Does a brand's tradition, their portfolio and their patented innovations align with the general taste? This week we'll take easy and just have a look at the popularity of different watch brands throughout the years but with a clear focus on vintage watches. This is supposed to be a guide for everyone from the beginner to the seasoned vintage veteran to quantify not only the manufacturer's milestones but also when they were indeed quite popular.

June 07, 2023

A Beginner's Guide to Vintage Watch Brands


Marcus Siems     Marcus Siems @siemswatches
    Collector, Author, Data Analyst


Does a brand's tradition, their portfolio and their patented innovations align with the general taste?

This week we'll take easy and just have a look at the popularity of different watch brands throughout the years but with a clear focus on vintage watches. This is supposed to be a guide for everyone from the beginner to the seasoned vintage veteran to quantify not only the manufacturer's milestones but also when they were indeed quite popular. 


1) First things first

We're looking at a quantitative guide here, so how many pieces were made in which era, what types of watches etc. In other words, we need some source of data to begin with. Here, this will be Chrono24 and their database of offerings.


a rare and stunning vintage Omega Chronograph with stepped lugs and tachymeter scale on the dialVintage at its best... you're going to see quite a lot of eye-candy today. From the main players but also some dark horses. Photo


Pros. The good thing here is that we can look at probably the largest publicly available dataset of watches that also come with (approximate) data about year of production, materials, models, you name it. Which means we can go beyond counting single positions in vintage catalogues and really take a closer look at yearly output and popularity. To put numbers here already we can analyze over 50.000 watches at once!

Cons. But of course since this is a marketplace whatever is offered is also subject to contemporary trends. Brands that sell well these days will be listed more and generally we will see a relative surplus of the luxury segment (see also ref.[1]).


wristshot of a stunning vintage Patek Philippe 3978 with beads of rice braceletWhen it comes to selling watches people will make a bigger effort when more money is involved. This means we will see over-proportionally many (for example) Patek Philippe pieces listed on the larger marketplaces than less valuable ones. What's easy to the eye also means skewing any sort of analyses to some extent. Photo


But I also argue that these analyses make a lot of sense. Particularly when we isolate for example trends within a brand we will still see some interesting patterns that would stay hidden when we'd look at one watch at a time. The important point is to stay aware of the caveats.

In detail we will take a closer look at how many pieces from a certain era or vintage come from certain brands and what types of watches the brands seem to have been favoring. The watch types are hereby classified as: Dress-, dress casual, chronograph-, dive- and military watches. I further included the segment of the sports watch, which is a composite of dive watches, racing chronographs and steel integrated-bracelet pieces.


wristshot of a vintage IWC Ingenieur SL AutomaticHow to define a sports watch? I'd argue that they're a hybrid between dress casual and all-out tool-watches. Like this IWC Ingenieur SL with integrated bracelet. Photo


2) Rolex

So let's start with the one very obvious trend - Rolex. Pretty much everybody - even outside of the hardcore watch bubble - knows about Rolex and that they're in the watch business. They're leading the pack in revenue by a 4-fold(!)[2] and are probably as far ahead in brand recognition, too.

So before we get into all of the vintage watch brands let's get Rolex "out of the way" first. Importantly, Rolex is so strongly dominating the secondary market that most of the genres are heavily skewed by some of their collections (dive and dress casual watches). Thus, I'll also show the popularity of other brands in a world where Rolex would be out of the picture (dashed bars in the histograms).


vintage 1960s Rolex Datejust 1603 with a silver dialHere we go with one of the most common models on the vintage watch market - the Rolex Datejust (here a 1603 from 1968 with silver soleil and Pie-Pan dial). Photo


History. Rolex was founded 1905 in London, UK, by Hans Wilsdorf. The brand moved in 1920 to Geneva, its headquarter ever since. The brand is most strongly associated with its "Oyster" case (1926) and the first full-rotor automatic watch (1931).

Distribution. Rolex is The most influential watch brand on the vintage market, period. Over 18.000 of the analyzed timepieces between 1940-2000 come from the Genevan manufacturer (that's over 40%!). But we also see that their ivory tower has been higher in some decades than others. Particularly during the 1980s, after the Quartz crisis had hit the hardest and Swiss watchmaking was starting to make a comeback, Rolex is the absolute frontrunner with close to 60% market share. Here, the highest impact on the market seem to have been their dress casual pieces (e.g. Datejust and Oyster Perpetual) and the dive watch collections (e.g. Submariner) with 70% and 64% market share, respectively.

