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Feature: Patek Philippe vs Audemars Piguet vs Vacheron Constantin

Known collectively as the “Holy Trinity” of watchmaking, Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin are three of the world’s most prestigious luxury watch brands. Through complex, hand-finished movements and countless world “firsts” they’ve secured their place in horology’s top tier. But how do they fare against each other?

Patek Philippe


What do Queen Victoria, Paul McCartney, Walt Disney and several popes have in common? They, along with many other wealthy and illustrious people, have all owned a watch made by the legendary Patek Philippe.

Since 1839, the Geneva-based company has been known for making watches of exceptional quality, setting countless horological records and seeing its timepieces sell for astronomical sums at auction.

It also boasts a history as colourful as its watches. The company was founded by a Polish aristocrat and cavalry officer, Antoine de Pradwdzic, who had fled to Geneva in 1832 after taking part in an abortive revolt against Russian occupation. Pradwdzic promptly took Swiss nationality, changed his name to the infinitely more pronounceable Patek, and formed a company with a watchmaker and fellow Polish exile called Frantiszek Czapek.

By 1844, a French master watchmaker by the name of Adrien Philippe—who was the first to come up with the idea of winding a watch via a stem and a crown, rather than a key—had joined the company. The following year Patek and Czapek amicably parted ways, the latter forming his own company before mysteriously disappearing in 1871.

Patek Philippe, as it was now called, set its sights on becoming the finest watchmaker in the world, exhibiting specially made timepieces at the world’s biggest trade fairs, leading to lucrative orders from European royalty.

The death of both Patek and Philippe towards the end of the 19th century slowed down the company’s progress, but with the advent of the wristwatch it found new impetus, creating high-quality perpetual calendars, world timers and chronographs for this smaller kind of timepiece.

It could also count on the patronage of US millionaires like the banker Henry Graves and car magnate James Ward Packard—the Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos of their day—who each commissioned increasingly complicated pocket watches in a game of horological one-upmanship (today’s mega-wealthy build space rockets instead).

In 1932 a new dynasty, the Stern family, took over the management of the company when it was suffering from a Depression-Era slump. That same year, they introduced the Calatrava model which went on to become the company’s flagship watch.

Image courtesy of Bonhams

Image courtesy of Bonhams

Today, still under the auspices of the Stern family, Patek Philippe maintains its aura of greatness thanks to a combination of iconic, sought-after collections like the Nautilus and ultra-high-end pieces like the Grandmaster Chime, an intricately engraved wristwatch featuring a staggering 20 complications that took seven years to develop.

As exclusive as ever, Patek Philippe’s annual production sits at around 60,000 units a year, a relatively small number considering Rolex is thought to make around a million.

Cool factor

Think of Patek Philippe and what probably comes to mind is rather staid, traditional watchmaking. Yes, the quality is exceptional, but cool? Top Gun fans would probably consider it the Iceman to Rolex’s Maverick.

Yet the launches of its two biggest models of all time prove that Patek is willing to defy convention when needed. Take its Calatrava model, for example. Today it might look like the quintessential no-frills dress watch, but on its release in 1932 it was a revelation—a pared-down Bauhaus-inspired design that turned heads when fussy art deco watches were the norm.

Ditto the Nautilus, introduced in 1976, which was far removed from the ultra-thin watches Patek had become known for. With odd, protruding “ears” on either side of the case and a porthole-style bezel, it breathed new life into the brand—although, to give credit to rival Audemars Piguet, it might not have come about without the introduction of the Royal Oak several years before. Both these watches were, of course, designed by Gerald Genta.

In recent years, the Nautilus, and its many variations, has been one of the hottest watches around, worn by a multitude of celebrities including Mark Wahlberg, Lewis Hamilton, Cardi B and Sylvester Stallone.

Icon status

Patek Philippe is easily one of the world’s most iconic watch brands and comfortably keeps its Holy Trinity rivals at arm’s length in this department. Firstly, there’s the brand itself. Patek Philippe has long been regarded as the leading manufacturer of the most prestigious, refined watches. When the aforementioned Henry Graves and James Ward were battling it out in the first half of the 19th century to see who could own the most impressive watch, it was Patek’s master watchmakers to whom they turned to make their fantasy watches reality.

Patek’s icon status is also backed up by its consistent results at high-profile auctions from New York to Dubai. Vintage limited-production models like the 1518 chronograph perpetual calendar can sell for millions of dollars. Perhaps its most iconic and recognisable model in the 21st century however is the Nautilus.

