What luxury watch brands are most in demand? The luxury watch marketplace is an endless sea of values that rise and fall, but like any sea, this one has its alpha predators. In general, the sports watch segment dominates the luxury watch market; Rolex, Omega, Breitling, IWC, and Officine Panerai lead in collector interest and marketplace demand. In this four-part special, WatchBox examines why these luxury watch labels continuously lead the market in terms of the most popular luxury brands.
1. Rolex Watches
Rolex is a natural answer to the question of which brands are most in demand. As one of the few luxury watch brand names that transcend the collector hobby, Rolex has a magnetic pull that creates demand from folks who ordinarily would not seek luxury timepieces. No other brand benefits so greatly from the strength of its brand name, and no other brand is able to pull members of the non-enthusiast population into competition for its annual production.
And Rolex’s annual production always falls short of demand. Like DeBeers at its peak, Rolex has uncanny ability to judge the market appetite for its products… and offer just slightly less than enough to satiate that hunger. In other words, Rolex’s phenomenal annual output of 800,000-1,000,000 timepieces leaves a certain amount of unfulfilled demand. Many brands building a quarter of that many watches end the year with a surplus of inventory; this is why demand for Rolex watches remains head and shoulders above that of Rolex’s competitors.
What brands are most in demand? The answer starts with new model supply and continues into the secondary (pre-owned watch) marketplace.
Due to the insatiable demand for new Rolex watches, the pre-owned market for Rolex timepieces is unusually large and robust; many who would buy a new Rolex are driven to the secondary market by reduced prices, stronger selection, and diminished wait times for delivery. Demand for pre-owned Rolex is compounded by the fact that the company’s models rarely receive dramatic re-styles, so an older Rolex is instantly recognizable as a version of its current-collection counterpart. Planned obsolescence isn’t part of the Rolex vocabulary.
2. Omega Watches
While Rolex is the indisputable leader of wristwatch marketplace demand, Omega offers a compelling alternative and a reliable base of buyers. Among watch manufacturers in most demand by consumers, Omega comes closest to offering a direct answer to Rolex’s name recognition, history, selection, and iconic – enduring – models. Omega’s marketplace is improved by the fact that the company’s two most celebrated models, the Speedmaster Professional Moonwatch chronograph and Seamaster dive watch family, are the type of sports watches that watch collector markets crave.
The rivalry between Omega and Rolex dates back to the latter’s inception during the mid 1910s, but whereas Rolex has become the most recognized watch on Earth, Omega lays claim to outer space. As official NASA-issue during manned space missions starting in the mid 1960s, the Omega Speedmaster Professional “Moonwatch” in steel represents one of the most recognized – and sought – luxury watches back on terra firma. Space travel is exclusive, but perennial new and pre-owned demand for the Speedmaster Professional Moonwatch reflects its status as one of the most accessible links to the dream of lunar adventure.
Due to its status as the official watch of all Apollo program trips to the Moon – and a critical life support aid to the miraculous Apollo XIII recovery – the Omega Moonwatch lays claim to unique appeal for which even Rolex has no true equivalent. And in a wise parallel to Rolex’s general practice, Omega has chosen to minimize design changes to the Moonwatch; a well-kept 30 year-old example can appear almost identical to current production.
Moreover, the Speedmaster family has branched out to include special editions – many dedicated to specific milestones in space travel – and an expanded family of automatic winding, motorsports-inspired, and historic tribute models. Whether intentional or not, even these derivatives manage to bask in the afterglow of the Moonwatch, and this bolsters demand for all of them.
While Omega’s Seamaster is not a mainstream luxury institution on the level of Rolex’s Submariner, the Seamaster offers more selection in terms of case size, metal, complications, and technology. The Seamaster family includes the versatile Aqua Terra line (a surf/turf watch that can swim or dress up), the affordable Professional 300M family (known as the “Bond”… more on that momentarily), and the deluxe Planet Ocean series.
For three decades, the Rolex Submariner benefited from co-starring roles with several iterations of James Bond. This priceless branding value was reinforced during a film compilation of Rolex screen appearances aired during Rolex’s sponsorship of 2017’s 89th Oscars.
But perhaps the Omega Seamaster is building a counterpoint; Agent 007 has worn a variety of Seamasters in all films since 1995’s “Goldeneye,” and an entire generation of watch enthusiasts has come of age knowing nothing but an Omega on Bond’s wrist. With three decades of blockbuster Bond exposure of its own, the Seamaster – especially the Professional 300M family – has come to be known and demanded as a handsome piece of film memorabilia. With a budding film legacy of its own, the Omega Seamaster has reinforced the hallowed Speedmaster line in driving Omega firmly into the discussion when collectors ask, “what brands are in most demand?”
3. Breitling Watches
If Rolex and Omega headline any discussion of what brands are in most demand, Breitling watches deserve significant billing on a somewhat lower plane of interest. That isn’t to say they aren’t stars in their own rights; if Rolex and Omega are James Bond-level attention magnets, then Breitling is a modern-era hero on the level of Jason Bourne.