Examples. Submariner, Explorer, GMT Master, Datejust, Oyster Perpetual, Day-Date, Daytona

Distribution of Rolex popularity from 1940 to 2000 - further broken down by watch typeFigure 1. Distribution of Rolex popularity from 1940 to 2000 - further broken down by watch type (right).



3) 1940s and 1950s

Since we got the loud one out of the way we can finally pay more attention to the smaller, more subtle yet still as important brands in this vintage watch world. From here on out I'll be ordering the brands by their relative popularity peak. So the brands of the 1940s and 50s are the ones that are relatively common during that time - but it doesn't mean they're no longer around.

So without further ado let's get this started!


Universal Geneve

History. The brand was founded 1894 in LeLocle as "Universal Watch". It took until 1937 that the company was finally named Universal Geneve and took its HQ on the Rue de Rhone 43, right between Rolex and Patek Philippe. Some of their most striking accomplishments have been the introduction of the Compur in 1934 - a double column-wheel chronograph, the invention of the Micro-rotor technology in 1955 and UG were also the first employer to none other than designer icon Gerald Genta.


vintage 1940s Universal Geneve Aero-Compax in rose goldA magnificent piece of Universal Geneve's history - a 1940s Aero-Compax in rose gold. Photo


Distribution. Universal Geneve has been quite popular in the middle of the 20th Century. We see it peaking at around 5% market share in the early 1940s, dropping with time. The brand was quite versatile but ultimately (and in our hearts) it is a brand known for some of the most  elegant and dressy vintage chronographs from an era of pre-racing chronographs (over 4% of all chronographs).

Examples. Compur/Compax chronographs, Polerouter, White Shadow

Distribution of Universal Geneve watches from 1940 to 2000Figure 2. Distribution of Universal Geneve popularity from 1940 to 2000 - further broken down by watch type (right). 



History. Founded 1856 in Grenchen as a ebauche supplier, Eterna was one of the first to introduce steam engine technology into the watch manufacturing process in 1866. Stating to build their own watches soon after the brand for example introduced the first serially-produced  wristwatch with alarm function in 1914 and refined the full-rotor automatic movement. By the way, the brand was also the origin of the modern movement manufacturer ETA, the companies separated in 1932.


a rare vintage Eterna Kontiki Super dive watch from the 1960sOne of the cooler dive watches out there... the Eterna Kontiki Super. Photo


Distribution. Eterna watches have never been extremely popular but peaked in the early 1940s and late 1950s. The brand had a good footing with military watches but their divers from the 1960s and 70s is what stands out the most.

Examples. Kontiki, Eterna-Matic

Distribution of Eterna popularity from 1940 to 2000Figure 3. Distribution of Eterna popularity from 1940 to 2000 - further broken down by watch type (right). 



History. Movado is a vintage classic and a brand with a long history of great watches that are relished by collectors yet neglected by most. Founded in 1881 the brand has been around for a while but is in its modern form far from the glory days (imho). They introduced the curved case shape to best suit ergonomic needs already in 1912 by using a three-level (Polyplan) movement architecture. Of note is also the relationship of the brand to Francois Borgel, one of the best and innovative case-makers of his time, that makes so many of their early pieces framed in the absolute best light. (Unfortunately, the brand was taken over by Zenith in 1969...)


vintage 1950s Movado with guilloched dialHard to put down... and hard to fathom that the brand is quite unimpressive these days. But dang they used to make some grand pieces! Photo


Distribution. Movado is a brand that had its fair share of popularity peaking around 1940 and again 1950 at around 2% market share. The brand quickly vanished from the stage but brought forward some of the most interesting chronograph but also some of the most elegant dress watches - and early on with waterproof Borgel cases.

Examples. Curvex, Ermeto, M90/M95 chronographs, Tempomatic, Calendograf/Celestograf

Distribution of Movado popularity from 1940 to 2000Figure 4. Distribution of Movado's popularity from 1940 to 2000 - further broken down by watch type (right). 


