If you asked a group of 10 people to name a luxury Swiss watchmaker, nine of those people would say Rolex. The tenth would say Cartier just to be difficult. From the earliest days of its inception to now, Rolex has been a brand that's become almost synonymous with luxury, craftsmanship, and quality. Wherever you go in the world, everyone knows the name Rolex. And by and large, most people want one. A maker of status symbols as much as watches, Rolex enjoys a rare and privileged position in the watchmaking industry - but not a stranglehold. While few watchmakers can compete with Rolex in terms of sheer sales, several are putting up a good fight when it comes to everything else. Take Patek Philippe as an example. A watchmaker with a history as long and illustrious as Rolex (longer, in fact - Patek Philippe has 66 years on Rolex), Patek Philippe is a brand name that's uttered in reverential tones in collector's circles. Its mechanical movements have become the stuff of legend, its designs are much imitated but rarely bettered.
In the world of horology, Patek Philippe is an imposing proposition - after all, how many brands can claim responsibility for the most expensive watch ever sold at auction? How many have waiting lists that stretch over 10 years? But is it as imposing as Rolex? in a straight-out battle between Rolex and Patek Philippe, which would come out on top? In terms of sales and scale, there's no contest. Rolex scoops the prize. Knowing the name Patek Philippe requires an interest in watches. Knowing the name Rolex requires little more than basic sentience. 'Rolex' has entered the common parlance in a way that 'Patek Philippe' simply hasn't. But being the more well-known of the two doesn't necessarily make Rolex the best. There's more to life than popularity and there's more to watches than ubiquity. So, without further ado, let the fight begin...
Patek Philippe Vs. Rolex: Sales
Let's get the obvious one out of the way first. When it comes to sales, Rolex wins by a clean mile. And it doesn't just outsell Patek Philippe - it outsells every single Swiss watchmaker in the business. As of today, Rolex accounts for a whopping one-fifth of worldwide watch sales. As afr.com reports, Rolex's 22.2 percent share of the market reflects an average price of just over $12,000 USD per watch and an estimated $11.6 billion USD in retail sales. In contrast, Patek Philippe enjoys a 5.7 percent market share and an estimated $1.35 billion USD in retail sales.
But before we get too caught up in the sales figures, it's worth noting one tiny thing. Patek Philippe doesn't actually want to sell as many watches as Rolex. That's not the point of the brand. It deals in exquisite, exclusive pieces in limited numbers for a very specific type of patron. If it wanted a bigger market share, it would make more watches. But so far, it hasn't shown even the slightest inclination to do that. Rolex releases 800,000 timepieces each year. Patek Philippe releases just 62,000. Patek Philippe’s market is driven by out-and-out exclusivity; Rolex’s market is driven by popular demand. Looking at it in those terms, there's no real comparison to be made.
Patek Philippe Vs. Rolex: Greatest Hits
Patek Philippe was launched 66 years prior to Rolex. But considering Rolex has been around for almost 120 years, and was already well established by the advent of the wristwatch, you'd have expected the playing field to have leveled out by now. So, which of the two has the greatest number of hits to their name? Which brand can lay claim to the most innovations? Let's look at Rolex first. As robbreport.com writes, a 1910 Rolex became the first wristwatch to carry the Swiss Certificate of Chronometric Precision, bestowed by the Official Watch Rating Centre in Bienne, Switzerland. In 1931, the brand gave the world the first automatic winding wristwatch. In the fifties, it became the first watchmaker to utilize the date magnifier. Throughout its history, it's pushed boundaries in the field of sport and exploration: when aviation legend Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947, it was a Rolex that helped him keep track of time; when Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first men to summit Mt. Everest, Norgay had a Rolex strapped to his wrist. When the Rolex Milgauss was shown to withstand a magnetic field measuring 1000 gauss at the CERN particle accelerator, Rolex became the brand de jour among engineers and scientists.
Rolex's have become the watches of explorers, astronauts, pilots and deep-sea divers. How could any other brand even hope to compete? Well, they could start by inventing the wristwatch, a feat accomplished by Patek Philippe in 1868. if that alone wasn't enough to earn the brand some serious kudos, just consider what came next: in 1989, it gave us the Patek Philippe Caliber 89, a piece that held the title of the most complicated watch in the world for 25 years; in the early 2000s, it became one of the first watchmakers to leverage the power of silicon oxide in its creations; it patented the revolutionary Gyromax balance wheel; it was the first brand to give us a world timer powered by a single movement... we could go on, but we'll leave it there. Suffice to say, Patek Philippe has given us more game-changers than most other watchmakers combined. From the start, it's worked to revolutionize the industry. And in the process, it's gifted us some of the finest watches ever made. As to which one has achieved the most chart success... let's call it even.
Patek Philippe Vs. Rolex: Reputation
Brands like Rolex and Patek Philippe live and die by the strength of their reputation. Neither one is invulnerable to the odd bad year or the occasional duff watch - if they want to survive it, they need an outstanding reputation to fall back on. As for which of the pair's standing is the greater... well, everyone has their opinion. In terms of fame, Rolex has it covered. There's not a single other Swiss watchmaker... actually, skip the "Swiss"... there's not a single other watchmaker in the world today that's as well-known as Rolex. Patek Philippe is the third most recognized Swiss brand (falling just a few points behind Omega), but if we remove the "Swiss", it takes a big tumble. Ultimately, the whole world and its wife know Rolex. And the whole world and its wife knows it's a very, very fine brand.
