Everyone has his standards, and the same value does not apply to everyone.
Watch companies ranking is highly subjective, as it is based on different elements:
- movement (complications)
The five intermix, and in a typical company there are different quantities of every one of them. To make an example everyone could understand readily, Rolex as a whole is good (though not exceptional) in movements, and absolutely topmost in branding, while a company like Omega is a bit of the opposite: Omega movements are a bit more advanced horologically than Rolex (they mount the Daniels co-axial escapement) but its branding, though good, is nowhere as good as Rolex’s (nor is anyone else’s in horology).
So, while I could readily make a list of watch companies and explain why they are in one category or the other, it would be pretty futile as my evaluation standards are not universal.
I can offer you, though, my personal view on the matter. The FH – Swiss Federation of Watchmakers – divides watches in four categories based on their price, and I usually find it quite useful.
The four categories determined by the FH are:
- Up to 200 CHF
- From 200 to 500 CHF
- From 500 to 3,000 CHF
- More than 3,000 CHF
As you can see, this classification rounds up the majority of the Swiss industry. There is however a niche missing: the ultra-high end, that is, the true “haute horlogerie” which is less industrial and more artisanal, and goes from 10,000 CHF upwards.
Remember that these are just rough divisions and are there just to exemplify: you can often find companies having models selling above or below their category, as watchmakers have broad ranges of products.
So, my personal classification follows this same outline:
- Affordable quartz-based or entry-level mechanicals made industrially in great quantities. Mostly disposable when broken. Like Swatches and Seiko 5s
- Higher-end fashion watches made by licensed brands, industrially-made basic line of quartz-based and mechanical watches made by big companies. Lots of Tissot, Hamilton, Seiko and similar companies models dwell in this space
- Good mechanicals from different companies taking the middle-end of the horology spectrum. This is where you find companies like Mido, Certina, Oris, Frederique Constant
- Higher-end mechanicals, often with complications, belonging to the best-known industrial-level companies, like TAG Heuer, Breitling, Omega, and Rolex. This is what you could call “affordable luxury”
- Luxury-level watches made by the most respected horology brands like Lange und Sohne, Jaeger LeCoultre, Audemars Piguet, Vacheron Constantin, and Patek Philippe as well as smaller “artisans” of horology making very exclusive watches in limited quantities, like FP Journe and Richard Mille. This is what you could call “true luxury” horology.
Exceptions make the rules
Yes, I am well-aware that there are many exceptions. For example, Rolex has models crossing well beyond the 10,000 CHF threshold, and some present advanced horological features. Even so, true luxury is a completely different thing altogether than what is offered by the majority of Rolex production: this is not to belittle Rolex and its excellent achievements as a company, but to put things in their context.
So, when following such a matrix, it turns out a bit more easy to place the companies in these broad categories.
As a note, true horology nerds like myself own watches belonging to different categories, as watches are accessories to complement an attire or a mood.
You can find much more about horology and its fascinating history in The Watch Manual, a thorough e-book that explains all the basics about watchmaking and its protagonists.