Vacheron Constantin

History. Vacheron Constantin is indeed the longest active watchmaker with an uninterrupted production history. It was founded in 1755, yes that's over 250 years ago, in Geneva. As a high-end watchmaker that produced prominently bespoke watches for special occasions and personalities - King Louis the XIV, Tsar Alexander II, the Maharadscha of Patiala and the brothers Wright for their first flight - Vacheron made a name while most modern watchmakers weren't even in existence. In the 20th Century VC further associated strongly with Jaeger-LeCoultre collaborating on movements, watches and distribution channels.


vintage 1960s Vacheron Constantin 6378 Automatic with dateVacheron Constantin - part of the holy trinity and king of mid-Century dress watch design. Photo


Distribution. Vacheron Constantin is and always was making elegant timepieces. Don't let the modern narrative of steel-sports watches fool you, VC was a sublime maker of the most classic dress watches during the last Century. By far most of their output, and over 6% of all dress watches from that period come from the workbenches in Les Cabinotiers. Not surprisingly, we also see that VC has been most popular during the late 40s and early 50s (at around 3.5% market share), the glorious peak of dress watch design.

Examples. Patrimony, 222, Overseas, 4072 chronograph, Les Cabinotiers, Cioccolatone

Distribution of Vacheron Constantin popularity between 1940 to 2000Figure 5. Distribution of Vacheron Constantin's popularity from 1940 to 2000 - further broken down by watch type (right). 



History. Founded in 1833 Jaeger-LeCoultre has been one of the finest and most profound movement manufacturers. Yes we're speaking about fully assembled watches in a second but JLC produced movements for all of the holy trinity - Haute Horologie - making it the watchmaker of watchmakers. Over time they registered over 430 patents. Among their accomplishments is the first "fully automatic" wristwatch, the Gyrotourbillon, the Reverso case construction, and the first automatic alarm wristwatch.


a classic 1940s Jaeger-LeCoultre with rectangular case and Hermes lugsThe watchmakers watchmaker and an epitomy of class... 20th Century Jaeger-LeCoultre is one-of-a-kind and an utterly important brand. Photo


Distribution. Jaeger-LeCoultre absolutely is a household name. Yet interestingly they seem to have been most successful in the late 1940s with a little over 8% market share. We also made the point that JLC is elegant (7% of dress watches) but did you know that they produced quite a few military watches as well? Almost 7% of all vintage military watches come from La Grand Maison.

Examples. Reverso, Powermatic, Memovox, Mystery, Triple Date, Futurematic

Distribution of Jaeger-LeCoultre popularity between 1940-2000Figure 6. Distribution of Jaeger-LeCoultre's popularity from 1940 to 2000 - further broken down by watch type (right). 



History. IWC is a brand with quite an interesting history. Founded in 1868 in Schaffhausen by an American immigrant the brand has always been - geographically as well as spiritually - closer to the German border than the Swiss watchmaking hubs. In the beginning IWC started to produce pocket watches with digital displays. Similarly international has been the introduction of the Portugieser watches in 1939, a 43mm behemoth of a dress watch at the time, inspired by the wishes from two Portuguese retailers. But (imho) IWC found its calling right after WWII when Alfred Pellaton joined the company and spearheaded the evolution of enduring, sturdy and versatile dress watches with several innovations.


a sturdy yet elegant vintage 1940s IWC Hermet in yellow goldWhen I describe vintage IWC this model always comes to my mind. The almost German attitude of the Schaffhausen watchmaker brought about some of the very first sturdy yet at the same time very fashionable and elegant timepieces. The brand combines movements and cases built like a tank without making them look like it. Photo


Distribution. Even though IWC's popularity peaked in the late 1940s (5% market share) yet they managed to stay relevant all throughout the last Century never dipping far below 2% market share. Today IWC is a quite versatile brand yet during the last Century we see a clear focus on dress and dress casual watches (both 10% (corrected) market share). Furthermore, sturdy movements bring in several military contracts (7% of military watches).

Examples. Hermet, Ingenieur, Cal.89, Mark X, Portugieser

Distribution of IWC popularity between 1940-2000Figure 7. Distribution of IWC's popularity from 1940 to 2000 - further broken down by watch type (right). 


