Unless you’re talking about Michael Jordan, Ken Jennings, or grandma’s cooking, the title “best” can be pretty subjective. That’s no less true when it comes to the best watch brands, which span a mind-boggling range of styles, price points and features, from the simple utilitarian charm of the Casio G-Shock to the unapologetic outrageousness of a seven-figure Richard Mille. To make sense of it all, we’ve assembled some of the key players in the GQ watch universe, broken down into eight distinct categories, each of which is at the very top of their particular game—whether that’s making limited-edition tourbillons or the quartz beater you wear to the beach. Fortunately, unlike the NBA or Jeopardy’s Tournament of Champions, the world of watches has room for more than one GOAT.
Want to brush up on your terminology and find your next dream timepiece? Don’t miss GQ’s ultimate guide to watches for men.
The Best Affordable Watch Brands
Based on what’s in your Instagram feed it can be easy to focus on the kind of top-shelf grails flexed by guys who sit courtside at Lakers games and have their own tequila brands but don’t despair if your budget has fewer zeroes in it. In fact, there’s never been more selection or better value in the entry-level, with dozens of long-established brands and startups working hard to earn a place on your wrist. Whether it’s your first watch or your fourteenth, these brands offer Patron quality at Pepe Lopez prices.
Swiss-made quality at reasonable prices is the name of the game at Tissot, which has been making old-school mechanical watches in Le Locle, Switzerland since 1853. Whatever your style, you’re likely to find something you want in their extensive catalog spanning pocket watches, pro-quality dive watches and classic ‘60s chronographs.
Swatch changed the game in the early 1980s by proving that Switzerland could make inexpensive quartz (i.e. battery-powered) watches as well as high-end mechanical ones. Forty years later they’re still at the top of their game, producing multiple collections every year in their signature colorful-quirky style.
Aspiring multi-hyphenates take note: this Japanese brand’s offering spans hundreds of G-Shock models and solar-powered analog wristwatches (plus a bunch of very nice digital pianos), all of which are executed with the same combination of leading-edge technology and high attention to detail.
In the Venn diagram of affordability, dependability, and stylishness, Seiko’s sports watches are dead center.
In the same vein as Uniqlo and their famously excellent selvedge denim, this under-the-radar Japanese watchmaker specializes in good-looking mechanical wristwatches at budget-friendly prices.
The Best Big-Time Watch Brands
Whether by merit of their craftsmanship, their history or their astronomical prices, some brands command more respect (and hype) than others. This is the A-list of the watch world.
Built like Formula 1 cars out of carbon nanotubes, titanium cables and other such space-age materials, this Swiss brand brought haute horology into the 21st century. Yes, you read the price correctly.
If a Richard Mille is a mansion in Calabasas with its own go-kart track, a Cartier is a gilded age estate in Newport. Many of this French jeweler’s models haven’t changed much since the 1920s, and that’s exactly why people like them. Money talks, they say, and wealth whispers.
With years-long waiting lists, exorbitant grey market prices and more flexing than Muscle Beach on a summer Saturday, this brand’s watches—particularly the Royal Oak—are in a class of their own. Beneath the hype, however, are some of the refined movements created by the most skilled watchmakers in the business.
With the kind of broad, universal goodwill usually reserved for Patagonia fleeces and Dwayne Johnson movies, Rolex has comfortably held its place atop the pyramid of watch brands for decades. Its movements and finishing are top-notch, of course, but (much like The Rock) at this point they don’t require any introduction.
More than half a century after Neil Armstrong made what might be the biggest watch flex in history, Omega’s Speedmaster is still the brand’s most-wanted creation. Tough, refined and technically-advanced mechanical sports watches are what this brand does best, and there are many to choose from—with or without ties to Apollo 11.
Hublot was the first brand to put a solid gold watch on a rubber strap, which in 1980 was as revelatory and transgressive as wearing sneakers with a suit. Forty years later the brand is still experimenting with materials, recently figuring out how to carve an entire watch case out of a single block of lab-grown sapphire.
Gerald Genta’s designs for Patek and AP are now some of the most sought in the world, but they only represent a fraction of the legendary designer’s output. Among his other hits is the “BVLGARI BVLGARI” watch he designed for this Italian jeweller in 1975. Bulgari continues to tweak the details of this iconic piece (inspired by an antique Roman coin) most recently re-imagining it with a black and white aluminum case.
As their famous tagline says, you never actually own a Patek Philippe, you just take care of it for the next generation. And if your grandkids want to flip your cloisonné enamel World Time to pay for college someday, they probably could.
The Best Insider Watch Brands
Watch nerds, like music nerds, enjoy nothing more than geeking out over the stuff no one else has heard of. These are the watchmakers that get them fired up.
