The Beckertime Rivalry Series: Patek Philippe versus Rolex
For this week’s ‘Rivalry’ article, we are taking the list of most recognizable Swiss watch brands on the planet and pitting number one against number three—Rolex versus Patek Philippe (number two is Omega, in case you were wondering).
And even though this is a straight up fight, I’m going to break with convention and tell you the result from the get-go; we are not going to have a winner here for the simple reason that our two competitors are playing very different games.
Yes, I know, at their heart both companies are luxury watchmakers. However, they are geared to operate in totally separate spheres of the market and produce their watches in vastly different numbers. What’s more, there is also a massive discrepancy in the amount they sell those pieces for.
But, what we can do is lay out all the areas one might consider before purchasing a new watch and see how each of our brands measures up.
The Beckertime Rivalry Series: Patek Philippe versus Rolex: Popularity
To gauge the relative popularities of these behemoths of horology we can take two metrics into account; sales and reputation.
The former is, of course, a no contest. Rolex raked in an estimated $13bn in retail sales last year, accounting for an incredible one-fifth of worldwide watch sales. That equates to a 22.2% market share, comfortably beating not just Patek, but also every other Swiss watchmaker out there.
To put that into perspective, Patek’s by no means poor sales amount to around $1.5bn every year, taking up 5.7% of the market.
But, that is a little disingenuous, and is loosely tied in with the second of our criteria; popularity.
Put simply, Patek doesn’t want to sell as many watches as Rolex. The clients they are marketing to—the highest level CEOs, C-Suite executives, millionaires, billionaires and straight up royalty—are obsessed with exclusivity, the absolute benchmark of luxury. They want the piece on their wrist to display, preferably with the least amount of grandiosity, that they are part of the elite, an almost unique specimen in the domains in which they move, and it is difficult to do that if every colleague and his granny is wearing the same watch. Not for nothing are Pateks known colloquially as the ‘Rolls Royce of watches’ or, more snobbily, the ‘rich man’s Rolex’.
If Patek wanted to sell more watches, they could do so quite easily by producing more. But that rather misses the point. It is that scarcity which makes the brand as revered as it is. Famously, where Rolex builds somewhere in the region of one million watches every year, Patek still hasn’t made that many since the company was founded in 1839.
So, is Rolex the lesser brand? Absolutely not, they just have a different remit. While they may artificially manufacture exclusivity by restricting supply to their retail network, they are driven by popular demand. Ask anyone to name a luxury watchmaker, and it is practically a guarantee that Rolex is the first name out of their mouths. You actually have to know watches to know Patek Philippe, whereas you only have to be breathing to know Rolex.
They are the brand which, no matter how conservative many of their creations are in the great scheme of things, shouts about the success and status of the wearer. They are worn by those who have no qualms in telling the world they have ‘made it’. You’ll find them on the wrists of every A-lister, sports legend, rock star and rapper you come across, along with anyone else who has reached a certain level of accomplishment.
Rolex is the watch you grow up wanting to buy, in the same way as you wanted the Ferrari in the poster you pinned to your childhood bedroom wall. A Patek is bought, more often than not, by those who grew up already having the best of everything.
In short, people love Rolex, but those in the know idolize Patek Philippe.
The Beckertime Rivalry Series: Patek Philippe versus Rolex: Quality
One thing neither brand suffers from is a lack of quality. In fact, each has built their reputation on producing watches which are a byword for flawless excellence but, again, in different aspects.
With Patek, their focus has long been on becoming the ultimate in haute horlogerie—extremely complex, technically bewildering pieces, usually housed in some of the most elegant dress watches ever to grace the industry. This is the brand, after all, which gave us the perpetual calendar, the minute repeater and the split seconds chronograph complications, as well as the wristwatch itself.
All these mechanical marvels take an extremely long time to devise and build and, as Patek does the vast majority of their work by hand, it explains why they have made so few during their history, relatively speaking.
At Rolex, their main mission has always been to create the toughest, most enduring watches you can buy—tool and sports models designed to withstand the harshest treatment and environments while still looking perfectly at home paired with a dinner suit at a fancy gala. That’s not to say they don’t make dress watches as well, and superb ones, but they are first and foremost watches for the world’s adventurers, created to last several lifetimes. So the two couldn’t really be any further apart when it comes to their intended owners and their designs reflect as such.
