01/02/2024
 5 minutes

Audemars Piguet vs Rolex – A Battle of Two Behemoths

By Aaron Voyles
ONP-763-2-1-vs

Founded in 1905 in London by Hans Wilsdorf and his brother-in-law Alfred Davis, Rolex began its life as “Wilsdorf & Davis.” They started out importing watch cases from Dennison and movements from Aegler and assembling them in England for distribution worldwide. In 1908, following just three years in business, the name “Rolex” was trademarked and became the brand name for W&D’s timepieces. Seven years later, the company was officially renamed “Rolex Watch Co. Ltd,” and the brand we know began to take shape.

Rolex-Day-Date-1-1
Rolex Day-Date 

In 1919, in the aftermath of World War I, Rolex relocated to Geneva to avoid the high taxes the English government introduced on luxury imports and exports, including gold and silver. Following this move, the company was registered as “Montres Rolex SA,” which later turned into “Rolex SA,” the name we know today. Despite undergoing a rather tumultuous time getting started, Rolex still managed to create high-performing timepieces. In fact, a Rolex was the first-ever wristwatch to receive the Swiss Certificate of Chronometric Precision in 1910. Four years later, another Rolex was awarded a class “A” precision certificate from the Kew Observatory, a distinction previously reserved for marine chronometers. Following these early days in Geneva, Rolex has continued to grow their list of accomplishments such as creating the Oyster case, the first hermetically-sealed case in 1926, and one of the earliest automatic movements in 1931, among other impressive innovations.

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar

In contrast to Rolex’s rather unorthodox start in life as a watchmaker, Audemars Piguet began in a significantly more traditional manner. Founded by watchmakers Jules Louis Audemars and Edward Auguste Piguet in 1875 in Le Brassus, Switzerland, the brand was named Audemars Piguet & Cie in 1881. Catering to each of the two founders’ strengths – Audemars’ being the production of complicated movements and Piguet’s the regulation of movements – they split responsibilities. Audemars was in charge of production and other technical watchmaking aspects, and Piguet focused on sales, admin, and general management of the company.

While it was a partnership similar to Rolex, AP’s business model was fundamentally different to Rolex’s in that they opted to create artisanal, handmade, complicated timepieces in extremely low quantities, while also collaborating with local craftsmen in their surrounding area. This was in contrast to the increasing industrialization that was beginning to grip the watchmaking industry’s methods of production. However, this same industrialization is what Rolex embraced from the beginning, thereby highlighting the two brand’s most significant difference: their craftsmanship.

Craftmanship & Quality

While Rolex timepieces have always been of excellent quality compared to other watches from the same era, their craftmanship is not entirely on par with that of Audemars Piguet. After all, Rolex produces approximately 1–1.2 million timepieces annually, and AP produces about 50,000. With such a large-scale operation, Rolex uses more machines to make their timepieces and far fewer watchmaker hours to build them. With AP spending approximately 30–99 watchmaker hours per watch versus Rolex’s 3–6 hours per watch, AP’s timepieces often feature things that Rolex’s timepieces don’t, such as guilloché-engraved dials, hand-finished movements, and carefully constructed cases with polished bevels, etc.

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Tourbillon – the very best in Swiss watchmaking
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Tourbillon

However, while AP’s timepieces certainly display greater craftsmanship than Rolex’s, the difference in quality is not as vast as one might assume. Rolex’s build quality is among the best in the watchmaking space; their bracelets and cases are incredibly robust and their movements famously reliable. Rolex’s movements are often so far ahead of their time that the brand can use a movement for 20+ years without any issue. AP’s movements are also reliable, but due to their greater complexity, they can be prone to issues. Also, it’s worth mentioning that AP’s more complicated movements, such as those in their chronographs, sometimes feature modules attached to base movements, which can create performance issues – a practice that Rolex does not subscribe to, given their commitment to developing timeless technologies.