Patek Philippe

History. It's hard to put the illustrious history of Patek Philippe into words. And probably most of you already know a bit of it. Founded in 1839 Patek Philippe invented for example the first crown mechanism already in 1845, the first (Swiss-made) wristwatch in 1868, the first perpetual calendar in 1889, the first split-second chronograph in 1902, to only name a few. An important break comes in 1932 when the Stern brothers - initially dial manufacturers - take over the company and lay the foundation for modern Patek Philippe.


wristshot of a vintage 1970s Patek Philippe Ellipse Jumbo ref. 3589JA brand that barely needs introduction. Patek Philippe has always been about producing the highest quality and most complicated watches, period. Interestingly, they often attempted to get broader appeal with novel design driven collections like the Calatrava ref. 96 and the first Ellipse. Photo


Distribution. Patek Philippe has always been producing high-quality timepieces at the upper end of the monetary scale. Yet, we see that about 4% of all listed watches come from the brand with an upper bound of around 8% in the early 1950s. Factoring in the average price that's a lot! And that's also for a brand that's been highly focused on elegant, sometimes complicated, dress watches; about 12% of all listed dress watches come from Patek Philippe, that's about every 8th investigated timepiece.

Examples. 1518, 2499, 1526, 3940, Calatrava 96, Ellipse, 1463 Tasti Tondi

Distribution of Patek Philippe popularity between 1940-2000Figure 8. Distribution of Patek Philippe's popularity from 1940 to 2000 - further broken down by watch type (right). 



History. Founded 1832 in Saint-Imier Longines holds the longest trademark in the entire horological world. It's not the oldest watchmaker, but the oldest brand. But aside from putting their name on things Longines was for a long part of its history very involved with aviation. They provided Charles Lindbergh with the Hour Angle (Weems) watch to cross the Atlantic, have been the official supplier for the International Aeronautical Association in 1919 and were pivotal in the development of the modern chronograph with their 13ZN movement.


rare black glossy dial Longines Conquest from the 1950sLongines is a brand that's been one of the first brands to apprehend the power of marketing. But it's not just big words, they've also been for a very long time in the business of providing high-quality watches for a very broad audience. Photo shop.


Distribution. Longines has been a brand with a broad portfolio but the cornerstone have been military(-inspired) watches - at around 11% market share they've been an important supplier to several armed forces. That explains well their prominent market share all throughout the 1940s until peaking in the mid 1950s (7% market share).

Examples. Conquest, 13ZN chronograph, Flagship, Tre Tacche, Ultra-Chron, Weems

Distribution of Longines popularity between 1940-2000Figure 9. Distribution of Longines popularity from 1940 to 2000 - further broken down by watch type (right). 



4) 1960s and 1970s

While mid-Century watch design has mainly been about classic and elegant timepieces, from the 1960s on we've seen a lot more specialization and augmented watch functionality. Fueled by space-age design, the tool-watch era had begun. While patents of the 1950s paved the way, it was only in the 1960s and 70s that dive and sports-watches became absolute mainstream. So what can this tell us about the popular brands from that period?



History. Louis Brandt founded a watchmaking company in La Chaux-de-Fonds that would become one of the largest manufacturers of timekeepers today. The name "Omega" was derived from a movement developed in 1894, a movement that revolutionized the foundation of watchmaking itself. The 19 ligne movement was the first that was fully assembled from interchangeable parts - it could be restored and repaired by any watchmaker, which makes it the last movement you'll ever need. Hence, the name Omega, the last letter in the Greek alphabet.


rare 1960s Omega Constellation in yellow goldOmega is a very successful and most coveted watchmakers all throughout its history. Omega made itself a name as a brand that caters to every taste and every task. They're an allrounder, probably even more so than Rolex is and has been. Photo shop.


Distribution. Here we see THE allrounder of modern as well as vintage timepieces. Over all watch types there's between 25-40% of pieces coming from Omega, the sole exception being military pieces with "only" 15 market share. They're also the most popular brand of the 1940s, 50s and 60s with an average market share above 25%, that's even eclipsing Rolex. Overall, 19% of all listed watches come from Omega.

Examples. Speedmaster, Seamaster, Constellation, DeVille, Railmaster

Distribution of Omega popularity between 1940-2000Figure 10. Distribution of Omega's popularity from 1940 to 2000 - further broken down by watch type (right). 



