Why is this high-end watch brand a favorite among cognoscenti? Attention to details, uncompromising quality of the components and a long watchmaking tradition – and the fact that the price of their watches always goes up in auctions doesn’t hurt. Gentleman’s Gazette presents the story of this prestigious brand and of its most famous models.
A FAMILY HEIRLOOM
Some time ago, while thumbing through the pages of a luxury magazine, I came across one of the most intriguing watch ads (which is a lot to say, for I created the first specialized watch magazine in Brazil in 1998). It was a Patek Philippe ad, showing a man and his son enjoying some leisure time. The slogan said, “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation”. I thought, “Oh my, what are they saying? You’ll spend a considerable amount of money in a watch and will not own it?”
The same theme and slogan were used with different “father-son” duos, implying that this watch is not a frivolity, you are investing in an heirloom, and your kid will benefit from your wise choice. Someone commented that they are selling something that money can’t buy, such as family closeness and legacy.
It is not a new marketing approach at Patek. This lovely 1949 ad already explored the family spirit and reminded, “what could be a finer investment?”
Patek Philippe prices range from US$8,000 to the seven-digit range – and we are not talking about rare pieces such as the stainless steel 1518 (above) sold in November 2016 at a Phillips Bacs & Russo auction in Geneva. The hammer slammed at $11,136,642, making it the world’s most expensive wristwatch ever.
Why Patek command such high prices at auctions, making them sometimes even higher than the original retail price?
FIRST IT WAS PATEK, CZAPEK & CIE.
To understand this, we have to go back to 1839. As many watch companies, Patek Philippe started with two partners – in this case, the Polish Army lieutenant Antoni Norbert Patek (1812-1877) and his first partner, also Polish and a watchmaker, Franciszek Czapek (1811-1895).
Patek and Czapek separated in 1844, the same year in which Patek met a French watchmaker, Jean Adrien Philippe (1815-1894). He was already famous for inventing the keyless winding mechanism in 1842.
PATEK PHILIPPE & CIE.
In 1845, Patek and Philippe joined forces, and the company was renamed to “Patek Philippe & Cie.” in 1851. Patek was responsible for sales and Philippe created new products, which did not take long to show up: in 1868, they made that which is arguably the first wristwatch in history for Countess Koscowicz of Hungary. (It is interesting to observe that pocket watches were the rule for men until the 1930s; wristwatches were considered feminine objects…)
Patek died in 1877, but his surviving partner kept on managing the company. In 1880, a Patek Philippe watch was awarded the first prize in the precision competition of the Observatoire de Genève. The death of Adrien Philippe in 1894 changed things a bit and, in 1901, the company became a business corp. In 1932, two brothers, Charles and Jean Stern, acquired the control of Patek Philippe.
Philippe Stern, Charles’ grandson, became General Manager in 1977 and President in 1993. Thierry, Philippe’s son, became President in 2009, with his father as Honorary President.
Presently, Patek Philippe is the last family owned and independent manufacture in Geneva. Their main unit is in Plan-les-Ouates, south of Geneva; the cases and bracelets unit is in Perly and the Patek Philippe Museum is in Plainpalais.
PATEK’S MOST EMBLEMATIC MODELS
With a quite extensive history and over seventy patents, Patek Philippe certainly has many interesting watch models. But, what makes these watches be what they are?
First, even though most Swiss watch companies are in La Chaux-des-Fonds, Le Locle, and Bienne, the canton of Geneva houses a few of them. In 1886, The Geneva School of Horology created the Geneva Seal – or Poinçon de Genève, as they say in French. To deserve it and present it on their watches, a company must obey 12 technical specifications and be mechanical (self-winding or hand-wound). If a single Seal is a prowess, this says much about the fact that every watch made by Patek Philippe has the Geneva Seal stamped on the movement.
Second, the company is a manufacture, meaning that they control every stage in the production of their watches. Third, some models are made in very limited numbers: they record every watch ever produced since 1839, including those worn by celebrities such as Albert Einstein, Queen Victoria, and Gianni Agnelli, who we have already seen in a previous Gentleman of Style article at Gentleman’s Gazette.
Which are their most emblematic models?
The Calatrava was launched in 1932, after the Stern brothers bought the company. It is a clean watch, with a gold or platinum case. Some of the versions, such as the ref. 5120J shown above, have a hobnail (or Clous de Paris) bezel, a white enamel dial and black roman indexes. It is the zenith of discretion and elegance for an elegant black-tie event, with an average price of US$ 13,000.
Among famous owners of Calatravas, you’ll find Jack Welch of General Electric. (By the way, check the elegant Order of the Garter buttons on Welch’s blazer.)