Technology & Functionality

As mentioned, Rolex has produced some of watchmaking’s most important technologies, such as the hermetically-sealed Oyster case and Perpetual movement, both of which are now industry standards. However, it doesn’t end there. With a rich history of creating dive watches, Rolex also invented the helium escape valve, a technology that allows the release of gases from the inside of a watch case to ensure the watch’s crystal doesn’t pop off underwater due to built-up pressure, the patent for which was granted to Rolex in 1967.

Rolex Sea-Dweller 40001996 Sea Dweller Ref- 16600 with Helium Escape Valve
Rolex Sea-Dweller ref. 16600 with a helium escape valve

Beyond those significant developments, there are several slightly more minor technologies that Rolex created to improve the functionality of their timepieces, such as the Parachrom hairspring in 2000, which enhances anti-magnetism and shock-resistance, among other things, and the ceramic bezel that debuted in 2005 on the GMT-Master II.

In contrast to Rolex’s methods, Audemars Piguet have focused on creating new and unique complications, such as the first jump-hour wristwatch in 1921, the first automatic tourbillon in 1986 – a complication that is now commonplace in haute horlogerie – as well as other accomplishments like their litany of ultra-thin movements with a variety of complications and grand complication timepieces that are staggeringly complex. In essence, Rolex vs. AP, from a technological standpoint, is a tale of two different styles.

Models & Collections

At the heart of both brands lies a foundational aesthetic identity upon which most of their models are built. For Rolex, that is the Oyster Perpetual, and for Audemars Piguet, it is the Royal Oak. While there are models from Rolex that do not build upon the Oyster Perpetual, the vast majority of their collections do, thanks to the prevalence of waterproof cases and automatic movements in their offerings (hence the “Oyster” and “Perpetual” inscriptions on Rolex dials). This can be seen in virtually all of their modern collections, except for the Cellini and 1908.

Rolex Oyster Perpetual Datejust 41 Ref. 126334
Rolex Oyster Perpetual Datejust 41 ref. 126334

On the other hand, following the launch of the Royal Oak sports watch in 1972, Audemars Piguet have shifted their focus from crafting traditional dress watches to creating variants of the Royal Oak with different complications. In 1993, they launched the Royal Oak Offshore, a sportier collection of the Royal Oak, and in 2002, they launched the Royal Oak Concept, a collection dedicated to showcasing AP’s horological might.

In the meantime, AP scaled down their production of dress watches such as the Jules Audemars, Edward Piguet, and Millenary. In 2019, however, AP launched the Code 11.59, which re-opened AP’s stake in the dress watch space, while paying homage to the Royal Oak with its octagonal mid-case.

Price & Resale

While they are two very different types of watchmakers, one thing that Rolex and Audemars Piguet indeed share is strong secondary market performance. While AP’s average MSRP is roughly five times higher than Rolex’s ($50,000 vs. $10,000), the two watchmakers enjoy some of the industry’s highest levels of secondary market demand. Most of their current offerings sell for premiums, and their discontinued, neo-vintage, and vintage models all show strong demand and steady increases in value over time, proving their worth as stores of value.

So, Audemars Piguet vs. Rolex: Who wins?

It’s hard to say which of the two watchmakers is better. Sure, AP have better craftsmanship than Rolex, but artisanal watchmaking isn’t what Rolex is about; it’s reliability and robustness, which Rolex does beat AP at. If a hand-crafted artisanal timepiece is what you are after, then AP certainly wins the battle. That’s not to say Rolexes aren’t well-made, but Audemars Piguet occupies a place within the Holy Trinity of what are considered the best watchmakers around for a reason: Their timepieces are functional pieces of art. In contrast, Rolex’s are functional tools; and therein lies the difference.


About the Author

Aaron Voyles

I love everything about watchmaking, from the artistry of their design to the engineering hidden within their movements and the history that breathes life into their stories.

Read more

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