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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 2)

"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.    


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.  

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