The Ultimate Guide To The Best Watch Brands For Women

Time well spent.

Words by Brynn Wallner

The current state of the watch world can be best understood with a quick trip to your local Rolex boutique. Walk in, and you will discover empty shelves, metaphorically representing the lack of watch supply against a backdrop of pandemic-induced demand. In other words, the industry is booming, and women want a piece of the pie.

In 2021, the sales of Swiss watches were around $23 billion, with the secondary market also undergoing a significant spike (poised to grow more than half the size of the primary market by 2025, per McKinsey). According to a luxury watch market report via Mordor Intelligence, “the use of accessories to improve one’s looks is a common fashion trend … therefore, contributing toward the growth of the luxury watch market.” Reading this earnest sentence in the context of a serious analytical report left me giggling. Of course, luxury accessories are used to elevate one’s image—that couldn’t be more obvious.

But if you think about it in gendered terms, you realize why high-end watches have been so coveted amongst men, specifically. Guys couldn’t exactly rock a Chanel bag or Manolo heels to signify their status, so they took to Rolexes and Pateks. Now, it’s not uncommon to see a man toting a handbag (I’m thinking of Jacob Elordi and his little Bottega purse), but, traditionally, men had their watches, and ladies had their pick of everything else.

This wasn’t always the case. Did you know that the first wristwatches were actually worn by women? In 1868, Countess Koscowicz of Hungary commissioned Patek Philippe to create a piece of jewelry that doubled as a watch, setting a female-forward trend for timepieces that were simultaneously ornamental and functional. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that men started to ditch their pocket watches for wristwatches. (There’s a lot of debate around who manufactured the first official wristwatch for men, but for this story, let’s go with Louis Cartier, who designed the Cartier Santos-Dumont in 1904 for his pilot friend, offering them at a larger scale to the public in 1911.)

It’s difficult to believe that wristwatches were never not en vogue for guys, considering how rampantly drooled over they are among finance bros and rich dudes. And, certainly, women have been enthusiasts, too (for centuries now!), but it seems that only now, we’re less quiet about it. We ladies are getting written up in practically every major news outlet, with headlines declaring a rapidly growing, highly opinionated consumer segment. We’re fatigued by the lazy “pink it and shrink it” method that many watch brands have traditionally leaned on for women’s pieces (think: Let’s just take a man’s watch and make it smaller and pink). We want more! We want better!

Luckily, there are some standout watch brands that have been intentionally designing watches with female-identifying wearers in mind. So, without further ado, a list of our top 10 best watch brands for women.

| 1 | Cartier – Panthère de Cartier

Even if you’re a total outsider to the watch world, you’re likely familiar with Cartier’s most famous watch, the Cartier Tank. Designed in 1917, it rose to icon status throughout the course of the century, gracing the wrists of superstars like Duke Ellington, Gary Cooper, Jackie Kennedy, Andy Warhol, Princess Diana … the list goes on. Its smallish size, and varying iterations have rendered this watch gender neutral since day one, which can be said for many of Cartier’s pieces. The maison’s creative, pioneering spirit is the reason why Cartier remains ever relevant today. (In fact, Cartier just surpassed Omega as the second-largest Swiss watch brand behind Rolex, according to Morgan Stanley’s 2022 Swiss Watches report.) My very first luxury watch was a Cartier, a small steel Tank Française that cost a mere $3,400 (a quaint price tag compared to its competitors offerings), and I wholeheartedly recommend the brand to any woman looking to start or expand her collection. Or if you’re an aspiring It girl, may we recommend a gold Panthère?

