04/25/2024
 5 minutes

Pilot’s Watch or Explorer? IWC vs. Rolex – Choosing the Right Brand For You

By Jorg Weppelink
IWC-vs-Rolex-2-1

Pilot’s Watch or Explorer? IWC vs. Rolex – Choosing the Right Brand For You

Among the highest echelon of luxury watch manufacturers, Rolex and IWC stand out for their heritage, cutting-edge technology, and unique design languages. Which is why they’re two of the leading names in the industry. Throughout its history, Rolex has been known for its prestige and industry-defining designs. IWC is widely respected for its refined, stylish timepieces that perfectly represent the brand’s rich history.

Brand Histories

Rolex is the world’s largest luxury watch brand, with roots dating back to 1905. That’s when Hans Wilsdorf and his brother-in-law Alfred Davis founded the company that would become Rolex in 1908. After moving the company from London to Geneva, Switzerland in 1919 (due to challenging economic times in Britain), Rolex began focusing on the creation of groundbreaking timepieces. The brand introduced the first waterproof watch with the Rolex Oyster in 1926, and the first automatic watch with a winding rotor, the Rolex Perpetual, in 1931.

In the 1950s, Rolex developed a design signature that would go on to revolutionize the watch industry. The Submariner, GMT-Master, and the Explorer set the standard for modern sports watches. With the Datejust and Day-Date, the brand also released two iconic, classically-styled watches that, together with the brand’s sports watches, dominate the luxury watch market today.

The Rolex Oyster was the brand's first waterproof watch.
The Rolex Oyster was the brand’s first waterproof watch.

IWC was founded in 1868 by American watchmaker Florentine Ariosto Jones in Schaffhausen, Switzerland. In 1875, the company moved its new headquarters to the Rhine River, where the brand still resides today. During the first half of the 20th century, IWC released two iconic watches that laid the foundation for the brand. In 1936, it unveiled its first special Pilot’s Watch. Three years later, in 1939, IWC launched its legendary Portugieser.

In the 1940s and 50s, the legendary Albert Pellaton was instrumental in the brand’s rise to technological excellence. He created the famous Pellaton winding system. In the 1950s and 60s, IWC added the first Ingenieur and Aquatimer models. Together with the Pilot’s Watch and the Portugieser, they would define the brand as we know it today.

Watch Collections & Models

IWC‘s collection has five main product lines: the Portugieser, Aquatimer, Portofino, Ingenieur, and Pilot’s Watches. Each line has a wide variety of models and executions that make for extensive collections. The most popular product lines are the Portugieser and Pilot’s Watches, which are home to some of the most iconic timepieces IWC has ever created.

Also be sure to check out: Aviation Heroes: The IWC Mark Collection

Although the Rolex collection appears much more extensive, it actually isn’t. Rolex has a slightly different way of organizing its collection, with two main pillars on which it’s built. The first is the Professional line, which includes famous sports models like the Submariner, Cosmograph Daytona, GMT-Master II, Explorer, and Explorer II, among others. The Classic line consists of the Oyster Perpetual, Datejust, Lady-Datejust, Day-Date, Sky-Dweller, and 1908. While this may seem like an overwhelming number of models, Rolex has always kept the number of variations fairly limited, making the collection a bit more straightforward.

Rolex Submariner Ref. 16610
Rolex Submariner ref. 16610

Style & Design

There is a distinct difference in style between Rolex and IWC. Rolex created its signature style in the 1940s and 50s. The secret to its success is a relentless dedication to the original designs of that era. Through incremental updates, the brand has evolved its classics into what they are today. As a result, the Submariner, GMT-Master, Datejust and all other Rolex icons are visually linked to the original watches created 70 years ago.

IWC leans towards a classic and elegant aesthetic, exemplified by their Portugieser line
IWC leans towards a classic and elegant aesthetic, exemplified by their Portugieser line.

IWC’s design style can be characterized as more traditional and refined. The Portugieser and Portofino lines in particular have a design signature rooted in their classic timepieces from the past. With the Aquatimer and the Ingenieur, the brand has created much more modern designs that still have a link to the past, but with a contemporary feel. As a result, the design aesthetic of each model line is very different, creating great variation in the IWC collection.

Quality & Technology

Rolex and IWC are known for their innovation and quests for watchmaking excellence. Both Rolex and IWC create their own in-house movements to power their watches. One key difference between them is that IWC focuses on a wider range of movements, from simple time-only models to highly complicated movements with tourbillons and perpetual calendars.

IWC Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar ref. IW3754
IWC Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar ref. IW3754

Rolex doesn’t focus on these highly complicated movements, which is not to say that it hasn’t shown world-class prowess and innovation here. Rather, it means that Rolex calibers, instead of being highly complicated, are best known for delivering outstanding accuracy and craftsmanship, along with incredible reliability.

Pricing & Value Retention

Rolex is widely recognized as the best brand when it comes to holding its value on the secondary market. Most of the current Rolex models are in high demand, with many trading above their retail prices. While the prices of the slightly older models have dropped recently, they are expected to rise again over time. As always, true vintage Rolex watches never lose their value, thanks in part to the passionate collectors in the watch market who are always looking for something special.

Want to know more? Check out Rolex Price Developments Over the Years: Factors, Trends, and Forecast.

The Rolex Milgauss gained in value after being discontinued in 2023.
The Rolex Milgauss gained in value after being discontinued in 2023.

Even though IWC doesn’t perform as strongly as Rolex on the pre-owned market, the brand does in fact perform well with some of its greatest classics. Watches like the Gérald Genta-designed Ingenieur, early Portugieser models, and the highly intricate, mesmerizing Il Destriero Scafusia fetch large sums of money on the pre-owned market, clearly demonstrating the popularity of some of IWC’s great timepieces from the past.

Rolex vs. IWC: Who Comes Out on Top?

It’s hard to pick a winner between the two. Rolex is your brand if you want the perfect functional tool watch or a classic everyday wearer that will last a lifetime. Plus, the allure of being the ultimate luxury watch brand is hard to resist. But if you prefer a more refined and sophisticated watch, IWC has you covered, offering some amazing, complicated watches that Rolex does not.

IWC also has a wider variety of styles and designs. Whatever the case, there is no going wrong with these two popular luxury watchmakers. Is it any wonder that they’re among the watch world’s leading brands?


About the Author

Jorg Weppelink

Hi, I'm Jorg, and I've been writing articles for Chrono24 since 2016. However, my relationship with Chrono24 goes back a bit longer, as my love for watches began …

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