One major discrepancy when talking about quality concerns the level of finishing each brand dedicates to its watches.
The level of decoration Patek commits to on all elements is nothing short of extraordinary. From the dial to the case and, especially, the movement, everything is painstakingly hand finished over endless hours. Edges are beveled for razor sharpness, surfaces are polished for the ultimate shine, caliber bridges receive circular graining or the gentle abrasion of Patek’s renowned Geneva stripes—or ‘Côtes de Genève’. Everything is arduously, meticulously, immaculately performed to produce a piece of time telling jewelry worthy of the Patek name.
Rolex, by contrast, stays true to its market and has a much more industrial aspect to its finishing. This is a mass-produced product after all and, although much of it is still performed by hand, there is far more automation involved with, for example, sometimes 20 or 30 cases being polished at the same time by one technician. On top of that, nothing in the Rolex catalog has a display case back to allow wearers to see the movement, unlike over at Patek. As a result, while there are still some beautiful techniques deployed on the various components inside, it doesn’t quite measure up when compared with PP.
The Beckertime Rivalry Series: Patek Philippe versus Rolex: Icons
Again, this is very much a ‘take your pick’ debate.
Of the two manufactures, it is perhaps Rolex which has more models whose names would be familiar to the layman. Or, if not the name, many would recognize the look of Rolex’s biggest hits over those from Patek.
The Submariner, the GMT-Master and the Daytona are all bona fide superstars, pieces which have crossed over into the category of design icon, identifiable by most people whether they have an interest in watches or not. And there is an argument for standing the venerable Datejust up as being the blueprint for what a watch should look like since 1945.
Fewer people would be able to name something like a Patek Calatrava, a Gondolo or a Golden Ellipse at first glance unless they had a special interest in the brand. Even the modern day luminaries, the Nautilus and the Aquanaut, are unlikely to turn the heads of the horology outsider unless you leave the price tag on.
Does that mean Rolex’s watches are more ‘iconic’ (whatever you take that overworked term to mean) than Patek’s? Well, if you use the definition of ‘widely recognized and well-established’then, yes, probably. Of course, the same goes for the brands themselves overall. ‘Rolex’ is, as discussed, simply a quicker way of saying ‘luxury watch’ in most people’s minds.
But something like the Nautilus can only be described as an icon, created by perhaps the greatest watch designer in history, Gerald Genta, and is partly responsible for kicking off an entirely new genre of watches.
So, each company has its share of celebrities, its just Rolex probably has more of them.
The Beckertime Rivalry Series: Patek Philippe versus Rolex: Prices
This is another no-contest.
Right across the board, from entry level to top-of-the-range, Patek Philippe is the more expensive brand. That is to be expected, when you take into account things like scale, complications and the amount of handcrafting involved.
However, neither manufacture exactly falls under the ‘affordable’ banner.
Patek’s cheapest watch costs around $20,000, while Rolex’s is about $5,500.
If you take a look at the price lists for either, Rolex have weighted the majority of their offerings around the $10,000 to $30,000 mark, whereas Pateks live in the $30,000 to $60,000+ range.
That’s not to say each brand doesn’t go significantly higher. You will see plenty of the ominous ‘Price on Request’ headings on both websites, a phrase which has never signaled good news for anyone’s bank account. It’s just Patek has far more of them.
One area where things do tend to level out a touch is resale value. Out of all the watchmakers in the world, it is these two which consistently perform the best as investments. In fact, you could say they are the only two which provide any kind of security in that area at all.
Vintage examples from either (providing you choose the right models) can skyrocket in value over the years, and the worst case scenario with both is that even their least popular pieces should at least maintain their worth given enough time.
So, as I said at the beginning, we are not choosing a winner today. Everyone will have their favorites out of the two brands under the microscope here, and it is normally based on the length of time they have been interested in watches. Rolex is usually the first love, Patek more generally the last.
Yet, Rolex always seems to have more critics than Patek. You will hear ‘experts’ decry their ubiquitous nature and consequent lack of exclusivity, or their victory of marketing over substance. As wide of the mark as these brickbats are, you will very rarely come across anyone with a bad word to say about Patek.
But it is all a bit like comparing Tom Brady to Roger Federer. Both are the best in the world at what they do, they just do very different things.
— Featured Photo: BeckerTime’s Archive.