High Horology is exactly the kind of fancy term that people outside the watch industry find baffling, but really just means fine or high-quality watchmaking. Also regularly referred to using the French words "Haute Horologie", it is used to describe watches created using the finest techniques, with the most complicated functions, and the most intricate details. Some people mix the terms up and say Haute Horology, and also People might say High-End Horology, meaning the luxury, or highest quality watches available. All of these terms refer to the same thing.
What is Horology?
Firstly, it's worth remembering what Horology means. It is simply the study, science and manufacture of time-keeping pieces, including clocks and watches. It is often just referred to as "The Study of Time", although this isn't really correct, as it is NOT about studying the nature of time. That is an area of Physics. Horology is about the machines we use to measure time, from the largest tower clock to the smallest wristwatch. A Horologist is someone interested in timepieces. Most people assume someone who refers to themselves as a Horologist will be more focused on clocks than watches. Confusingly, if we say someone is interested in High Horology we would assume they are interested in watches. Why these terms are used like this is a mystery.
Vacheron Constantin Overseas Perpetual Calendar Ultra-Thin in Rose Gold
What is High Horology or Haute Horologie?
The markers of a watch that could be described as High Horology are not well defined. There are many aspects that go into fine watchmaking, and different brands will prioritise different aspects of quality and craftsmanship and be counted as High Horology. The following examples will demonstrate some of the key aspects of High Horology.
These two watches from Lange & Sohne have every part inside and out hand-finished in some way. They build the watch once, then take it apart and polish or finish every single part in some specific way. This gives it a very fancy look and effects when you see it in person. Surprisingly, they even do this to the parts that you can't see. This type of finishing is one of the things that set the brand apart and means that its entire range is regarded as High Horology.
Lange & Sohne Zeitwerk Minute Repeater. It plays the sound of the time and has a decimal display. The finishing of every surface of every part is exceptional.
This Lange & Sohne watch has an incredible brown gold dial which has been very intricately finished by hand.
Interesting, innovative and non-standard movements
The movement is the mechanism that powers the watch. Patek Philippe makes complicated movements of their own design. While they may be based on historic mechanisms, every single movement produced today by Patek Philippe, including this Perpetual Calendar watch, was designed by them and is unique to them. They will also often contain features and functions that no one else can make, and contain a very large number of different parts. Unusual and complicated movements are a sign of Haute Horologie.
Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendar Retrograde in Platinum
Exotic Functions or Complications
This watch below from Breguet has an Equation of Time complication, or function. This is a separate hand that shows how much the actual position of the sun in the sky deviates from the time we use as noon, since our calendar is very slightly out of alignment for convenience. The small sun on the end of the hand is the indicator, and at its most different, it would be 16 minutes different to the actual minute hand. This seems ridiculous to include in a watch but is often included precisely in order to demonstrate the ability to make a complicated watch.
There are other functions that are almost completely unnecessary but are exclusively found in high Horology due to the expense required to design and manufacture them. Tourbillon movements, which offset the effects of gravity, Repeater movements, that sound the time using chimes, and Perpetual calendars that take leap years into account are further examples.
The Breguet Marine Equation of Time, with Perpetual Calendar and Tourbillon. A Very complicated piece of High Horology.
Close up of watch hands showing miniature sun and hours and minute hand above the Tourbillon mechanism
The cutting edge of watch movement design involves innovation in parts and functions to try things that haven't been done before, or improve parts in some way. This watch from Ressence uses magnets to move the dial and subdials around while displaying the time. Historically magnets have been the enemy of watch movements as they distort the action if the wrong parts become magnetised, and this can affect the accuracy of a watch. The whole front of the watch is also filled with oil to make it easier to read. This is also innovative and revolutionary. Experimental features like this are a key part of High Horology, attracting new customers to these technically interesting movements.
Ressence Watch with Subdials that rotate using ball bearings and magnets.
Interesting and Expensive Decoration
We've written extensively about watch dials and how they are made. These examples are some of the very finest available. This first watch is very special entirely because of the dial. It is made from White Gold and engine-turned by hand on a lathe to get the different patterns. This is time-consuming and hard to set up properly, so the operator must be very skilled to do it. This sort of craftsmanship in the details of the dial and case are signals of High Horology, even if the movement inside the watch is very straightforward.
Breguet Classique with White Gold Engine-Turned Dial and Blued Gold Hands
This second watch has a similar dial, that has been engine turned and then it has been enamelled. The combination of the two requires extremely high levels of enamelling skill, to the point that only a few people in the whole world can do it. This watch is simple, but very much an example of High Horology.
Jaeger LeCoultre Master Control Calendar Moonphase with Blue Ridged Enamel Dial
Interesting and Unusual Materials
This watch has a case made from Carbon Fibre and multiple further parts in the same material. It is also an unusual shape, and has an unusual mechanism. It is not to everyone's taste but this company, Urwerk, is definitely regarded as High Horology.
Urwerk Carbon Fibre Space Traveler. Very unusual mechanism, time display and a Carbon Fibre case. Image courtesy: monochrome-watches.com
To summarise, a watch that is High Horology is likely to have the following features:
- A non-standard movement
- Very high level of hand-finishing or decorative details on the movement, dial or case
- Contain some complicated functions
- Contain a technical innovation or technically complicated part of the movement
- Interesting and Unusual Materials
Is High Horology Expensive?
It should be fairly clear that High Horology watches are going to be expensive. Broadly, the more hand crafted and complicated a watch is, the more expensive it will be, and the more experimental it is, either in technology or in finishing, the more expensive it will be. There are High Horology watches today that cost over $1mn from quite a few brands. Jaeger LeCoultre releases one new watch every year of this type. However it is also possible to buy some exceptional pieces, both new and on the vintage market, with all the of the features of High Horology for around $10,000.
Is Rolex High Horology?
A short word on Rolex; Despite being the biggest and most famous watch brand in the world and selling some very fine timepieces, people do not regard Rolexes as High Horology. The exceptions are some of their very highly jewelled pieces, as the gem setting is incredibly complicated and time-consuming.
Rolex Daytona Cosmograph Rainbow in Rose Gold. Image Courtesy: hodinkee.com
Which are the High Horology Watch Brands?
There are so many watch brands that it is impossible to list them all. Of the largest and most famous watch brands, especially from Switzerland, brands such as Patek Philippe, Breguet, Blancpain and Audemars Piguet are famous for their complicated High Horology pieces and have been for many years. Companies such as Grand Seiko and Credor from Japan and Lange & Sohne from Germany also are regarded as High Horology brands. There are also many smaller, younger brands as mentioned above, and many Independent watchmakers that make very complicated and expensive timepieces.
As a rule of thumb, you can access watches regarded as High Horology once you start paying more than $10,000 if you are buying new, and over $5000 in the vintage market. You should also be aware that High horology watches are often very difficult to get repaired or serviced due to their complexity and unusual features. Our guides to watch servicing and buying vintage watches help clear up what you need to consider when buying this type of watch.
A Vintage Jaeger LeCoultre Perpetual Calendar with an Enamel Dial and Moonphase
High Horology watches lead the world of watches in technical innovation and design mastery. Many of the features and designs found in the very finest and most complicated timepieces are later copied into more affordable and mass-market pieces. The brands that focus on High Horology are famous for their craftsmanship and excellence and are standard-bearers for the industry. We at The Watch Collectors' Club do not think there are best watches or best brands, we appreciate all the different watches that the industry has to offer, and love to explore both new and vintage models. If you want to do the same, join our mailing list to hear about our online and in-person events, and follow us on Social Media.