Fewer people know about Patek Philippe. Kids don't dream of growing up rich enough to own a Patek Philippe. Playboys don't show off their wealth by telling women in bars they just bought a Patek Philippe. But fame isn't everything. Agatha Christie may have shifted more books than anyone else in history, but that doesn't mean she was a better writer than Sylvia Plath. Patek Philippe's congregation may be smaller than Rolex's but it's no less devout. Described as "a Rich Man's Rolex" and the "Rolls Royce" of watches, Patek Philippe is a name that commands respect. It's a name that can make people happily hand over a couple of mill without missing a beat. When it comes down to it, Rolex has the most fame. Patek Philippe has the most reverence.
Patek Philippe Vs. Rolex: Market
Some people say you can tell a lot about a brand by the type of customer it attracts. Those people might be elitist, but they might also have a point. So, who's buying what? Per prestigetime.com, Patek Philippe attracts royalty, dignitaries, Fortune 500 CEO's and top C-Suite executives, millionaires, and billionaires. People don't buy a Patek Philippe so they can boast about their wealth: they buy it because they're comfortable enough with their status not to feel the need to show it off. They know their wristwatch is the best of the best: whether anyone else knows it too isn't something they're going to waste time worrying about. Rolex, on the other hand, has a reputation for attracting a flashier kind of clientele. Hollywood actors, rock stars, rappers, sports stars... check their wrists for bling and you'll find enough Rolex's to stock a store. Rolex's are what people buy when they 'make it'. Sure, those people might have an eye for the finer things in life, but their reason for choosing Rolex over another brand speaks about more than just good taste. It speaks of wealth. Which is kind of the point. Rolex's are more than just watches, they're status symbols. Strapping a Rolex to your wrist is a short cut to letting people know who you are, what you are, and what your net worth is. It's that simple.
Patek Philippe Vs. Rolex: Craftmanship
As bobswatches.com writes, there’s a reason behind Patek Philippe’s exclusivity. Since inception, it's focused to an almost single-minded degree on haute horlogerie, grand complications, and elegant dress watches. Golden Ellipses, Calatravas, Grand Complications... all incredibly complex, incredibly technical pieces that take an unimaginably long time to develop, perfect, and create.
On the other side of the coin, Rolex has made high functioning, superbly designed sports and tools watches its primary focus. It wouldn't be fair to say it doesn't do dress watches, and neither would it be fair to say it doesn't know the value of a solid gold case. But nonetheless, the brand has built its reputation on durable stainless-steel sports watches that combine luxury aesthetics with hard-core utility. When two watchmakers have such different focuses, you can't simply line up their watches and compare them for expertise. The craftsmanship that goes into a Patek Philippe watch is a completely different kind to the one that goes into a Rolex - not because the one is better than the other, but because the ultimate goal is different.
Patek Philippe Vs. Rolex: Resale Value
Let's face it, neither Patek Philippe nor Rolex are what you'd describe as 'affordable'. When you're going to be spending as much on a watch as this, you'll want some reassurance that it's not going to be worthless in five years' time. When it comes to resale value, Patek Philippe has it covered. Not only do its watches hold their worth, but they've also been known to appreciate in value on more than one occasion. As its slogan goes, "You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation." And fortunately, you're not looking after a watch that's going to be consigned to a pauper's grave the moment it passes on. Patek Philippe watches can fetch millions at auction. In fact, it currently holds the record for the most expensive watch ever sold at auction - admittedly, it was a one-off piece sold for charity but still... $31 million is $31 million. Providing it's in good condition, a pre-owned Patek Philippe watch is going to lead to a big day down the line.
Neither do you have to worry too much about a Rolex losing its value. Prior to Patek Phillipe's record-breaking achievement, Paul Newman's Rolex held the record for the most expensive watch sold at auction at $17.8 million. Both brands hold their value. By how much will depend on the model, the year of production, and the condition of the watch in question. Other than that, there's not a whisker between them.
So, we've seen the evidence. We've weighed up the differences and we've evaluated the histories. Now it's crunch time. Who's leaving the ring with the title, and who's leaving with their tail between their legs? Actually, neither. The question of which is better is actually a lot more loaded than it seems. Both brands might be based in Switzerland and both brands may be in the watchmaking game, but that's about as far as the similarities go.
Comparing the two is like comparing apples and oranges. Sure, you might have a favorite fruit, but could you really give a convincing argument as to why apples are better than oranges, or vice versa? Of course not. The same applies to Rolex and Patek Philippe. Patek Philippe makes a very specific kind of watch for a very specific kind of market. Rolex makes an entirely different kind of watch for an entirely different kind of market. The one makes super luxurious, exquisitely exclusive dress watches; the other makes widely popular, outrageously outstanding sports watches. Occasionally, their areas of expertise may cross, but not enough to make a comparison either fair or worthwhile. Pitching Rolex against Patek Philippe is like pitching Muhammad Ali against Michal Jordon. It doesn't work. They're both amazing at what they do. And what they do is different enough to make any discussion about which one is better stop right there.
Written by Garrett Parker
Read more posts by Garrett Parker