If you’ve ever been in the market for a “nice” watch, odds are that you’ve had a look at some Swiss watches. In fact, there’s a pretty strong chance that you only looked at Swiss watches. There’s no denying that the term “Swiss watch” has a certain air of luxury and sophistication to it. After all, Switzerland is the home to the world’s biggest and most prestigious luxury watchmakers, and it has an illustrious history of watchmaking that goes back several centuries. But as impressive as Swiss watches are, they are not the be-all-and-end-all of watchmaking, as there are a number of great non-Swiss watch brands that are worth checking out, too.
For this guide to the best non-Swiss watch brands, we set a few ground rules. Given that a large portion of the watchmaking industry is based in Switzerland, many non-Swiss brands still make use of some Swiss parts or production. But we’re looking to minimize this for this guide, so we only included brands that are not based in Switzerland and that don’t produce the majority of their watches in the European state (i.e. they don’t say “Swiss Made” on the dial). With those parameters in place, we divided our picks into four categories: The first two are Germany and Japan, by far the two most prolific and significant watchmaking nations outside of Switzerland. Next we have the Rest of the World, which focuses on larger, more established brands from countries other than Switzerland, Germany, and Japan. Finally, there’s our Microbrands section, made up of 21st-century-founded, small, independent brands from anywhere in the world but those three aforementioned countries. So with those criteria out of the way, here are our picks for the 20 best non-Swiss watch brands in the industry today.
A Tradition Of Excellence
A. Lange & Söhne
Perhaps the most prestigious non-Swiss watch brand there is, A. Lange & Söhne is considered by many to be the unofficial fourth member of luxury watchmaking’s “Holy Trinity” alongside the Swiss-based trio of Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, and Vacheron Constantin. Originally founded by Ferdinand Adolph Lange in 1845 in the German watchmaking capital of Glashütte, Lange, like most German watchmakers, went out of operation following WWII. It was revived in 1990 by the great-grandson of the original founder and in the decades since has become one of the world’s premier practitioners of haute horlogerie.
Glashütte Original’s history is, well, complicated. As a brand, it has technically only existed since 1994, but its roots stretch much further back, all the way to the dawn of watchmaking in Glashütte. Following the town’s destruction in WWII, the remaining watchmakers were gathered together to form one united company in Soviet-controlled East Germany. The new company, called Glashütte Uhrenbetriebe, lasted four decades from 1951 until the early ‘90s with the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification, leaving Glashütte Original to rise from the rubble. Like Lange, G.O. makes all of its own movements and carries on the classic tradition of Glashütte watchmaking, but its pieces tend to come in at a (slightly) lower price point.
In addition to Glashütte and its very old-school watchmaking traditions, another major watchmaking contribution to come out of Germany is Bauhaus design. Originating in Germany’s Bauhaus art school, which flourished in the first half of the 20th century, the style combines form and function in aesthetically-pleasing industrial designs. And one of the most noted adherents of this school of design is Junghans. The brand has been around since 1861, but arguably didn’t come into its own until exactly a century later when famed Bauhaus designer Max Bill designed his first wristwatch for the brand. The Max Bill series continues to be Junghans’ best-known line, along with being perhaps the most famous Bauhaus watch in the world.
Offering a unique combination of Bauhaus design principles and Glashütte watchmaking — with both being given a contemporary twist — is NOMOS. Founded in 1990 in Glashütte, NOMOS competes in the entry-level to mid-tier luxury market, offering some of the best value in the industry for what it’s able to offer. Since 2005, the brand has exclusively used in-house movements, and its modern and minimalist design language has created a strong brand identity in just a few decades. Much of German watchmaking leans traditional, but if you’re more in the mood for something fun and funky, then chances are you’ll be able to find it at NOMOS.
All of the brands we’ve discussed so far largely trade in dress watches, but not Sinn. This rugged German brand, based in Frankfurt and founded in 1961 by pilot Helmut Sinn, is known to make some of the world’s toughest tool watches. Specializing in pilot’s watches, divers, and specialized timepieces built for professionals like EMTs and astronauts, Sinn frequently wins awards for its innovations, as its watches boast unique exclusive features like Ar-Dehumidifying Technology, material-hardening TEGIMENT technology, and fog-free HYDRO technology that keeps a watch’s innards suspended in a clear oil.