However, unlike Rolex and Omega, Breitling was not an international mega-brand during the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. Breitling’s comparatively recent emergence in the mainstream consciousness and occasional overproduction help to explain why Breitling doesn’t quite equal the brand equity of Rolex or Omega. This results in relatively lower secondary market values for Breitling watches.
Nevertheless, Breitling has both an historic and modern tradition of building robust sports watches. This fact plays to the brand’s advantage in a luxury watch marketplace that overwhelmingly favors steel sports watches. Historically, Breitling has been a purveyor of pilot’s timepieces, but it has built a formidable modern line of popular dive watches to challenge Rolex and Omega.
The Breitling Navitimer is the Grenchen, Switzerland-based firm’s icon watch. Rolex has the Submariner, Omega has the Moonwatch, and Breitling has the Navitimer. Since 1954, the Navitimer chronograph’s distinctive “circular flight computer” has been as much a techie fashion statement as a useful calculator. While the system can be learned quickly and packs the potential to embarrass friends’ clumsy iPhone calculators, most collectors simply enjoy the technical appearance and historic significance of the device.
However, the Navitimer differs from the Moonwatch and Submariner in that Breitling’s icon is an image-builder, not a volume leader. Breitling’s most in demand luxury watch models hail from the Chronomat and Superocean Heritage families. The Chronomat chronograph, which was released in its modern form in 1984, is the best-selling Breitling model family since that time; the 2008-present Superocean Heritage family is Breitling’s current best-selling line.
Unlike the Navitimer, the Chronomat is a comparatively simple chronograph with a rotating bezel, three sub-dials, and occasional dual-time functionality. Although the size and specification of the Chronomat have escalated since 1984, the domed “onion” crown, the raised “rider” tabs on the bezel, and the chronograph layout have remained constants through generations of Chronomat redesigns. As with Rolex and Omega’s most successful lines, this design consistency has helped to maintain demand for older pre-owned examples of the Chronomat series.
Breitling’s first Superocean, the reference 1004, dates back to 1958, and the current crop of Superocean Heritage models directly channel that ancestral reference to achieve spectacular commercial success. The Superocean Heritage line simplifies the Superocean line by reducing dial, bezel, and crown guard clutter. Although sized and equipped with capability to satisfy modern tastes, the Heritage line has leveraged recent market interest in vintage watches to become Breitling’s current best selling family of watches. Along with the Chronomat series, the Breitling Superocean Heritage line has helped Breitling remain firmly in the discussion when collectors ask, “which brands are most in demand?”
4. IWC Watches
Like Breitling, IWC of Schaffhausen, Switzerland is an historically smaller brand than Omega and Rolex and one that has entered the mainstream collector scene since the 1990s. IWC’s production is more varied than that of our prior three brands due to a larger price spread and more styles offered. However, IWC stands among the most in demand brands on the strength of its commercial core of Pilot watches, Aquatimer dive models, and Portuguese dress watches.
When asking which brands are most in demand, no complete answer can exclude IWC’s Pilot watches. Overwhelmingly built in steel – the watch buyer’s preference – the Pilot watches run the gamut from the mammoth 55mm Big Pilot Heritage 55 to the compact Mark XVIII. Tellingly, both watches hail from historically important model lines, and this fact has a potent impact on demand for IWC Pilot’s watches.
In the current luxury watch market, historically inspired watches have an advantage in terms of consumer demand. While many contemporary designs seem to change yearly and without reason beyond fashion, historic and utilitarian tribute watches such as those of the IWC Pilot’s family appear to embody real history, authenticity, and enduring appeal. This comforts sports watch collectors who fear planned or accidental obsolescence from the products of brands that constantly redesign their current offerings. When current fashion becomes a liability, IWC’s approach to gradual refinement earns the Pilot’s watches tremendous credibility.
Among the IWC Pilot’s watches, standout model families include the Pilot’s Chronograph series, the 1940s-inspired Mark series, and WWII-inspired Big Pilot’s watch. Although these watches are periodically offered in other materials including precious metals and ceramic, the watches in greatest demand are those built from stainless steel.
While IWC’s most iconic sports models are its Pilot’s watches, the Aquatimer dive watch family has helped to propel IWC into today’s discussion of which brands are in most demand. Although the first IWC Aquatimer reference 812 launched in 1967, the modern Aquatimers only have become a market factor since the mid 2000s. These watches offer features ranging from depth gauges to sapphire-capped bezels to quick release lugs that enable rapid strap or bracelet swapping. As a result, Schaffhausen’s Aquatimer has offered a German-accented riposte to Omega and Rolex’s vision of the luxury dive watch.
Finally, IWC is one of the few mainstream luxury watch brands to derive significant name recognition and consumer demand from a dress watch, the Portuguese. Alternately called the “Portuguese,” or “Portugeiser” in Schaffhausen’s native German, this collection is a rare example of a dress watch that drives significant market demand for a majority sports watch manufacturer.
As the original “oversized watch,” the 1939-present Portuguese was a pioneer that anticipated modern taste for larger watches by a matter of decades. While the watch found few buyers during its first half-century, it became an offbeat icon of its brand and emerged as a mainstream sensation within IWC’s 1993 125th anniversary collection.