You can think of Rexhep Rexhepi as the Zion Williamson of Swiss watchmaking: incredible talent, comparisons to some of the biggest names in the game and an extremely promising future. Unfortunately for you, that means the watches he makes are harder to get than good seats at the playoffs.
The watch fam loves this Italian micro-brand for its dive watches inspired by classics from the 1950s with clean, ultra-minimalist dials. Functionally, they’re as far from an Apple Watch as it gets, but Steve Jobs would still approve.
“Grand feu” enameling (the process of fusing powdered glass to metal) is one of those antique crafts practiced by only a handful of the world’s top watchmaking craftsmen. That makes this Scottish brand, whose limited-edition watches feature expertly enameled dials in a rainbow of hues, an outlier in the best kind of way.
Laurent Ferrier is a third-generation watchmaker who spent 30 years in the workshop of Patek Philippe before launching his namesake brand. With old-school craftsmanship and understated contemporary looks, his watches are proof that it pays to study the classics before you create your masterpiece.
Watches had been more or less the same for a century or more until this brand came along. By using a series of rotating discs, Ressence’s watches tell time in an entirely new way—without hands or a traditional winding crown. And they look as unconventional as they are.
At a certain point at the very highest levels of watchmaking, the line between time-telling accessory and kinetic sculpture becomes blurry. The watches made by Philippe Dufour—considered one of the greatest watchmakers of modern times—are very much on the art side of that line.
The Best American-made Watch Brands
It’s been a long time since the biggest names in American watchmaking were American-owned (much less American-made). In recent years, however, a handful of brands are moving production back onshore and providing a bunch of ways to show your patriotism without bumper stickers or t-shirts with eagles on them. While most “made in America” watch brands still rely on Swiss and Asian manufacturers for key components, the ones below are committed to doing as much in-house as possible.
Oscar Waldan learned the watch industry from the inside, working with the top names in Switzerland before establishing his own brand in the 1970s. Now run by his son, Waldan’s newest models combine midcentury styling and Swiss finishing with American-made quartz movements.
The Detroit renaissance has been a long time coming and this brand has been leading the charge since 2011. A decade later, they continue to prove that the Motor City can make watches with just as much style and swagger as they did Mustangs and GTOs.
Haven Watch Co.
Founded by a horology-loving English teacher in Indiana, this brand began as an experiment to see if it was possible to design and assemble watches by hand in the Midwest. It is, and they’re beauties.
You know that saying, “Do one thing and do it well”? Cameron Weiss does for sure, and you can see the proof in every watch that comes out of his California workshop, each of which takes 35 hours to assemble by hand.
The Best Dress Watch Brands
Even if you don’t wear a suit to the office, adding a classic dress watch – that is, one with an unfussy dial, a leather strap and maybe some gold – to your workday fit helps make weekdays feel a little more special.
Almost 250 years of continuous operation, exceptional movement finishing (the hand-polishing and decoration painstakingly applied to each component) and a fair bit of scarcity are the foundation of this top-shelf brand. Their watches aren’t too bad-looking either.
Watchmakers, like high school seniors, love superlatives. Piaget earned its reputation as the maker of the world’s thinnest mechanical watch movements in the 1950s and has been upping the ante ever since. At just 2mm thin (only a smidge thicker than a penny) their latest Altiplano is a mind-bending feat of watchmaking, albeit one you’d not want to wear to the gym. For that, look to the Piaget Polo, a criminally underrated steel sports watch from the ’70s.
It’s been a minute since a descendent of Abraham Louis Breguet was in charge at this historic watchmaker, but holding up the legacy of the founder is still priority number one. Look here for exceptionally well-crafted, insanely complex watches featuring Breguet’s namesake hands (aka the ones with a little circle near the tip).
Jaeger-LeCoultre’s most famous creation, the Reverso, was designed for polo players in the 1930s. It was also the watch Don Draper bought when he got his name on the door at Sterling Cooper. Wherever you’re wearing yours, say it zhey-ZHER leh-KOOLT or risk being mocked by ad execs and horse people alike.
Grand Seiko makes some of the most accurate mechanical watches on the planet (particularly those featuring their revered Spring Drive movement) and their attention to finishing is equally precise.
A Lange & Söhne
Germany’s answer to Patek Philippe produces about a tenth as many watches per year and assembles each one twice to ensure absolute perfection. This has earned them a loyal following of hardcore watch collectors who dig their asymmetrical dials and quirky oversized “digital” dates.
The Best Pilot Watch Brands
You don’t need to be wearing a shearling jacket and a jumpsuit to rock a classic aviator’s watch (and indeed, you might get some sideways looks at the grocery store if you did). All that’s required to appreciate these flyboy-approved brands is a love of classic tool watches.
