A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but its Latin name, Rosa rubiginosa sounds more like a knock-off Italian rosé than a flower. Needless to say, that no matter what The Bard once announced (admittedly to try and get someone into bed), a name does have an impact. That’s as true of watches as it is of plants and wines. And there are indeed a lot of watch brand names out there. I’m not about to take a stab at how many, considering by the time I’ll have finished writing this, never mind when you actually read it, I’ll be vastly out of date. Suffice it to say that many a watchmaker has painstakingly crafted a persona that’s enticing to a collector, starting with the name on the dial.
Granted most of the time that’s just the founder of the company. That’s by far the most common type of watch brand name out there, ranging from your Breguets and F.P. Journes to your Fearses and Christopher Wards. Most watchmakers with a bit of history can be traced back to their founders who, especially in the older brands, would have originally signed their dials as individuals. Collectors would then start to recognise the name and voila, you have brand recognition.
In many instances, two watchmakers joined together to form a brand: Audemars Piguet is Jules Louis Audemars and Edward Auguste Piguet; Jaeger-LeCoultre is Edmond Jaeger and Antoine LeCoultre and Patek Philippe is Antoni Patek and Adrien Philippe. All ended up greater than the sum of their parts, sharing space on the same dials.
These days though, some names have tried to grab that brand recognition without actually having a solid link to the past. Arnold & Son, for example, is named after John Arnold, famed British watchmaker of yore, while Graham is named for Georges Graham, a watchmaker working in London all the way back in 1695. Both brands are modern, Swiss watchmakers that just wanted a name with some horological heft to it. Which isn’t the worst thing in the world; it’s always good to keep the conversation around historical British watchmaking alive.
If it’s not named after a founder, the second most common – or even tacked on, too – is a place name. Every watchmaker based in Glashutte uses the name as a byword for excellence, just with different first halves to differentiate them, and Parmigiani Fleurier is just that, founded by Michel Parmigiani in Fleurier. They’re not inventive watch brand names, but they don’t need to be. Oh, and although it might not seem it, the same goes for Oris, which was named after a brook near the factory, and Longines, named after the ‘Long Meadows’ field next to their Saint-Imier manufacture.
IWC Schaffhausen takes a similar approach, but in perhaps the least inventive way possible: International Watch Company. Founder Florentine Ariosto Jones wanted to ship watches to his home country and, as he was from the United States, needed to be very literal. Fortunately, it sounds a lot better as IWC.
Then we come to a fun little sub-genre of watch name, the -ex. There’s an apocryphal story bandied about – mainly by Rolex – that when Hans Wilsdorf was coming up with a name, he wanted one that everyone could say. Which is a bit harsh to the Japanese, given neither R nor L exists. It’s also said he thought it was onomatopoeic, sounding like the winding of a watch, but I can’t hear myself. The simpler explanation is that it sounded good, and Rolex weren’t the only company to realise that. The -ex in Rolex, Timex, (Duckworth) Prestex, Vertex et al is generally just considered to have no specific meaning. It was just a cool- sounding suffix that, at the time, sounded modern, high-tech and vaguely Latin. Many watch brands – as is the case with Timex – just did it because other brands around at the time were doing it. Incidentally, Timex is based on Kleenex (the tissues) rather than Rolex. It was a trend, like the use of -ly these days for apps.
Some watch brands instead look internally for their names. Hublot, for example, comes from the French for porthole, referring to the rounded, screwed bezel of the brand’s early models (and an aesthetic that’s still around today). Zenith on the other hand isn’t named after the word for success; it’s named after an incredibly successful movement they made, back at the Paris World’s Fair of 1900 when they were still George Farve-Jacot & Co. The movement though was named Zenith for just that reason.
The same goes for Omega, whose name switched from La Generale Watch Co to its current form back in 1903 thanks to their incredibly successful Omega Calibre. Omega in this instance doesn’t mean the counterpart to Alpha – the be all and end all – but is instead a reference to the Greek deity Chronos, from which we get most words for time. Same concept as Zenith, slightly less obvious execution – and they’re not the only ones borrowing from Greek. Doxa is the Greek word for ‘glory’, so a name with high aspirations for a Cousteau favourite dive brand.
Other thematic names include Montblanc (yes, I know it’s a peak, but the company named itself after the concept of reaching the top rather than the physical peak), Zodiac (named after the stars, of course) and Seiko means ‘exquisite’, ‘minute’ or ‘success’ in Japanese. But what’s better than one concept in a name? Two. That’s when you end up with portmanteaus like Ressence – a mix of Renaissance and Essence for the Belgian watch brand.
While most of these sorts of names are aspirational, one most definitely is not: Swatch. Swatch is instead a contraction of Second Watch, echoing their position as cheap, often disposable accessories, rather than a serious grail piece. It’s the kind of self-depreciation that I as a Brit can truly appreciate.
And there you have it. Not all of it of course; as I opened with, there are far too many names to go through everything in the industry. Most of the time though they’re the founder; otherwise, they’re the location. Failing all that the name could come from the distillation of a concept – and if all else fails, just assume someone picked it because is sounded cool.