Today, automatic and complicated versions of the Portuguese remain among the most popular offerings of IWC. With their impressive size and considerable history, the “Portugiesers” offer crossover appeal to sports watch enthusiasts who value dimensions and enduring style. This family remains a key engine of IWC’s sales and propels the German-Swiss brand into the discussion of which brands are most in demand.
5. Panerai Watches
“Officine Panerai.” This is the logical answer that completes our four-part survey of what brands are most in demand. While its absolute volume is small alongside the likes of mainstream Rolex, Omega, and even Breilting, Officine Panerai – commonly known as “Panerai” for short – has been a model of sustained demand since shortly after its civilian market debut in the early 1990s.
And that is a key to understanding the watch collector appetite for Panerai; its military history commands attention and respect among those who love history and sports watches. Although some form of Panerai has been engaged in the watch business since the 1860s and offered wristwatch models to the Italian Navy from 1936 through the 1980s, the modern wristwatch brand has existed in the civilian luxury space only since 1993. Since 1997, the Panerai brand has been owned by Swiss luxury major Compagnie Financière Richemont SA, a holding firm for many luxury watch firms.
And since 1997, Panerai’s formula of special editions, historically inspired models, and elaborate boxed set accessories have become the subject of intense interest from watch collectors. In general, post-1993 Panerai watches fall into three categories; 1993-1997 “pre-Vendome” models that precede Richemont ownership, post-Vendome single-year special series models, and post-Vendome general production models, and.
Pre-Vendome Panerai are the low-volume and often fairly crude early production output of Panerai from the 1993-1997 period when it was an independent Italian-owned concern out of Florence, Italy. Invariably, these watches were built in small series – often only a few hundred or dozen – and they are coveted by dedicated collectors who seek to document Panerai’s early civilian output. However, the often extreme prices, low original production, and slow collector market exchange of these models means that they are not among the true drivers of today’s Panerai marketplace.
Panerai’s Special Series, on the other hand, are a major driver of interest on the primary (new) and secondary markets. Each year since 1997, Panerai has announced a collection of one-year-only editions.
In general, Panerai Special Series watches offer more than exclusivity; special case metals such as tantalum, ceramic, and bronze have been built; unique complications such as regatta timers have featured; historic tributes such as the monstrous PAM 341 “Grand Egiziano” and PAM 300/603 “Mare Nostrum” chronographs. But while Panerai ranks among the brands most in demand by consumers, demand for individual Special Series references varies wildly, and the unique nature of the special series accessory sets means that collectors are extremely particular about receiving the Special Series watch and all of the original factory papers, boxes, and accessories.
On a market tangent from Special Series and general production Panerai models, there is the 2005 to 2010 “Panerai Ferrari” series. These were built as part of a co-branding agreement between the Modenese automaker and the Italian-rooted Panerai brand. However, collectors never embraced this union, and the Panerai Ferrari models sit at the bottom of the watchmaker’s model-specific hierarchy of collector demand. Nevertheless, the unique case and dial designs, certain unusual-for-Panerai complications such as the perpetual calendar, and the comparatively low production figures of the Panerai Ferrari watches means that these models offer excellent value-for-money to open-minded collectors.
Finally, there is the mainstream of Panerai watch production. These watches are spread across the period spanning late 1997 to the present model year and encompass two principal model families: Radiomir and Luminor.
The Luminor is better recognized and in greater demand from consumers than the Radiomir. Luminor models are defined by a crescent-shaped crown guard that secures the watch from water intrusion with a cam and a lever. During the mid to late 1990s, the use of these watches by film stars including Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger created a cult-like following for the Luminor model. With few exceptions, the Luminor has retained its primacy as the most-sought Panerai model family.
The Panerai Radiomir is a more conventional design than the Luminor, but it trades on its closer aesthetic link to WWII Italian combat watches and more elegant case lines than the Luminor. In contrast to the tool-like Luminor, the Radiomir offers Panerai collectors a more versatile style that appears more natural in formal or office attire. However, without the Luminor’s locking crown guard, the Radiomir never inspired widespread celebrity wear or sufficient collector interest to replace Luminor as Panerai’s flagship model line.
Finally, in the world of Panerai, the greatest collector demand is for simple watches in steel. Panerai’s core appeal stems from the brand’s perceived utilitarian purity. Collectors of Panerai demand simple dials that evoke historic combat models, steel cases that keep prices reasonable and watches durable, and uncomplicated movements that offer durability and value.
While precious metals and complicated calibers often combine to create exceptionally high boutique (i.e., new) prices for certain Panerai models, these models rarely find commensurate respect in the secondary market. In other words, the Panerai watches in greatest demand are those that look, feel, and function like military tools.
With only a few hundred true Italian Navy vintage Panerai watches in existence, collector interest permanently turns towards the modern Panerai models that most closely approximate the old combat veterans. Among brands in greatest demand from the collector markets, Panerai is the one that lives by the mantra, “keep it simple, stupid.”