History. The brand with the North-Star, Zenith was founded in 1860 in Le Locle already with the idea of vertically integrating as many production steps as possible under one roof. And in 1897 the first movement bearing the name "Zenith" was conceived. With peak performance in mind Zenith managed to win 5 consecutive Neuchatel Observatory Chronometer prizes between 1950 and 1954 with their calibre 135 - an absolutely unprecedented feat. The brand can further credit itself with being one of the first to develop an automatic chronograph movement in 1969.


golden Panda Zenith Martel chronographZenith has always been strong because they've been closely collaborating as well as integrating all throughout their history. Nevertheless, we should not forget that they actually managed to developed one of the first (some say The first) automatic chronograph movement all by themselves. Photo


Distribution. It probably doesn't come as a surprise that Zenith has been one of the most influential chronograph manufacturers of the younger history of the genre - a market share of almost 7%. Due to the success of their high-precision movements dress watches come in at 3% as well. And surprisingly many dive watches come from the brand with the North Star as well (3% market share). Zenith's popularity peaked around the late 1950s with 4% market share. I'd still count them into the 60s and 70s brands though due to their archetypical space-age design and innovations during that period.

Examples. Chronometre, Sporto, El Primero, Espada, Sub Sea

Distribution of Zenith popularity between 1940-2000Figure 11. Distribution of Zenith's popularity from 1940 to 2000 - further broken down by watch type (right).



History. Tudor is more than Rolex's little brother. Founded in 1926 by Philippe Huether Tudor was from the beginning foremost a brand as the corresponding factories did exist years before the name. In the beginning they exported watches for example to Australia with their own designs before Hans Wilsdorf took over in 1936. Wilsdorf aslo established the shield as logo to emboss the indestructible vibe into their pieces. In 1953 the brand advertised with an extreme experiment on the durability of their watches - several hours, days and weeks on the wrists of motorcycle race drivers, construction workers, miners and quarrymen to probe and prove the accuracy way beyond what you'd typically associate with wristwatches.


Jumbo sized Tudor Oysterdate in greyRolex's little brother but with its own identity. With Tudor Hans Wilsdorf has always been living out his experimental side. Be it different case shapes, materials, dial designs... An absolutely colorful brand. Photo archives.


Distribution. As sturdy as the brand was advertise from day one on as utility oriented have been the produced timepieces: vintage Tudor is predominantly associated with dive watches - around 23% (corrected) market share. The brand itself gained a lot of popularity right after the introduction of their "Prince" series (the equivalent to Rolex's Oyster series) in 1952. We find Tudor popularity to peak in the mid 1960s as well as 1970s, 80s and 90s each time around 4% market share.

Examples. Ranger, Prince, Advisor, Oyster-Thin Elegante, Submariner Snowflake

Distribution of Tudor popularity between 1940-2000Figure 11. Distribution of Tudor's popularity from 1940 to 2000 - further broken down by watch type (right).


(TAG) Heuer

History. Heuer was founded 1860 in Saint-Imier and in the hand of the founding (and eponymous) family for four generations until 1982. Heuer joined forces with Leonidas and Berna in 1964 and finally merged into the TAG group (Techniques d'Avant Garde) in 1985, which led to renaming the company to TAG Heuer. The brand has been strongly involved with stop-watch functionality through its long history introducing for example the first stop-watch 1882, the first 1/100th second chronograph in 1916, the first Regatta dial in 1950, one of the first automatic chronograph movements in 1969 as well as the first Swiss watch in space (1962, a stop-watch worn by John Glenn).


vintage Heuer Carrera ref. 2448 in yellow gold with silver dialIf you talk Heuer you gotta talk Chronographs. An absolute power-house in this genre they were one of the first to bring out an automatic chronograph and definitely came up with some of the most iconoclastic designs. Photo


Distribution. Heuer clearly is The brand of the 1970s. Their strong sports-, yachting- and racing profile make them the perfect fit for an era defined by a daredevil attitude and the up and coming charme of the modern chronograph. The establish themselves at around 4.5% market share in the early 1970s with over 16% of all chronograph pieces coming from the Swiss powerhouse. Moreover, we also see a critical amount of military (11%) as well as dive watches (12% corrected) coming out of Heuer's manufactures. The latter being a very prominent trend during the 1980s and 90s with the Professional series.

Examples. Carrera, Monaco, Daytona, Autavia, Professional 6000 diver

Distribution of Heuer popularity between 1940-2000Figure 12. Distribution of Heuer's popularity from 1940 to 2000 - further broken down by watch type (right).