Together with Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak, it’s the most iconic sport-luxe model, and when a Tiffany & Co.-signed dial version was released in 2021 the prices they commanded were like nothing seen before. One sold at a charity auction for $6.5m—the ninth most expensive watch sold at auction ever—while even today these watches with their distinctive turquoise dials sell for around $2m dollars. For the record, a standard steel Nautilus reference 5711 costs around $100k on the pre-owned market.

Image courtesy of Bonhams

Image courtesy of Bonhams


It speaks volumes about Patek Philippe’s reputation for quality that in the early 20th century the Russian Tsar asked the brand if it could provide watches exclusively for his entire court. The company politely declined as by this point it was already selling to the burgeoning US market, which included millionaire plutocrats like the aforementioned Packard and Graves.

But how did Patek get to be so synonymous with high quality? It helped that its founding fathers were a Polish aristocrat and a gifted French watchmaker—a potent combination. From the very beginning, Patek set its sights on clients who were as discerning as they were wealthy. And within a decade it was selling watches to the likes of Queen Victoria, who also bought one for her husband, Albert.

Since then it has achieved remarkable consistency, helped by the fact that it makes its watches in-house, giving it complete control over quality.

For over a hundred years Patek Philippe watch movements were stamped with the prestigious Geneva Seal (Poinçon de Genève). This is a hallmark of quality concerned mainly with the finishing and decoration of the watch movement and was only granted to movements manufactured in Geneva. Other brands who regularly submit their movements for this certification include Cartier, Chopard, Roger Dubuis and Vacheron Constantin.

In 2008, however, Patek Philippe, clearly trying to put a little distance between its rivals, controversially abandoned the seal. Instead, it introduced its own Patek Philippe Seal, with stringent requirements that cover the whole watch, not just the movement. It was a bold statement of intent, but it definitely hammered home the point that in the Holy Trinity, Patek is the top dog.


A steel Nautilus displaying nothing more than the standard time and date selling for two million dollars just because it has ‘Tiffany & Co’ stamped on the dial probably seems like poor value. But this kind of thing is an exception. Most of the brand’s models range between $30k and $100k, with certain models worth double or triple their RRP on the pre-owned market. For that you get timeless, exceptionally made watches (often in precious metals) from a top-tier brand that hold their value extremely well.

Also, Patek Philippe owners can also take great comfort in the fact that the company pledges to repair any watch it has ever made. If it’s a rare hundred-year-old pocket watch for which they no longer have the parts, they’ll manufacture new components (obviously this service isn’t free of charge). As its famous advert points out, a Patek Philippe timepiece is something that will last several generations. It really is the quintessential heirloom brand.

Vacheron Constantin


Today, there is only one leading luxury watchmaker that can claim to be older than Vacheron Constantin, and that’s Blancpain. But Blancpain was dormant for several years, which means that when it comes to the oldest continuously active watch brand, Vacheron Constantin takes the number one spot on the podium.

To make fine timepieces without interruption—through revolutions, two global wars and the quartz crisis—is a remarkable achievement, but then Vacheron Constantin is a remarkable brand.

The company was founded by 24-year-old watchmaker Jean-Marc Vacheron in 1755, passing through two more generations of Vacherons before a family friend Francois Constantin partnered with the founder’s descendant, Jacques Barthelemy Vacheron, to take over the business side of things in 1819.

The biggest turning point in the company’s history came when they employed a watchmaker called George-August Leschot who designed a machine that could make precision movements more economically. It proved to be a huge step not just for Vacheron Constantin but for the whole Swiss watch industry which would soon make watches this way.

As the wristwatch replaced the pocket watch as the timepiece of choice, Vacheron began producing not just elegant time-only watches in precious metals but chronographs, perpetual calendars and even—in very small numbers—a minute repeater. Movements were made in-house, although it also sourced them from Jaeger-LeCoultre.

In 1940, Charles Constantin, the last descendant of either of the founders to run the company, ceded control to George Ketterer who in turn handed the reins to his son Jacques. From the 1950s to the 1970s, Vacheron’s line-up consisted mostly of slim, time-only dress watches. It celebrated its bicentenary in 1955 by unveiling what was then the world’s thinnest watch, powered by a movement just 1.64mm thick. Twenty years later—perhaps fighting for every scrap of publicity in the midst of the quartz crisis—it released the Kallista, a watch whose case and bracelet was fashioned from the same kilogram bar of gold. It was decorated with 118 emerald-cut diamonds and became, for a time, the world’s most expensive wristwatch, selling for $5m dollars—a monumental sum for a watch now, let alone the late 1970s.

