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Time After Time: Patek Phillipe Watches

At Patek Philippe's new workshops, age-old craftsmanship meets state-of-the-art technology
Nancy Wolfson
From the Print Edition:
Vince McMahon, Nov/Dec 99

Three years ago, Patek Philippe moved its workshops from Geneva to Plan-les-Ouates, a lazy village seven miles southwest of the city. In this petite Swiss burg, where cows graze and shopkeepers sill shut their doors at noon, the preeminent watch producer built its $84 million headquarters.  

The futuristic L-shaped glass, stone and metal building sits behind the company's fifteenth century Chateau in Plan les Ouates (pronounced "Plon-Lay-What"). This layout for Patek Philippe's headquarters, with its juxtaposition of old and new, seems fitting: the 160-year-old firm is so renowned for crafting mechanical timepieces in the traditional way, that its cutting-edge technology is often overlooked.

Inside the three-story headquarters, a 52-foot-high white limestone wall is a relief sculpture of a larger-than-life-size rendition of the interior of a watch. Visible are the contours of   ratchet wheels, pinions, bridges, barrels, balance-springs, jewels and discs. It brings to mind an image from Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times. Perpendicular to the sculpture, metallic aerial passageways bridge the two wings of the building. It's as if Modern Times meets Star Wars.  

Within these walls age-old craftsmanship and state-of-the-art technology merge to carry on the long tradition of producing some of the world's most coveted watches. "It's the company's first step in preparing for the next millennium," Philippe Stern, the 61-year-old president of the world-renowned watchmaker, says of the new building that was constructed three years ago to replace the previous headquarters in Geneva.  

Considered by many experts to be the Rolls-Royce of watchmakers, Patek Philippe labors over timepieces it claims will last for generations. Depending on the movement model ("reference" in company terms) and the number of complications (functions other than straight time-telling, such as those indicating the date and phases of the moon or chiming on every hour) a watch may take nine months to nine years to complete. The tag line in a recent advertising campaign smugly suggests, "You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely take care of it for the next generation."  

It is a relentless attention to detail that sets Patek apart from other watchmakers. The firm designs and produces almost all of its watch parts (with a few exceptions, such as hands, dials and sapphire crystal) and decorates and hand-assembles each watch, some 25,000 per year. All of this is done under one roof in Plan-les-Ouates.  

The firm makes four basic wristwatch designs, all with a variety of different features and complications. These are the Calatrava (the classic round dial); Ellipse (in the shape of an ellipse, the dial is shimmering blue); Nautilus (a metal sports watch with an octagonal case) and Gondolo (with tonneau-, rectangular- or square-shaped cases).   Produced in editions from one to 300, the watches are hand-finished, or polished. Hand-finishing, which only a few of the top companies do, minimizes friction in the watch, while increasing its precision, longevity and beauty. Each component--the company manufactures 4 million components annually--receives meticulous attention. Every piece is washed, polished, checked and rechecked at each step. It is this painstaking work and craftsmanship that earns Patek Philippe 95 percent of all Geneva Seals, the watch world's official hallmark of perfection.  

It takes 1,200 steps to make the movement of a Patek Philippe self-winding wristwatch with complications. Once assembled, each movement undergoes 600 hours of tests and adjustments, including simulated real-life wear and tear. As a result, less than 3 percent of the watches fail the final in-house quality control tests and, once they are sold, fewer than 1 percent are returned, the company says.  

Precision, for centuries the industry's unattainable ideal, has become a trickier business now that quartz watches are ubiquitous. "It's not so much about absolutely perfect time," says Stern. "Today, exceptional watchmaking is about creating innovative, useful complications that may be based on old or historic technology but still fit in with our present-day lives."  

When the company that became Patek Philippe first opened its doors 160 years ago, virtually all watches were made to order. Antoine Norbert de Patek, the firm's co-founder, took a drastically different approach. "He said, 'I'm going to make the finest watch I can possibly make, and then I will sell it,'" says Hank Edelman, Patek Philippe USA's president. By "finest" Norbert de Patek meant as technically flawless and artistically inspiring as possible. The company has not wavered from that precept, although today customers may have to wait years for certain complicated timepieces.  

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