The Great Innovators
Odds are, if you know what a watch is, you’ve heard of Casio. The brand is synonymous with inexpensive digital watches, the kind you might pick up at a drug store for under 20 bucks, and its cheap, plastic-cased digital watches — like its famous Calculator Watch — were ubiquitous in the 1980s. But Casio does a lot more than make cheap watches. The Tokyo-based conglomerate, founded in 1946, is a massive electronics company making everything from calculators to keyboards. In the world of watches, the Casio of today may be best known as the maker of G-SHOCK, the insanely durable quartz-powered watches that have come to define the “beater watch” category for many collectors.
As you’ll see, Japan is home to a few massive (and massively famous) watch brands, but none are bigger than Citizen, as the Citizen Group (which also owns brands like Bulova, Frederique Constant, Alpina, and mechanical movement-maker Miyota) is technically the world’s largest watch company. Sitting at the top of its corporate hierarchy is Citizen itself. Headquartered in Tokyo and tracing its founding back to 1918, Citizen makes a ton of different watches, the vast majority of which fall on the affordable side of the spectrum. And while the brand does make regular quartz watches and (increasingly) some mechanical pieces, it’s best known for its Eco-Drive quartz technology, which is powered by any light and is famously advertised as “never needing a battery.”
You may be wondering why Grand Seiko has a spot on this list when its obvious parent company, Seiko, is sitting just two spots below. Well, we’ll tell you. In 2017, Grand Seiko made the corporate move from “sub-brand” to “independent brand,” freeing it up to form its own identity distinct from its titular founder. And it’s definitely working. While the first Grand Seiko watches debuted in 1960 as Seiko’s way of competing with the Swiss, in the last five years, Grand Seiko has taken it to the Swiss like never before. Fully positioned as a true luxury brand with Rolex and Omega in its sights, GS has been making moves in the market thanks to traits like its hybrid Spring Drive movements, its impeccable dial finishing, and its acclaimed “Zaratsu” finishing technique. It is also one of only two fully vertically integrated watchmakers in the world, with the other being Rolex.
Orient has functioned as the automatic watch gateway to a countless number of watch enthusiasts, and it’s easy to see why. The brand makes only mechanical watches, using in-house movements, and they’re generally priced around just $200. Founded in Tokyo in 1950, Orient was independent until 2009, when it became a part of Epson (yes, the printer-maker), which itself falls under Seiko’s corporate umbrella. So technically, Seiko owns Orient, but there isn’t really any cross-pollination going on between the brands at all. Orient makes all kinds of watches, but it is especially known for its affordable automatic dive watches.
Perhaps the most obvious selection to appear in this guide, Seiko just may be the most famous non-Swiss watch brand in the world — and one of the most famous without that disclaimer. Having been founded in 1881, Seiko by far has the most history of any Japanese watchmaker, and it shows with its long list of accomplishments that include inventing the quartz wristwatch in 1969, and producing arguably the first automatic chronograph that same year. Seiko makes all of its movements, and everything else, in-house (the brand even grows its own quartz crystals), and there’s almost no sandbox in which Seiko doesn’t offer something compelling. From iconic dive watches to pristine dress watches and everything in between, Seiko makes watches ranging in price from under $100 to several thousand dollars across its various product lines that include Seiko 5, Presage, and Prospex.
The Rest Of The World
This century, a number of new British watch brands have popped up that are doing great work. Most of the significant ones, like Christopher Ward and Farer, operate on a “British-designed, Swiss-made” model. Bremont used to do the same, but lately, the tool watch-heavy luxury brand has separated itself by bringing the bulk of its manufacturing in-house to its sparkling new watchmaking facility in England — including producing the first British-made mechanical movement in five decades. In addition to blazing a trail for British watchmaking, the brand has also carved out itself a nice niche as one of the top producers of luxury pilot’s watches in the world, even converting some IWC and Breitling wearers (known Breitling fan Harrison Ford has been spotted wearing a Bremont or two).
Bulova was perhaps the trickiest brand to include in this guide, as it does produce a small selection of its watches in Switzerland, and early in its history produced most of its watches in the landlocked European nation. But the company, founded in Queens, NY in 1875 by Joseph Bulova, is American at heart. During the mid-twentieth century, Bulova was perhaps the premier American watch brand, thanks in part to its popular Accutron series, one of the first (and the first successful) types of electronic watches. These days, Bulova is owned by Japanese Citizen, but its headquarters remain in New York’s Empire State Building and the vast majority of its watches are produced in Asia, coming in at affordable price points similar to the offerings of its parent company.