History. Breitling, founded 1884 in Saint-Imier, is the brand that made the initial idea of the chronograph popular (together with Longines and Omega probably). Think of charming chronograph pieces, tasteful golden examples, that transcended the mere stop-watch complication and you'll soon have to mention vintage Breitling. Before chronographs were used to track car racing and after they've been prominently used by aviation pioneers, the Saint-Imier manufacture made fashionable pieces with functionality. While at the heart Breitling itself was a lot more than a fashion brand - they've developed the first wrist chronograph with a separate reset-pusher in 1915 and the first two-pusher chronograph in 1934.


vintage 1940s patinated Breitling chronographBreitling is an old-school chronopgraph manufacturer... and with old-school I mean the pre-60s "let's make chronogpraphs great" type of design wrist-stopwatches. So many important and foundational patents in the fields come down to this manufacturer. The brand changed identity in the 1980s due to new management towards what we know it for today: More dive-watch oriented, and a great choice for young folks first "proper" watch. Photo @Goldammer archives.


Distribution. Breitling's flagship is the chronograph, yes. With over 17% of all analyzed chronograph pieces coming from Saint-Imier. Similarly, we see the brands' popularity spiking whenever chronographs were hip: in the mid 1940s, late 1960s and the 1990s. However, due to their strong relations to aviation Breitling established itself as one of the leading manufacturers of all kind of military watches, too. In total they've been amassing over 30% of all military and military-style pieces on the market!

Examples. TopTime, SuperOcean, Premier, Datora, Chronomat, Navitimer

Distribution of Breitling popularity between 1940-2000Figure 13. Distribution of Breitling's popularity from 1940 to 2000 - further broken down by watch type (right).



5) Post-Quartz Crisis - 1980s and 1990s

With the end of the 1970s we see the watch world in vain. A new technology that's both more accurate and cheaper than Swiss made horology is coming over from Japan - the Quartz movement. This technological marvel is beyond an upset as it grabs the Swiss watchmaking industry by the roots.


vintage 1980s Rolex Datejust Oysterquartz 17000 with Buckley dialIn a completely new horological world you need to decide what to do... Keep to the old traditions and risk to go down, adapt and go with the flow or find a novel way to write your own history? Rolex kinda went "all of the above" but that's a topic for another time. Photo


As watchmaking so far has been about granting the most accurate product by the best craftsmanship, Seiko (and Hamilton) is offering a cheat-code for everyone to get highly accurate timepieces without having to sell your soul for it. So an entire industry needs to regroup and find a new purpose, a new selling point.



History. Piaget was founded in 1874 in the small farm village of La Cote-aux-Fees. Yet it took the brand until 1943 to become a registered trademark and start to move production from being an ebauche supplier to creating fully assembled and finished timepieces. Piaget started to thrive in the world of chic and luxurious watches and under the credo "always do better than necessary". So how can you back that up? Well think about one of the main frontiers of watchmaking of the 20th Century: ultra-thin watches. Piaget managed in 1957 to come up with the thinnest manually wound caliber of the time - caliber 9P, 2mm thick - to be able to put stone dials into their watches. These stones dial need to be quite massive to be durable sooooo you need a very thin movement to not affect the watches height and wrist presence. That's how you back that up...


Lapis Lazuli Piaget Protocole from the 1970sPiaget is design, design and design. How design driven you ask? Piaget developed the thinnest manual movement of the time  - the Cal. 9P - to fit watches more easily with stone dials! That's how dedicated the brand has been to design. Photo


Distribution. We see a prominent increase in brand popularity from the 1950s onward - well the brand was still never truly mainstream with a maximum of 0.6% market share in 1980 (at least based on the watches listed atm). Another interesting detail is the distribution shape: we see strong popularity spikes at every round decade (1970, 80, 90), which rather speaks for the difficulty of dating Piaget watches (so in Chrono24 you put them as "70s" etc.) than actual non-stationary peaks. But if there's one thing we can be quite certain about it's what Piaget has been bringing to the table - luxurious, well-made and elegant dress watches (about 2% of all dress watches).

Examples. Polo, Altiplano, Protocole

Distribution of Piaget popularity between 1940-2000Figure 14. Distribution of Piaget's popularity from 1940 to 2000 - further broken down by watch type (right).




