What is it about Patek Philippe that sets it above and apart from other brands? Auction results alone show that watches by Patek Philippe have an extraordinary power to retain and increase their value. Perhaps the answer lies in one word: family. Their current advertising campaign has the slogan “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation,” accompanied by a photo of a father with his boy. The campaign was launched in 1996 and since then has been renewed in photography and graphic design, but the basic message is the same, and it evidently reflects something that most affluent consumers feel very strongly about: looking after their immediate family.
Patek Philippe is perceived as a very conservative brand, to the point that it is probably the only major watch brand not to have its own official Facebook page (there are several unofficial pages that are not managed by the company). Perhaps one of the reasons behind its success is linked to what it doesn’t do. It doesn’t put its watches onto the wrists of racing car drivers or tennis players. It doesn’t do product placement in films. On the other hand they are infinitely careful about perpetuating their reputation as one of the so-called Holy Trinity of watches, with Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin. They make watches that are inherently useful – chronographs, world timers, calendar watches, minute repeaters. Another factor is their rarity value: it’s never clear how many pieces are made of a particular reference, but nearly always, there are not many, and some, particularly those in platinum cases, may have a short production run and so be restricted to around just 50. Collectors often buy a prestige Patek not to wear but just for collection.
Watches that tell a story
Everyone likes to buy watches that tell a story, and a brand like Patek has many stories in its history that all of their new products inherit, precisely through their conservatism. In addition, the brand has proved on many occasions to be brilliant at their job, notably in the years between 1900 and 1935 when they were uniquely involved in a battle for the most complicated watch. Henry Graves Jr. of New York and James Ward Packard of Warren, Ohio, were in competition for owning the most exceptional watches in the world, and they began secretly ordering watches from Patek Philippe with multiple complications. In 1916, Packard received a pocket watch with 16 complications; in 1925, Graves ordered “the most complicated watch ever made” and seven years later, the Supercomplication with 25 complications was delivered. The Graves watch retained its title as the most complicated watch in the world until 1989, when Patek Philippe presented the Calibre 89 with 33 complications, for their 150th anniversary.
Battle for a comma
Reaching the company name as it is today – Patek Philippe SA – was a long and sometimes bitter process. On its foundation in 1839, it was Patek, Czapek & Cie., founded by Antoni Patek (he later francophonized his name to Antoine Norbert de Patek), born in Poland in 1812, and watchmaker František Czapek, born in Semonice, Bohemia, also of Polish origin. Six years later, Czapek and Patek split, each founding a new company, Patek & Cie., and Czapek & Cie. At about the same time, watchmaker Jean Adrien Philippe (born near Paris in 1815) joined the company. Patek and Philippe had exhibited separately at the 1844 Exposition in Paris, Philippe winning a medal for a keyless winding and timesetting system. The two probably met on this occasion, and Patek invited Philippe to join him in Geneva. After six years of fruitful collaboration, Philippe insisted on his name being added to the company name, and at last in 1851, the name was changed to Patek, Philippe & Cie. But Antoine Norbert de Patek didn’t like the double-barrelled name at all, and took ages to change the sign outside the company headquarters. He even left the company stationery unchanged, saying that the old letter paper had to be used up before changing it. When a new sign was put up, he omitted the comma that Philippe had insisted on to show that the company was headed by two different people, and placed the two words so close together that it would have been impossible to add a comma between them. It was only when Patek died in 1877 that Adrien Philippe was able to modify the sign, adding a comma that he had so fervently desired for so long. In any case, in 2009, over a century after Adrien Philippe’s death (1894), the comma was removed officially from the company name.
The Calatrava Cross
Jean-Adrien Philippe would not be very happy today about the removal of the comma, but at least he would see that the Calatrava Cross has become the company’s principal logo. It is based on a cross with four fleurs-de-lys, considered as symbols of French royalty, and also part of the coat of arms of the village La Bazoche-Gouet, his birthplace.
Patents and movements
Patek Philippe have filed many patents over the course of history, such as the keyless watch (1860), in which there was no longer a separate key to wind the watch, the “slipping spring” or free spring mainspring barrel that prevents overwinding (1863), and a winding gear training featuring a ratchet wheel with a wolf-tooth profile (1891). In a way it’s surprising that complete verticalization was achieved only relatively recently, with many movements made exclusively for them by external companies. Their chronograph watches were based on Lémania movements, and Patek Phlippe’s first chronograph movement to be developed and made entirely in-house was the calibre CHR 27-525 PS, a split-seconds chronograph presented in 2005.
The company was also attentive to the arrival of electronics, filing a patent for clocks fitted with photo-electric cells in 1954. The company, with other Swiss manufacturers, developed a quartz movement, presenting the calibre Beta 21 at Basel in 1970. Patek Philippe’s first photoelectric cell clock with quartz movement was made in 1974.
The Stern family began their connection with Patek Philippe in 1932, when the brothers Jean and Charles Henri Stern, who owned a dial manufacture in Geneva, invested into Patek, Philippe & Cie. In 1934, Charles Henri Stern’s son Henri joined the company, and became chairman in 1935. Henri’s son Philippe joined in 1966, and he became managing director in 1977, president in 1993. His son Thierry joined the firm in 1994 and became president in 2009. The company’s annual production has been estimated at between 55,000 and 60,000 watches per year.
Patek Philippe Museum
The Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva opened in 2001, displaying Philippe Stern’s private collection that spans over 500 years of watchmaking. Open Tuesday to Friday 2 pm – 6 pm, Saturday 10 am – 6 pm, closed on national holidays, Sundays and Mondays. For further information, see http://www.patekmuseum.com/
Rue des Vieux-Grenadiers 7
CH – 1205 Geneva
Tel. +41 (0)22 807 09 10
Patek Philippe SA Genève
Rue du Rhône 41
CH – 1204 Geneva