When Jacques Ketterer died in 1987, the watch-loving Saudi Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani became a majority shareholder, but by this time annual production had shrunk to around 3,000 watches a year. Sheikh Yamani sold his share nine years later to the Vendome Group, later dissolved into its parent company, Richemont.

Now back to making an estimated 20,000-25,000 watches a year, and employing some of the world’s finest craftspeople in-house, it is once again producing some of the best watches in the business and with a line-up more diverse than ever.

Cool factor

The fact that some of Hollywood’s biggest stars have recently been wearing the brand’s watches hasn’t gone unnoticed by watch-spotters. Both Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise, neither of whom are brand ambassadors for Vacheron Constantin, are fans of two of the biggest releases of the past few decades: the Overseas and the 222 Historique.

These two watches come under the luxury steel sports category, which the brand arrived at a little late to the party, with Patek Phillippe and Audemars Piguet having already released their Nautilus and Royal Oak watches, respectively.

Despite only being released in the late 1990s, the Overseas, a descendant of the 222 (which has also been revived), is now Vacheron Constantin’s most visible model, and it comes in multiple versions, from tourbillons to chronographs and skeletonised perpetual calendars. This watch has singlehandedly given Vacheron a cooler image, although with the Fiftysix series it has also brought its dress watches into the 21st century.

Icon status

Just by virtue of it being the oldest uninterrupted watch brand and part of the Holy Trinity it is an iconic watch brand.

That said, it was for some time lacking in truly iconic watches. The kind of watches—like the Rolex Submariner, the Royal Oak, or Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Reverso—that could be instantly recognised across a crowded room. That’s changed with the introduction of the Overseas, while even cushion-cased models like the Historique American with its off-kilter, asymmetric dial have helped make the brand stand out more from its rivals. Vacheron Constantin’s icon status will only grow in the future as more people become acquanited with its watches and history.


In 2015 Vacheron Constantin released a one-off pocket watch that showed exactly what this revered brand is capable of. The reference 57260, hand-built by three watchmakers over the course of eight years, featured an astonishing 57 complications making it the world’s most complicated mechanical watch. The watchmakers at Patek Philippe, which once excelled in this type of watch, must have looked on in envy.

Timepieces like this are evidence of Vacheron’s commitment to quality, as is its investment in its craftspeople, with an in-house team of engravers, enamellers and gem-setters complementing its watchmakers and designers. Vacheron has everything it needs to ensure its quality is consistently on a par with any of its rivals.

Granted, Vacheron may not have followed Patek’s lead and abandoned the Geneva Seal to create its own certificate of quality, but make no mistake, the Geneva Seal is still hugely prized as an industry accolade.


You don’t have to pay property prices for a Vacheron Constantin watch if you’re happy to go with an uncomplicated, classic time-and-date model in steel. You can buy a brand-new Vacheron Constantin Fiftysix model for £12,200 ($12,700), which gets you in the Vacheron door (and it comes without the aforementioned Geneva Seal), but for Overseas models you’re looking at almost double that price.

Once you bring tourbillons and perpetual calendars into the equation, you’re looking at six-figure (dollar) sums. As is the case for its ultra-high-end Metiers d’Art and Les Collectionneurs series, which is where the brand’s master craftsmen get to display their artistic brilliance. These watches only tend to get into the hands of top clients and serious collectors.

As for value retention, the hottest models (like the Overseas) can sell for slightly above or below retail on the pre-owned market, depending on model, condition and whether it’s steel or precious metal.

Audemars Piguet


When it comes to continuity, Audemars Piguet is hard to beat, being perhaps the only luxury watch brand whose board of directors has always included members of the founding family.

The man who started it all was Jules Audemars, the youngest in a family of already-accomplished watchmakers who, like many of their ilk, subsisted on farming in the summer months and watchmaking in the winter.

When Jules teamed up with watchmaker friend Edouard Piguet in 1875 they focused immediately on complex watches, most notably minute repeaters, a company speciality. Within fourteen years they had made their first Grande Complication, featuring a perpetual calendar, minute repeater, split-seconds chronograph, plus moonphase and power reserve indicators.