If you’re looking for some non-Swiss high horology and A. Lange & Söhne is a bit too mainstream for your tastes, then meet Grönefeld. Founded by “Horological Brothers” Bart and Tim Grönefeld, the titular brand has a family history of watchmaking in The Netherlands dating back to 1912. And after the most recent generation of Grönefelds finished their nearly-decade-long official watchmaker training in Switzerland, they returned home in 1998 with the mission of crafting the best watches in the world right in The Netherlands. The brand released its first watch in 2008, and since then it’s done nothing but release highly-complicated original creations in small batches that always sell out (and at astronomical prices, mind you).
There is a small handful of brands in this guide that pretty much everyone is guaranteed to have heard of, such as Seiko, Casio, probably Citizen. And then there’s Timex. Perhaps the most iconic American watch brand of all time, Timex has been cranking out reliable and affordable timepieces (and rolling with the industry’s various punches) since 1944. But its history actually stretches back even further, as prior to being called Timex the Waterbury, Connecticut-based company had been known as the Waterbury Clock Company for 90 years beginning in 1854. With its long history, consistent relevance, and back catalog of iconic offerings, Timex is perhaps the most significant affordable watch brand there is.
Due to the way it tends to market and position its watches, Yema often gets lumped in with the microbrands of today. But in reality, the company is anything but. Based in France since 1948, Yema is a heritage brand and is historically one of its home nation’s most significant watchmakers. Yema had its most success in the 1960s through the ‘80s, when it accomplished feats like having motorsports legend Mario Andretti wear its RallyGraf chronograph on the track and producing the first French watch worn in space. The brand stayed relatively quiet for a few decades, but in recent years Yema has been making noise with a slew of well-done reissues and even a couple of new in-house movements.
Small But Mighty
Based in New York and founded by product designer/automotive enthusiast Bradley Price in 2011, Autodromo is one of the more specialized microbrands on the market. It, unsurprisingly, produces automotive-themed watches, but does so in a way that is unlike any other brand. Rather than churning out the typical racing-style chronographs like every other automotive microbrand, Autodromo does the unexpected, mining inspiration from such varied muses as 1980s Group B racers and mid-century Italian Berlinettas to create unique timepieces that don’t wear their inspirations on their sleeves. The automotive themes are subtle and classy, and above all else, every Autodromo watch is meticulously designed.
Founded just five years ago by Etienne Malec as a way to honor his late watch-collecting father, Paris-based Baltic has quickly risen to become one of the most coveted microbrands in the space. The brand trades in vintage aesthetics, crafting dive watches, GMTs, chronographs, and dress watches that look like they were produced between the 1930s and 1960s. There are, admittedly, a lot of microbrands that do something similar, but what helps set Baltic apart — aside from its watches’ high level of quality — is its willingness to take risks, such as its use of a seldom-seen micro-rotor movement in one of its watches.
Sometimes referred to as the “Rolex of microbrands,” Canadian Halios reminds enthusiasts of The Crown not just because of its absurdly high levels of quality control (we can thank brand founder/perfectionist Jason Lim for that), but also for how hard it is to obtain one of its watches, as they sell out extremely fast. Founded in 2009 and exclusively a maker of sports watches (so far, anyway), much of Halios’ assembly takes place in Vancouver, where Lim can personally inspect the watches before they go out. New pieces spend years in the development process in order to meet the owner’s high standards, and anyone who’s been lucky enough to nab a Halios is always happy to sing the brand’s praises.
MING is a bit like Halios in that its watches sell out as soon as they are released (often leaving a bunch of upset would-be customers in their wake), but the brand plays at a much higher price point. While Halios watches top out below $1,000, MING doesn’t sell any watches for less than a few grand, and most go for much more. The Malaysian “horological collective,” founded by photographer and designer Ming Thein in 2017, has a highly distinct design language with hallmarks like a luminous ring around the dial and flared lugs. The brand is highly inventive with both its designs and its constructions, and its innovations have resulted in numerous Grand Prix D’Horlogerie De Genève awards — quite a feat for such a young brand.
Unimatic is a breakout Italian microbrand that burst onto the scene in 2015 with an extreme minimalist design language — it’s not everyday that you see a dive bezel with zero markings — that has caught the attention not only of the watch community but the fashion community as a whole, with seemingly a new hot Unimatic collab dropping every other week. Founded by product designers and friends Giovanni Moro and Simone Nunziato, Unimatic produces its watches in Italy and is fast becoming not only one of the most notable microbrands, but one of the hottest watchmakers period. And given its rapid growth, we won’t at all be surprised to see Unimatic shed its microbrand label sooner rather than later.
The 17 Best American-Made Watch Brands
Curious to discover more watch brands from outside the Swiss Jura Arc? Then have a look at our roundup of 17 American companies that are bringing the craft of watchmaking back to U.S. shores.
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