Time has been around for billions of years — ever since the beginning of the universe and everything came into existence. But we only began measuring it, at least in the modern era, some eight hundred years ago.
In 1275, first came the mechanical clock, proudly invented in England. In the 16th century, along came the first ever pocket watch, made from bronze. And in 1812, we saw the first ever wristwatch, made for the Queen of Naples (they were around long before this, but were described as “arm watches”).
To explore what happened next in the horological story, let’s take a look at a few of the oldest vintage watch brands that helped establish the modern watchmaking industry as we know it today.
Patek Philippe, 1839
The story of Patek Phillipe spans 175 years — nearly a third of the entire history of watchmaking.
It began on May 1st, 1839, in Geneva, where its headquarters still resides to this day. Polish watchmaker Antoni Patek and his partner Franciszek Czapek began there making and selling pocket watches. But in 1844, they parted ways, and Patek joined forces with the French watchmaker and inventor of the keyless winding mechanism, Adrien Philippe.
The pair teamed up and in 1851, Patek Philippe & Co was born. Since then, the company has gone on to become one of the world’s most prestigious watch manufacturers. Some of its innovations and accomplishments include the chronograph, perpetual calendar, split-seconds hand, and minute repeater — an enviable list of complications that’s displayed in its model line which includes some of the most complex and expensive vintage watches ever made.
Going back a little further, to 1832, to the small Swiss town of Saint Imier, and we find Auguste Agassiz, a trained banker, again making and selling pocket watches from his family home.
In those days, this was how most watchmakers worked. But in a bid to change this, Auguste Agassiz founded the Saint-Imier watchmaking establishment with his two brothers in law, and with help from his connections in the US, began expanding operations and making huge success abroad.
Today, Longines is known for many things, including being the official timekeeper of the French Open and the oldest vintage watch brand (registered) in the world. It’s watches are elegant with a sporty edge and continue to be admired internationally for their heritage and craftsmanship.
Even further into the past and to France this time where — albeit Swiss-born — Abraham-Louis Breguet famously patented the tourbillon while laying the foundations of his today world-renowned watchmaking company.
Abraham-Louis moved to Paris for an apprenticeship and soon started his own workshop, making watches for his connections among the French aristocracy and members of the European nobility. He was forced to leave during the Revolution, but returned in 1795 to build the business we know today as Breguet.
Abraham-Louis is considered by many as the father of modern watchmaking. And the company is known for making some of the most accurate, luxurious, and complex watches around — all the while managing to graciously pay homage to its roots and the art of watchmaking.
Jean-Marc Vacheron, another young, independent watchmaker from Geneva, Switzerland, founded Vacheron Constantin in 1755. And as it has been in continuous operation since this date, it claims the grand title of being the oldest vintage watch brand still in existence.
Producing mainly clocks and pocket watches at first, Jean-Marc Vacheron was a master watchmaker with a style that was revered for its delicacy and beauty. And these qualities are exactly why the business has been so successful. The company employs artisanal watchmaking techniques such as engraving, enameling, guilloché, and gem-setting, along with exceptional care and workmanship. It’s no surprise, then, that Vacheron Constantin has won many coveted chronometry awards and gained widespread recognition at a scale that most brands can only dream of.