- The Swiss watch industry had a banner year in 2021, exporting a record $21.5 billion in timepieces.
- Sales of top brands like Rolex, Patek Philippe, and Audemars Piguet are climbing while affordable brands fall.
- Among the upper echelon of brands, interest tends to focus around specific watch models.
Powered in large part by a pandemic-era interest in luxury watches, sales of Swiss timepieces reached a new high in 2021, with their export value topping $21.5 billion.
At the same time, industry figures show this record value came from selling half as many units last year as were sold a decade ago.
While brands like Rolex, Patek Philippe, and Audemars Piguet garner most of the attention — and profits — smaller brands are getting more expensive too.
Oris CEO Rolf Studer told The Wall Street Journal the average retail price of a Swiss watch has gone up by about 50% since 2019.
Oliver Müller, founder consulting firm LuxeConsult, suggested to the Journal that chasing the wealthiest customers could end poorly for the industry.
"It's a risky game: They have to be very careful not to make it too small and too exclusive," he said.
Müller added that further reductions in volume could lead to parts shortages and a loss of the craftsmanship and skill needed to keep smaller players in business.
But even among the upper echelon of brands, consumer and collector interest tends to congregate fiercely around specific models, Watch Charts founder Charles Tian told Insider.
"It's been very concentrated in a few specific brands, and outside of Rolex, it's really even concentrated in a few specific collections or families," Tian said of the secondary market.
Within the Rolex brand, Tian's data show higher-priced models like the Daytona or Yacht Master appreciate at a faster rate than more entry-level lines like the Datejust or Day-Date, signaling stronger demand for top-line pieces.
Another example is Patek Philippe's Nautilus Ref 5711, which originally retailed for $30,000, but now easily commands six figures. The iconic steel sport watch got so popular that Patek president Thierry Stern felt it was detracting from the company's other models.
"I have still no idea why suddenly, the success [of this watch] came so fast and went so high," Stern told CNBC last year. "But what I know is that I do not want to be a mono-product company. So this is why I stopped the 5711. We made enough of it."
For all of the beauty and artisanship that goes into a $500 Swiss watch, those are generally competing with something that's both more utilitarian and multifunctional: an Apple Watch.
By contrast, breaking into the $3,000 range means you're not buying this item to tell time, and crossing the $30,000 threshold puts you in a much rarer place altogether.
Whether that's a good thing for the industry remains to be seen.