The Big Four Extend Their Global Control Over Watches. For some time, it has been evident that, among the hundreds of brands that comprise the luxury watch market, four stand out: Rolex, Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, and Richard Mille.

The labels are sought after by both experienced collectors and newcomers to the profession. Their names are well-known as sponsors of major sporting events ranging from the United States Open (Rolex) to Les Voiles de St. Barth (Richard Mille), as well as cultural attractions ranging from the Montreux Jazz Festival (Audemars Piguet) to the Singapore arts center Esplanade (Patek Philippe). They are mentioned in song lyrics, seen on red carpets, and, on rare occasions, snatched right off people’s wrists.

However, since 2017, and particularly in the last 18 months, all four watchmakers have increased their market domination, and demand for — and the value of — their timepieces has continued to rise.

Why the year 2017? That is when “the ascension began,” according to Yoni Ben-Yehuda, head of watches at Material Good, a New York-based boutique that distributes Audemars Piguet. As more people entered the market, demand began to outrun supply, with social media playing a significant role. Secondary prices for the most sought-after models began to rise at a pace of roughly 15% year on year, according to Mr. Ben-Yehuda.

And why has this happened in the previous 18 months? According to Aurel Bacs, the auctioneer whose Bacs and Russo consultancy manages Phillips’ watch department, the solution lies in a mix of supply constraints created by the pandemic and money pushed into the world economy by federal banks. “All of a sudden, we have more money and fewer watches to buy. As a result, prices rise.”

In late July, for example, the watch auctioneer Antiquorum in Monaco sold a Ref. 5711 Green Dial Nautilus by Patek Philippe, still in factory-sealed packaging, for 416,000 euros, or $492,000, including the auction house’s 25% commission.

The model had been debuted in April with a selling price of $34,890, which made the result all the more notable.

“These companies’ timepieces are now worldwide liquid assets,” said Geoffrey Hess, an international watch specialist at Phillips in New York. “Of course, they’re all well-made and easily identifiable. However, collectors can feel secure in purchasing from these brands because buyers and sellers would regard their timepieces as a recognized currency.”

The so-called Big Four have a significant difference: they are privately owned, whereas the majority of their competitors are part of publicly traded luxury conglomerates.

“These four brands don’t answer to shareholders, and none are motivated by short-term profits,” said John Simonian, Richard Mille’s Americas CEO.

Patek Philippe’s decision earlier this year to discontinue production of the Nautilus Ref. 5711/1A-010, a stainless-steel timepiece with a black-blue dial — a watch that some prospective purchasers had been waiting eight or even ten years to obtain — is an illustration of the Big Four’s approach. According to industry analysts, the main reason for the brands’ exceptional popularity is that demand for their timepieces far outstrips supply — despite the four businesses’ vastly differing annual output figures.

Rolex does not reveal its output. However, according to Morgan Stanley, which published a report on the Swiss watch business titled “King Rolex” in March, it produces approximately a million watches per year — albeit that number is expected to drop to 810,000 by 2020.

According to the research, Patek Philippe would produce approximately 53,000 watches in 2020, Audemars Piguet approximately 60,000, and Richard Mille approximately 4,300. However, the numbers are undoubtedly lower than in a typical year, as most Swiss industries shuttered for roughly two months in spring 2020 due to the outbreak of the coronavirus in Europe.

According to reports, the companies’ shop displays throughout the world are now devoid of the most sought-after sports models, such as the Patek Phillipe Nautilus and Aquanaut, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, and just about anything by Rolex and Richard Mille.

The only alternative for consumers prepared to pay a substantial premium is to purchase the models through secondary channels – auctions, pre-owned sites, or private sales — were the top items are selling for at least 60% more than retail.

Mr. Reis stated that one of the reasons purchasers were constantly driving up prices on specific models was that, thanks to companies like atchBoxW and its various competitors, such as Watchfinder & Company, Chrono24, and Crown & Caliber, consumers finally had access to organized data. This includes the previous pricing for certain models, which has removed the guesswork from the purchasing process. And, as consumers sought hard assets to diversify their portfolios during the pandemic, interest in high-value collectibles has skyrocketed.

The skyrocketing prices of certain models have actually complicated things for authorized dealers, who say buyer competition is severe.

“In my 34 years with Wempe, I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Ruediger Albers, president of American Wempe Corp., a famous Rolex dealer based in New York.

Mr. Albers stated that the New York store does not keep a waiting list for models such as the stainless steel Rolex Daytona with a white dial, it’s the most popular timepiece because doing so would imply that requests were fulfilled in chronological order. Instead, he says, the most sought-after pieces are given to long-term patrons who can be relied on not to sell them.

While the Big Four get the majority of the attention from today’s investment-minded purchasers, a handful of independent brands, lead by contemporary watchmaker François-Paul Journe, have seen similar jumps in demand during the pandemic’s early days.

According to Paul Boutros, Phillips’ head of watches in the Americas, interest in F.P. Journe peaked in June 2020, when two of the watchmaker’s early models, the Tourbillon Souverain and Résonance, sold for more than $2.5 million at a Phillips Geneva sale.