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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.  

Norbert de Patek, an exiled Polishcavalry officer, had moved to Geneva sometime in the 1830s, where he studied painting. He soon became intrigued, however, with the beauty, intricacy and marketing potential of the high-quality watches being made in Switzerland. In 1839 he founded Patek, Czapek & Co. with his then-partner Franciszek Czapek, a naturalized Pole of Czech origin, who was a master watchmaker. The firm started with about six workers, whose yearly output amounted to 200 pocket watches. In 1844, while visiting a trade exhibition in Paris, Patek met Jean Adrien Philippe, a French watchmaker, who was presenting an extremely thin pocket watch that could be wound and set at the stem, without a key, by means of a winding crown.  

The next year, Patek hired Philippe and split with Czapek, who wanted the company to focus on mass production (he subsequently started his own watch company). It wasn't until 1851, however, that Patek changed the firm's name to Patek Philippe & Co. As technical director and head watchmaker, Philippe was responsible for horological breakthroughs, such as the invention of the so-called "slipping" mainspring, which led to the development of the automatic winding system in wristwatches.  

Patek masterminded the commercial side of the business and traveled the world selling his unique timepieces. His diary is a revealing gauge of that time. On an 1854 trip to the United States (where Tiffany & Co. was selling his watches), Patek noted, "Life in New York is very expensive.... The cheapest cigar [is] 4 cents...a small bottle of wine, $1."  

Patek's watches quickly gained prominence. At London's Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851, Queen Victoria purchased two Patek Philippe watches, one for herself and one for Prince Albert. In Rome on March 4, 1858, Patek recorded the sale of a Hunter pocket watch, No. 13549, to Mr. Alexander Pushkin, lieutenant in the Imperial Guard in St. Petersburg and the son of the famous Russian writer, Alexander Sergejevitch Pushkin. And in 1867, another Hunter watch, an 18-karat-gold model, was commissioned for Pope Pius IX, who had made Norbert de Patek a count 15 years earlier. Other luminaries who have owned Patek Philippe watches over the years include Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, J. P. Morgan, Henry Graves Jr., Clark Gable, Duke Ellington and Andy Warhol.  

Patek Philippe would remain a family business for nearly a hundred years. When Antoine Norbert de Patek died in 1877, Philippe's son-in-law, Joseph Antoine Bénassy-Philippe, took over the management of the firm. Fourteen years later, when the elder Philippe retired, the youngest of his five children, Joseph Philippe, succeeded him as head watchmaker. In 1901 the firm became a joint-stock company, with Joseph Philippe as a shareholder and member of the board of directors. Joseph Philippe died in 1907, and his son, Adrien, became director of the company in 1913, a post he held until 1932.  

The Great Depression forcedthe company to put the business up for sale. An offer by Jacques David Le Coultre, who supplied the company with ébauches, or movement blanks, was rejected. Brothers Charles and Jean Stern, owners of the Fabrique de Cedrans Sterns Frères factory in Geneva that produced all of Patek Philippe's dials, succeeded in purchasing the company in 1932. In 1933 Patek Philippe resumed manufacture of its own ébauches, phasing out the remaining stock from Le Coultre. Charles Stern's son, Henri, joined the firm in 1934, and today, at 88, is honorary president. Philippe Stern is his son.  

Consistent with its reputation for precision, Patek Philippe keeps meticulous records, cataloguing every watch it makes. Each timepiece and its movement are numbered. The records list the number of the timepiece, its movement's and case's reference numbers and when, where and to whom it was sold. This makes it easy to check the specifics of any Patek watch and increases its resale value (Patek Philippe watches fetch higher prices at antique watch auctions than any other maker's, holding most world records). Also, they are rarely knocked off.  

Copying a Patek Philippe would be daunting, considering the amount of intricate detail to reproduce, much of which is not visible to anyone but the wearer. Also, there may not be much of a market for knockoffs, as the watches are anything but flashy. They are understated.  

Much of Patek's reputation rests on its 40 mechanical movements that have been awarded the prestigious Geneva Seal. The hallmark itself is stamped on the mainplate (resembling a textured, round computer chip with holes, it's the foundation upon which all the movement's parts are built) and on one of the bridges inside the movement. The seal certifies that the movement has passed muster on 12 specific technical and aesthetic requirements.  

One such requirement is that all steel pieces, including the sides, must be angled ("chamfered") and polished. Screw heads must be polished or refined and have rounded edges; the rubies must be gem-quality and polished. Jewel holes must have curved sides to minimize friction. Basically, the watchmaker must prove that each part is technically perfect and that its principles of manufacture are impeccable.  

