm still makes a line of watches named after the pilot: the Santos collection.  



With an emphasis on technical craftsmanship, Breitling make “instruments for professionals”. Form and function combine in their watches to make things of wonder and beauty. Too often watchmakers have sacrificed accuracy for looks, or vice versa. In 1884, Leon Breitling decided to specialise in making chronographs – timepieces with a stopwatch function. Eighty-five years later the firm invented the self-winding chronograph, a breakthrough for the industry. Particularly useful for pilots and navigators, Breitling watches are still popular with airmen and sailors around the world.   

Audemars Piguet

Two school friends, J-L Audemars and E-A Piguet, founded the company in 1881. Audemars was the technician, Piguet the sales and businessman. Specialising initially in watches for connoisseurs, Audemars Piguet launched a new era in the company’s fortunes by creating the Royal Oak line in 1972. These luxurious sports watches were created in stainless steel, a first, and featured a distinctive    octagonal design said to be based on the guns of HMS Royal Oak. They now produce several attractive lines of everyday watches as well as some intriguing novelties.  



Do you know what Marie Antoinette, Napoleon, Rothschild, Alexandre Dumas and Winston Churchill all had in common? Correct - they all wore Breguet watches. In 1775, Abraham Louis Breguet founded this label in Paris and the watchmaking genius quickly patented several innovations - shock-resistance and gravity-compensation, to name but two. Frequently mentioned in literary works, including those of the sublime Patrick O’Brian and of Hugo and Dumas, the Breguet has two histories, and the fact outfaces the fiction. Now produced in Switzerland, Breguet’s impressive tradition continues.



In 1860, Giovanni Panerai opened for business in Florence selling Swiss watches. His grandson expanded the business and managed to win the contract to supply the Italian Navy. Over the early years of the 20th century, Panerai expanded its business with Italy’s armed forces to include other precision instruments and eventually developed the first totally submersible watches. Panerai also conducted extensive research into luminescence to enable its watch wearers to tell the time in the dark. Now part of the Richemont Group, they continue their association with hard-wearing watches designed for tough conditions.



Founded in Rome by a Greek silversmith, Bulgari established an international reputation for exquisite jewellery. Working within the jewellery tradition as watchmakers since the 1920s, Bulgari broke new ground in the 1940s with their snake bracelet watches made from heavy gold and studded with jewels. Today, Bulgari continue to represent the best in jewelled wristwatches. Made in Switzerland since the 1980s with design, manufacture and assembly all vertically integrated, they continue the founder’s passion for luxury design.



Founded in 1874 by Georges E. Piaget, for 70 years the firm assembled watches for other companies. A collection of new ultra-thin designs caused a sensation in the early 1950s and Piaget took off in its own right. Using the proceeds of their success to buy bracelet and case manufacturers, the company moved towards jewellery watches and remains strong in this field. Now part of the Richemont Group, Piaget have a particularly strong franchise in the Far East where there’s heavy demand for their sumptuous designs.  



Founded by a German in London as a distributor of watches, the brand Rolex was created three years later in 1908. In just two years, Rolex became the first firm in the world to produce a wristwatch chronometer, an astonishing achievement. Having made an accurate watch, the next direction was to improve reliability and the Oyster case was born with its innovative sealed case. Marketing genius matched engineering expertise and the Oyster was sold in window displays within tanks of water triggering huge brand awareness. Further success followed with the first automatic self-winding rotor movement in 1931 to assure Rolex’s position at the forefront of the watchmaking world.


Jaeger LeCoultre

Founded in 1833, JLC set about bringing together a range of highly specialised craftsmen in a modern factory. Innovators from the earliest days, they not only make technically perfect watches but also produce astonishingly beautiful table clocks like the Atmos range that’s cleverly powered by variations in room temperature. Meanwhile the Art Deco Reverso watch with its swivelling case allows the solid back to take the knocks received by the active sportsman. Invented for polo players in 1931, the watch has since become a design icon.


Patek Philippe

The watchmaking company was founded by Count Patek, an expatriate Pole, in Geneva in 1839. Philippe, an innovative employee, became a partner in 1851. Initial success came from scrupulous attention to quality and the unique stem-winding system invented by Philippe. Leading innovators to this day, Patek Philippe were at the forefront of the quartz revolution and continue to supply industrial time-keeping equipment as well as their more famous mechanical wristwatches. As relentless promoters of classic design and craftsmanship, Patek Philippe has done much to preserve these qualities in the public eye.


Raymond Weil

When Weil founded his company in 1976, he was already 50 years old. With uncompromising standards of manufacture and using classically inspired design, he nevertheless managed to turn the watchmaking business on its head, going from technological achievement to design success year after year. Both Weil and his son-in-law (who now runs the business), are lovers of the arts, and the firm has drawn inspiration for design and marketing from the classics. Today, their marketing images continue to evoke the grandeur and passion of the performance world.


Wristy Business as published in PDF form