| 2 | Audemars Piguet – Royal Oak Selfwinding

Conceived in 1875 by watchmakers Jules Louis Audemars and Edward Auguste Piguet in the leeetle Swiss town of Le Brassus, Audemars Piguet remains family owned today. It’s an “indie,” yes, but it’s a powerhouse, ranking in the Big Four of watch manufacturers alongside fellow privately owned companies Rolex, Richard Mille, and Patek Philippe. AP’s most iconic model is its Royal Oak, designed in the early ’70s by the renowned Gérald Genta (or “GG,” affectionately), with the ladies version following in 1976 by female designer Jacqueline Dimier. The Royal Oak was kind of a flop at the start (why would anyone buy such an expensive steel sports watch??), but over time, it achieved legend status with varying iterations listed, notably, without gender labels—a signal to the consumer that the Royal Oak, along with the rest of AP’s watches, are for everyone. I’m especially fond of the frosted gold models, created in collaboration with jewelry designer Carolina Bucci using a “Florentine finish.” Ugh, the glamour. And if you can’t afford a Royal Oak, I recommend also checking out vintage APs on the secondary market, focusing on funky designs from the ’70s and ’80s for a more avant-garde look.

| 3 | Hermès – Cape Cod watch, Large model, 37 mm

When buying a luxury watch, one of the questions you must ask yourself is whether you want a timepiece or a “fashion watch.” More on that later, but first, let’s talk about Hermès and how it has successfully transcended the “fashion watch” label, emerging as a serious competitor in the watchmaking world. Steady horological creations turned even the snobbiest watch enthusiasts’ heads, and in 2021, its sales broke into the top 20 group of Swiss watchmakers for the first time. The selection for women and men alike is classy, well designed, and—bonus!—its strapped offerings are made with that buttery Hermès leather. The preppy, oft double-wrapped Cape Cod watch has achieved star status among names like Madonna, Stella Tennant, Gwyneth Paltrow, and even Punk’D-era Ashton Kutcher. Then there’s my personal favorite, the Kelly Watch, whose dangling lock renders it so impractical that it feels like magic.

| 4 | Piaget – Limelight Gala High Jewelry Watch

Many of you reading this may associate the name “Piaget” with haute jewelry and ball gowns, but, as with its jewelry, this Swiss brand constantly pushes the limits of existing know-how in luxury timepieces. Piaget’s defining era came in the ’60s when, building upon high-end horological creations, the brand focused on creativity and style, releasing the world’s first dials made of hard stone. Think deep blue lapis hues, dreamy green jadeite … it was love at first sight for the fashion-obsessed elite like Elizabeth Taylor, Jackie Kennedy, and Sophia Loren. Additionally, Piaget’s friendship with Salvador Dalí resulted in a limited-edition collection of watches and jewelry with coins from the Dalí mint, catapulting the brand into high-art world status. My favorite piece came about in 1979: the Polo, designed for serious polo players and jet-setters alike. I’m truly obsessed with the (vintage) version of this watch, with its integrated bracelet and subtle dial. Today, Piaget continues to push the envelope with genre- (and gender-) bending designs, luxurious and jewelry-forward.

| 5 | Seiko – SXGL62P9 Watch

The world of luxury watches can be extremely snobby, and oftentimes, a watch isn’t regarded with respect unless it’s made in Switzerland. But then, there’s Seiko, a Japanese brand founded in 1881 that has since achieved household-name status. Due to its accessible price point, many watch wearers start with Seikos, continuing to wear them even as their collection elevates. Why? Because Seikos are reliable, stylishly designed, and practical. You can also thank Seiko for the introduction of the quartz movement to the mainstream in the ’60s. A quartz-powered watch (versus one that relies on an intricate, expensive mechanical movement) may be frowned upon by the hard-core watch heads; but in fact, many luxury watches run on it. The Cartier I’m wearing right now is equipped with a quartz movement (and if, conversely, my Cartier were equipped with an automatic movement, I wouldn’t have been able to afford it). I also happen to own a vintage ladies Seiko diver watch (my “baby diver,” affectionately). She runs on an automatic movement! So … get you a watch brand that can do both. Pro tip: Scour eBay for a vintage Seiko; there are some insanely creative designs from the ’70s and ’80s that are more relevant today than ever.

