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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

(continued from page 1)

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.  


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