It is almost a given that when a mechanical timepiece bears the words “Swiss Made”, it will carry with it superlative craftsmanship, design, and prestige, and for some, it’s either Swiss made or nothing. With few exceptions, the world’s most coveted and revered watch brands hail from centers throughout Switzerland, Geneva being home to the headquarters and production of the two titans of Swiss watchmaking; Rolex and Patek Philippe. So, although it cannot be refuted that Swiss made watches dominate the industry, horological innovation, craftsmanship, and design are not exclusive to the Swiss. Below, I make a case for why some of the non-Swiss makers deserve to be considered:
A. Lange & Söhne, Germany
Close on the heels of Switzerland’s top watch making position is Germany, another home to fine European horology. Arguably the most prestigious non-Swiss maker and considered a worthy rival to Patek Philippe is A. Lange & Söhne. The design language of Lange watches is unlike the traditional Swiss ones and their distinctive approach and feel is part of their appeal. Boasting an identifiable Glashütte style in appearance and design, Lange watches appear closer to the classic British style and recall the fuss-free Bauhaus philosophy which makes a Lange watch “a complete work of art”, or in other words, the definition of mechanical poetry in motion.
Bremont has contributed to reinvigorating the glory that was once British watchmaking in the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s astounding to think that in 1800, half of the world’s watches, around 200,000 pieces a year, were produced in Britain. With the exception of George Daniels and his signature coaxial escapement invention, British watchmaking had languished for most of the 20th century. Enter Bremont, a luxury aviation-themed British watchmaker that has celebrated its tradition producing watches that draw on the country’s strong aviation and seafaring heritage.
YEMA is a brand I stumbled across while trawling the internet for dive watches and it immediately caught my eye not only for being a more affordable option but because its rugged, vintage inspired tool design stood out from the competition. Founded in 1948 by French watchmaker Henry Louis Belmont, YEMA has a rich heritage to draw on, from the 1960s through to the ‘80s it accomplished feats like having motorsports legend Mario Andretti wear its Rallygraf chronograph on the track as well as producing the first French watch worn in space. If you needed any further evidence of the quality of their tool watches, YEMA has been chosen as the official partner of the French Air Force and French Navy.
I was first introduced to this brand when handling an example for a former auction house, and I have to say when I first picked it up the watch just felt exclusive to hold, it was all flair, it exuded quality. As Austria’s answer to exquisite timekeeping, this small independent watchmaking company headed by husband and wife team Maria Kristina and Richard Habring, specialises in small releases of technically inventive timepiece showcases. Richard Habring began his career at IWC and played a major role in the development of the double chronograph. Since 2004 this dynamic duo has been producing their own range of innovative and complicated watches of the highest quality through their traditional signature manual work practices.
Innovator, disruptor, and stayer are powerful words, but all apply to our last brand on the list. I would posit that the name Seiko would almost go head-to-head for brand recognition with Rolex. A brand success story, the company was founded in 1881 by 21-year-old Kintaro Hattori and rose to become the biggest watch company outside Europe. If that colossal feat was not enough in itself, Seiko nearly singlehandedly brought down the Swiss mechanical watchmaking industry when it introduced the world’s first quartz watch in 1969. They were also the first Japanese brand to unveil a chronograph and diver’s watch during the 1960s. Today Seiko remains true to its name, (the word means ‘exquisite’ in Japanese) and strives to uphold its position as a solid competitor to Swiss watches worldwide. Known also for their incredibly accurate chronographs, the brand has been the chosen timekeeper at the Olympic games. The fact is that for much of the later 20th century and right up to the present day, Seiko has been a pioneer in the watch industry and really is all the proof you need that you don’t have to be Swiss to make an impressive watch.
By Patricia Kontos, Senior Timepieces Specialist
Banner Image (Detail): As the chosen timekeepers for the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, Seiko deployed a total of 36 models, 1,278 timing instruments, and 172 staff members to support the success of the games / Alamy