"Patek Philippe is so good because their quality of production has remained consistent since the mid-nineteenth century," says Jean-Claude Sabrier, a watch expert at Antiquorum, the Geneva-based watch auctioneers.  

"We have the most advanced technology in order to make the most perfect components possible, yet we still have the traditional craftsmanship needed to assemble them," says Philippe Stern, whose watchmakers (180 at the moment) must attend an in-house watch-making school for a minimum of four years. "It is the combination that gives us fantastic results."  

This willingness to merge new with old is palpable in Stern's office, where a postmodern L-shaped desk reflects the structure of the sleek Plan-les-Ouates building. The only objects on his dark wood desktop are a computer monitor and a keyboard. Other things in the office serve as reminders of the company's past. A century-old tool called a regulator, which was once used to check the precision of the seconds and minute hands on the firm's watches before delivery, rests on a shelf behind Stern's desk. A turn-of-the-century regulator from the firm's former workshop in Geneva stands near the doorway, and outside the room is another long-case regulator with Roman numerals on the dial, circa 1890.  

A serious man who seems to think faster than he speaks, Stern has a lined, weather-beaten face. He is a seven-time champion of the Geneva regatta (he still holds the record), a former National Swiss ski team member, and a former competitor in international dog sled races with his wife, who was the European mushing champion. All of his hobbies seem to involve racing against the clock.  

Although Stern is neither a descendant of Antoine Norbert de Patek nor Adrien Philippe, he views the company as a continuous family business. Perhaps this is because of the firm's ongoing commitment to complicated watches. Ten years ago, to mark its 150th anniversary, Patek unveiled the Calibre 89, believed to be the most complicated watch ever made. (It fetched $3.2 million at an Antiquorum sale, the highest price ever paid at auction for a timepiece.) It took about five years to develop the design and another four years to assemble the Calibre 89.  

This intricate pocket watch, with 33 horological complications contains 332 screws, 415 pins, 429 mechanical components, 184 wheels, 129 rubies, 61 bridges, 68 springs, 24 hands, two dials and eight disks. The Calibre 89 has functions that tell you the time of sunrise and sunset and the time in a second time zone; a perpetual and secular calendar; a lunar calendar showing phases and age of the moon; an astronomical calendar, including houses of the zodiac; a chronograph; and various chimes.  

In a time when high-tech seems to dominate the watch world, it is unusual for a company to devote such extensive resources to the development of a pocket watch with functions that may seem more connected with the past than with the future. "Certainly we will never design the watch of the future," says Stern. "We are not in the fashion business."   Patek Philippe may not be in the fashion business, but its watches have an unmistakable style.  

Nancy Wolfson is a New York-based freelance writer.    

TIMEKEEPER  

As Patek Philippe's in-house consultant and curator of its museum collection, Alan Banbery has co-authored two definitive books on the firm's timepieces: one on wristwatches, and the other on pocket watches. Banbery's latest project is the Patek Philippe Museum, scheduled to open in Geneva in the spring of 2001. It will house the company's collection of some 1,400 vintage Patek Philippe watches, along with a smaller collection of nearly 500 watches made in Geneva prior to 1839, the year the firm was established.  

Banbery's office is lined with shelves filled with quirky collectibles, such as an antique one-of-a-kind opium pipe made from the branch of a Chinese lemon tree and a glazed earthenware smoker's pillow, a white marble bust of company co-founder Count Antoine Norbert de Patek, and photographs of Banbery's prize-winning Labrador Retrievers.  

Wearing his "favorite, first-ever Patek Philippe," a self-winding Calatrava wristwatch with a slate dial with Roman numerals that he purchased in 1965, the year he joined the company, Banbery removes from his safe the first volume (of more than 800) in the Patek Philippe watch record archive. The numbered, entries contain the individual serial number and description of every Patek watch ever made, beginning on December 3, 1839.  

Well, almost every one. For what remains a mystery to even Banbery, the records commence with number 63.  

It seems fitting that this curious, unique man should be connected with these exceptional, rare timepieces. He takes a tray of treasures out of the large safe in his office. On the tray are two wristwatches that fetched record-breaking prices at auction. They are both, of course, Pateks, bought back by the firm, represented by Banbery, at auctions held by Antiquorum, the Geneva-based auction house specializing in watches.  

The first is a 1939 one-of-a-kind Calatrava, the classic round wristwatch named after the company symbol, originally designed in 1932 and now the company's best-selling design. It is an astronomic, minute-repeating gentleman's wristwatch with perpetual calendar and moon-phase indication, with a platinum bracelet and case. Included in the 1998 edition of the Guinness Book of Records as the wristwatch that has fetched the highest price ever paid at auction, it was acquired in 1996 for $1,715,000.  


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