IWC redesigned their Big Pilot watch this year, but to see it next to the ones they made for British pilots in the 1940s, you might not be able to tell which is which. Everything else about this watch—and every other watch made by IWC—is an exercise in top-down luxury, from the sand-colored ceramic case on the Mojave Desert edition to the tide indicator on the Portugieser Yacht Club.
After decades of catering to guys who wear epaulets and aviator shades to work, Breitling now has a lot to offer those on the other side of the cockpit door, too, including recent collabs with Kelly Slater’s Outerknown and modern reproductions of vintage dive watches from the ’60s.
Bell & Ross
Like Supreme’s box logo tee and the piano key necktie, the brilliance of some ideas lies in their relative simplicity. That’s definitely true of Bell & Ross, who pioneered the square pilot’s watch in the early ’90s and have been riffing on that signature aesthetic ever since.
Zenith rocked the watch world in 1969 when it dropped the original El Primero, one of the world’s first automatic chronographs. That accomplishment may not sound as impressive these days, but their signature chronograph looks just as fresh as it did back then and its legendary movement has only gotten better.
The Best Dive Watch Brands
Tough, stylish and highly versatile, a good dive watch is like a vintage Land Rover Defender. And unlike that beloved British off-roader, a classic diver from any of the brands below is going to run for decades without breaking down.
This Swiss heavyweight earned its reputation by making some of the world’s most accurate marine chronometers which, in the days before GPS, were as essential to maritime navigation as charts and lighthouses. That expertise is evident in their lineup of refined sports watches, which are as nautical as Breton stripes (and much easier to wear with a suit).
Panerai’s first watches were created for the Italian navy, with dials that glowed bright green thanks to Radiomir, their patented luminous paint. Radiomir turned out to be radiocative, but Panerai’s original design details and bulked-out proportions are as good as they ever were.
The watch world’s equivalent of the Beatles vs Rolling Stones debate (or Xbox vs Playstation, if you’re under 40) involves Blancpain, Rolex and the invention of the diver’s watch. While the Rolex Submariner may be more well known these days, Blancpain’s Fifty Fathoms (created for French navy divers and featuring the first uni-directional rotating bezel) actually came out a year earlier, making it the official OG. As with the Beatles and the Stones, however, it really just comes down to what you like, and there’s a lot to like here.
Along with a red beanie and a pipe, Jacques Cousteau’s Doxa diver’s watch was an essential element of his now-iconic uniform. You can skip the pipe (and maybe the hat, too), but Doxa’s watches still look just as good as they did onboard the Calypso.
Aside from a set of flippers and a vehicle with sand on the seats, nothing says “I live for the beach,” quite like one of Zodiac’s colourful vintage-inspired divers.
The Best “First Real Watch” Brands
Any watch that tells time is a “real watch,” but some brands pack a little more gravitas than others. If you’re ready to graduate into the world of grown-up timepieces, here are a few good places to start.
When you’re spending thousands of dollars on a watch, the idea of “good value” becomes more than a little subjective. That said, Longines offers everything that a top-tier Swiss watchmaker should (heritage, high-quality Swiss movements, unique design) at a (relatively) attainable price point. If you want something with vintage looks and modern reliability, look no further.
Baume & Mercier
Like a lot of high-end Swiss brands, Baume et Mercier has been in the watchmaking game for nearly 200 years. Unlike most other brands with that much heritage, their prices remain relatively accessible.
Much like In ’N Out Burger, Hamilton is widely respected for its commitment to serving up the classics at reasonable prices. If you’re looking to get into your first mechanical watch, chances are you’ll find something you love in their collection of rugged midcentury-inspired designs.
You don’t have to know what a chicane is or be conversational in the Prost-Senna rivalry to appreciate TAG Heuer, but it helps. Since the 1960s this brand has been trackside at every major motorsports event on the planet, and most of their watches celebrate that legacy in one way or another. For those who prefer their races to involve banana peels and Koopa Troopa, they also just launched a series of collabs with Nintendo.
Like many younger siblings, Tudor has spent more than its share of time living in the shadow of its older, more established sibling, Rolex. In recent years, however, this brand has truly come into its own with a robust line of chronographs and dive watches to rival the best in the world. It’s not Rolex, but in some ways (including the price) that’s a good thing.
One of the coolest things about getting into watches is the sheer number of small brands out there quietly putting their own spin on movements, dials and cases. Enicar, which was founded in Switzerland in 1914, is a perfect example of one of these, and a prime contender for your first mechanical watch.
Back in the 1960s, this Swiss brand made some of the best movements in the game. After gathering dust for a couple of decades, they’ve quietly relaunched with a new collection that calls back to that golden era in looks and performance. If you’re looking for something with rock-solid provenance that no one else in the room is going to have, this is it.