History. La Maison from Paris... Do i need to say more? At least in the world of watches everybody knows what I'm talking about at this point. Founded in 1847 Cartier has been one of the leading jewelry empires of the last 150 years. They were (are) the epitome of sophistication and made a name as "the jeweler of kings, and the king of jewelers". But all fashion aside Cartier made some big splashes in the horological world as well as they introduced the very first men's wristwatch in 1903 for aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont. Never producing in really large quantities until the end of the last Century Cartier still managed to impress with a long list of famous and wealthy clients - Hollywood made it possible and all were coming for the glory of the French (and British and American) watchmaker.


wristshot of a Cartier Tank Louis with Roman NumeralsCartier is fashion, Cartier is style. Andy Warhol famously wore a Cartier Tank without ever setting it. It's about the vibe, not telling the time. Even though it's a French jewelry empire, it's the Hollywood of horology. Photo archives.


Distribution. It seems like Cartier hasn't been very popular until the late 1980s eclipsing 3% market share (peaking just shy of 5%)... and well that is kinda true. Let's put it this way, it took Cartier Paris until the mid-1960s to produce over 1000 watches annually! They've been famous but not very widespread, that only came in1970s as Cartier established a policy of "affordable luxury" using bicolored materials and gold-plated silver for their cases. And as the modern trend has it the listings are not necessarily for their most iconoclastic dress watch - the Cartier Tank - but rather for the more casual Santos Caree/Galbee (roughly 8% corrected market share for dress casual). In our definition the Cartier Pasha is classified as a "dive watch", a rather fashionable one but still a dive watch.

Examples. Tank, Santos, Ronde, Pasha, Baignoire, Oval, Pebble, Crash

Distribution of Cartier popularity between 1940-2000Figure 15. Distribution of Cartier's popularity from 1940 to 2000 - further broken down by watch type (right).


Audemars Piguet

History. Audemars Piguet is the last member of the holy trinity in our list. This means that we got a brand that has been the pinnacle of Haute Horologie over the last Century and beyond! AP does indeed have a very long history, starting producing watches in 1875 they've been on the frontiers of watchmaking in the fields of ultra-thin, ultra-precise, ultra-sturdy, ultra-complicated and ultra-chic watches ever since. Introducing the first wrist-worn minute repeating watch in 1891, as well as the first perpetual calendar with leap-year indication in 1955. Although, most people today only know the brand for this one (arguably very attractive) masterpiece from a certain Gerald Genta, the Royal Oak 5402 introduced in 1972.


wristshot of a rare Audemars Piguet dress watch in white gold with diamond markersAudemars Piguet is our last member of the holy trinity on this list. A brand that's been associated with so many groundbreaking accomplishments in the past - ultra-thin calibers, skeletonization, complicated calendar watches - but is today mainly known for its design achievement in the Royal Oak. Photo


Distribution. AP - similar to Cartier - hasn't really been scaling their production up until the 1960s. 1956 marks the first year they produced over 5.000 pieces and it wasn't until 1970 that they made over 10.000 watches. Thus, early AP is by definition very scarce. So it makes sense that it took some time for them to gain what we'd call mainstream success - even though they have been connoisseur pieces all along. To put this into numbers: AP got to a market share of 2% available pieces during the 1980s and went further up towards 3% in the 1990s. A feat only made possible by the contemporary appeal of the infamous Royal Oak. Not surprisingly their "dress casual" Royal Oak dominates the picture and catapults their market share in that segment to 8%.

Examples. Royal Oak, Quantieme Perpetual, Code 11:59, Star Wheel

Distribution of Audemars Piguet popularity between 1940-2000Figure 16. Distribution of Audemar Piguet's popularity from 1940 to 2000 - further broken down by watch type (right).



6) Conclusion

Overall, we can see that a brand's heritage and tradition quite well aligns with when they were most popular. We got the classic dress watch oriented brands peaking in the 1940s and 50s; the tool-watch and activity oriented brands during the 1960s and 70s; and the more design and style oriented brands peaking during the 1980s and 90s.

Style, trends, and tradition don't function in a vacuum, they're driven by the world around them. As such our horological world, in particular the vintage part, is a microcosmos of the zeitgeist and should always be seen as such. With that in mind let's wait and see what people in 40 years will think about the 2020s?!




[1] How To Become A Watch Analyst; Marcus Siems, Goldammer Vintage Watches;

[2] State of the Industry - Swiss Watchmaking in 2023; Watches by SJX;


And you can find the information about the individual brands via their own websites and/or heritage departments.

Plus, there are also so many great, well-written and exhaustive timelines for each and every of the brand presented here put out into the open by other great publications. You can see this guide here as the entry to the rabbit hole called vintage watches...


All Rights on the text and graphics reserved to the Author. 

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