| 6 | Gucci – Grip Watch

Okay, back to the “fashion watch” conversation brought up in the Hermès section: When buying a luxury watch, one of the questions you must ask yourself is whether you want a timepiece or a “fashion watch.” Fashion watches tend to come at lower price points and provide more seasonal, trend-forward options. But these designs, by nature, reduce their lifespan, compared to more classic, luxury timepieces. But here’s another question to ask yourself: Why are you buying a watch? Because you love the way it looks? Because you want to wear it every day? Because you want to be able to tell the time? If you’ve answered yes to the above questions, a fashion watch will do the trick—and brands like Gucci have the license to play around and create exciting pieces for any level of enthusiast. Take the Gucci Grip Watch, which has a “grip” (hehe) on watch heads and fashionistas alike. Its streamlined design and concealed dial makes for a visually stimulating and highly wearable piece. There’s also the Grip Sapphire, which debuted at this year’s Watches and Wonders show—the Grip design rendered in colorful shades of Sapphire, which, admittedly, appeals to my inner child with its slight resemblance to the ’90s jelly shoes. Check it out, and you’ll see what I mean.

| 7 | Bulgari – Serpenti Tubogas Watch

Rooted in Roman heritage and validated by Swiss watchmaking expertise, Bulgari stands out among the luxury sector. Originally a jeweler, the brand expanded to offer what is today a globally renowned experience in both jewelry and watchmaking. Bulgari watches are distinct and decidedly unusual, with offerings like the Serpenti, which is fantastical and iconic without feeling over-designed. The Serpenti alone, in fact, is what landed Bulgari on this list—available in single, double, triple, and, occasionally, penta (!!!) wrapped designs, this slinky, snake-inspired timepiece is one of the few watches that would feel at home on the wrist of someone wearing anything from a ball gown to jeans and a T-shirt. It’s a statement, for sure, but if you’re going to say something, you might as well say it with a Serpenti.

| 8 | Jaeger-LeCoultre – Reverso Classic Small watch

Founded in 1833, Jaeger-LeCoultre (pronounced “zjay-zjay ley-coolt”) has been acknowledged since the 19th century as the “Grande Maison” of the Vallée de Joux (one of Switzerland’s cradles of high-end watchmaking). With more than 200 patents and more than 1,000 different calibers developed and crafted in house, it is one of the most important, innovative players in watchmaking history. One of JLC’s most famous clients is Queen Elizabeth II, who wore a teeny-tiny, diamond-set Caliber 101 to her coronation in 1953. To the naked eye, this jewelry-forward piece passed as a bracelet, with the watch placed ever so subtly, allowing for discrete time checking (considered uncouth for women at the time). Jaeger-LeCoultre boasts icons like the Reverso, the Duoplan, and the Atmos; not to mention the fact that the maison has supplied movements to some of Switzerland’s most prestigious brands, such as Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, and Audemars Piguet. The Reverso remains one of my all-time favorite timepieces, named after the fact that its case can be flipped over—an ingenious design move that allowed for polo players in the 1930s to protect the glass of the watch during matches. At Watches and Wonders this year, I was lucky enough to try on the new Rendez-Vous watch, romantically depicting a moving shooting star on the dial at unpredictable intervals. True watchmaking magic!

| 9 | BREDA – Play (Recycled Plastic) Watch

I’m including BREDA on this list, because by bullet number 10, you may feel financially burdened just thinking about buying one of these aforementioned watches. BREDA is a small, independent watch brand based not in Switzerland, but Dallas, Texas. With a strong and consistent team leading design, BREDA has developed methods, materials, and supplier partnerships that have allowed it to create truly elevated products that don’t reflect a traditional retail markup. Despite my fancy collection, I wear my BREDA Play watch frequently, and Emily Ratajkowski has been spotted in SoHo walking her dog, wearing the Specularite. BREDA designs are playful, timeless, and stylish, with prices ranging from $110 to $210. If you don’t own a watch, and you’re unsure of where to start, I highly recommend BREDA just to get a feel for wearing a watch on your wrist. It is an acquired taste, so best to start somewhere! With that “somewhere” being BREDA, you’re in good hands.

 

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This story originally published on harpersbazaar.com