Audemars died in 1918 and his business partner followed him a year later, by which time the company was in the hands of the two founders’ sons. Having just about stayed afloat during the Great Depression, Audemars Piguet, like Vacheron Constantin, spent the following decades focusing on slim dress watches in precious metals while also supplying movements to other brands.

While the quartz revolution was in its infancy it struck a blow for mechanical watches when, via the famed designer Gerald Genta, it launched its Royal Oak model. It kickstarted a whole new genre of luxury watch that other brands tapped into, and today almost every leading watch brand manufactures at least one luxury sports watch with an integrated bracelet. It’s possible none of them would have existed without the Royal Oak paving the way.

Audemars Piguet has been criticised in the past thirty years for relying too much on this one model. Even lines like the Offshore, introduced in the 1990s, and the more recent high-tech Concept watches are Royal Oak spin-offs. However, the launch of the CODE 11.59 in 2019 showed a willingness to try something completely different—even if the watch-buying public seemed initially underwhelmed by its rather plain looks.

This year it has ushered in a new chapter of its history, saying goodbye to long-time CEO Francois-Henry Bennahmias who has been replaced with Ilaria Resta.

The brand’s annual output stands at around 40,000 watches.

Cool factor

During the era of Francois-Henry Bennahmias, its previous CEO, Audemars Piguet catered for a far more diverse audience than the other Holy Trinity brands. While the tastes of its older clientele were covered with various versions of the Royal Oak and Millenary models, its futuristic Royal Oak Concept Flying Tourbillons grabbed the attention of the next generation of watch lovers by drawing inspiration from the world of pop culture. To the chagrin of some traditionalists, the limited-edition Spiderman and Black Panther models were big hits.

Since the 1990s the brand has also been hugely popular with hip hop stars, leading to collaborations with the likes of Jay-Z and Travis Scott. Official ambassadors in recent years who will certainly have done Audemars Piguet’s cool factor no harm include musician Mark Ronson, tennis legend Serena Williams and football genius Lionel Messi.

Icon status

Despite its long-standing reputation for high quality timepieces, it was the launch of the Royal Oak in 1972 that cast Audemars Piguet’s iconic status in stone. What seemed like a puzzling release at the time—a stainless steel sports watch with a precious metal price tag—eventually became one of the most influential watch designs ever. Other brands followed suit, and even Audemars Piguet themselves revisited the design of the Royal Oak for other collections, namely the Royal Oak Offshore and the Royal Oak Concept.

Under its new CEO it’ll be interesting to see if further Royal Oak spin-offs emerge, or whether they’ll invest more in brand-new collections like the CODE 11.59.


While all three brands make watches of the highest quality, Audemars Piguet is the only one that regularly uses both traditional (i.e., steel and precious metals) and non-traditional case materials such as ceramic and titanium. Vacheron Constantin has used the latter, but only recently while Patek avoids them entirely, with the exception of extremely rare one-off designs for charity events.

Audemars Piguet, then, can be considered the most high-tech member of the Holy Trinity, aided by its famous state-of-the-art factory at Le Brassus in which it has invested heavily since selling its 40% stake in Jaeger-LeCoultre around twenty years ago.

But don’t be fooled by the 3-D superhero dials and fact that not all its watches are gold and platinum. Like Vacheron and Patek, Audemars Piguet is fully capable of making top-tier grande complications watches, either in pocket watch form for its top clients or in high-end Royal Oak models. Also, in its Acoustic Lab, it probably owns the best striking-watch division in the industry. This is where musicians, instrument makers and audio academics collaborate to make the most melodious and loudest minute repeaters and the like.

Let’s not forget, also, that Audemars Piguet’s technical expertise was bolstered in 1992 when it acquired the movement maker Renaud et Papi, a specialist in high-end complications. Now known as Audemars Piguet Renaud & Papi (APRP), it was instrumental in the formation of the Richard Mille brand, of which AP owns a stake.


In recent years the Royal Oak has been one of a tiny number of non-Rolex watches to sell significantly over retail. That goes as much for a time-and-date steel model as a rose gold tourbillon or a platinum perpetual calendar. The latter models regularly sell for anything between £150k and £350k. The CODE 11.59 models tend not to hold their value so well as Royal Oaks or Royal Oak Offshores.

If you’re lucky enough to reach the front of the waiting list, expect to pay somewhere between £20k and £25k for an entry-level Audemars Piguet. That’ll be a steel 41mm Royal Oak or a steel Code 11.59 with nothing more complicated than a date function.

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