The Golden Ellipse was launched in 1968 with the rectangular, rounded case inscribed inside the “Golden Ratio”, an irrational mathematical constant indicated by the Greek letter phi as a tribute to the sculptor Phidias, who used it in the Parthenon. Scientists found out that this proportion – 1.618 approximately – is everywhere in nature, such as in the nautilus seashell, beehives and other places: the proportion between the bigger and the smaller side is 1.618.
Patek Philippe used this ratio in the Golden Ellipse, creating another watch of rare beauty. Among its models, I suggest the reference 3738/100J, shown above, an ultra-thin, self-winding model. In the mid-seventies, Patek Philippe launched a Golden Ellipse ad in the French Vogue Hommes, saying something like, “you can’t see the seconds in a Golden Ellipse? It’s fine – you don’t drink Champagne to quench your thirst.” Expect to pay something to the order of US$22,000 for it.
If you browse the web a bit, you may find a pair of Patek cufflinks with the Golden Ellipse motif.
The Nautilus was released in 1976, with the original model in stainless steel. The designer was none other than Gérald Genta, who also created the Royal Oak for Audemars Piguet and the Ingenieur for IWC, among other creations. The case evokes a ship’s hatch, a hint to its sportive – mainly nautical – vocation. Brad Pitt, a great watch collector, has a Nautilus, given to him by Angelina Jolie. (He also has a very rare 1952 Patek worth US$3MM, also a gift from his former beloved.)
Also with maritime inclination, the Aquanaut is a 1997 release with gold or steel case; the latter is the main version, with a rubber band to match its decisive sportive look, even though it does not follow true diver’s watch rules.
COMPLICATED WATCHES, PATEK’S FORTE
But it is in the horological complications – name given in watchmaking to any function beyond timekeeping – that Patek’s true colors really fly.
A recent complicated watch from Patek Philippe, and a popular one, if we may use “popular” and this brand name in the same sentence, is the World Time. (You may see the reference 5130G in white gold above.) The new model is a recreation of a 1930s watch that indicates not only the local time, but also the time in any of the 24 world time zones, thanks to two rotating disks.
In a 2006 auction at Antiquorum, a 1940s World Time yellow gold Patek Philippe watch such as the one above was sold for over € 150,000. The new model may be purchased for $ 43,000.
Moving up still further, we find the useful and intriguing calendar watches. The Dalai Lama owns a gold pocket watch by Patek, reference 658, with a political background. In 1943, in His Holiness own words, “the Allies wanted to make a road over Tibet from Assam, in India, to China. So two American military representatives came with a letter from President Roosevelt and a box containing a gold watch. A Patek Philippe. I was very excited. It was a very beautiful, very smart model. I still have it and it still works.”
One of the representatives from the Office of Strategic Services was Ilia Tolstoi, a grandson of the novelist (who, incidentally, also wore a Patek Philippe); the other was Brooke Dolan. They carried the Patek and a letter from President Roosevelt to the young Dalai – he was 8 or 9 then – and received a “khata”, a ceremonial silk scarf from him.
It is interesting to know that the Dalai Lama is very fond of watches, and they are one of his few hobbies. Again in his own words, from his book Ethics for the New Millenium, “I have always enjoyed repairing watches. But I can remember a number of occasions as a boy when, completely losing my patience with those tiny, intricate parts, I picked up the mechanism and smashed it down on the table. Of course, later I felt very sorry and ashamed of my behavior–especially when, as on one occasion, I had to return the watch to its owner in a condition worse than it was before!”
The Dalai Lama also owns some Rolexes, always being careful to wear them turned 180 degrees around the wrist in order to be discrete and not ostensive. After all, he is the leader of six million Tibetan Buddhists and one of the most admired spiritual figures of our time, and obviously, he is careful not to project the wrong image.
A beautiful black dial version of the same model was sold in a Sotheby’s auction in New York on December 2014 for $527,000. The auction house declared that it was the first reference 658 to have been produced and the only one of 15 with a black dial. Its features include a perpetual calendar with four subsidiary dials for month and leap year, day, date, constant seconds and moon phases, split-seconds chronograph, a minute repeater with two hammers on two gongs. This model is a Grand Complication, including all three types of complications: visual indicators (such as a chronograph), astronomical indicators (moon phases) and acoustical indicators (as minute repeaters).
Another Grand Complication from Patek Philippe, in this case, a wristwatch, is the Sky-Moon Tourbillon (the ref. 5002J above, in yellow gold, sells for around $1,5 million), the most complicated wristwatch they have ever made and the first with dials on both sides.
The list of indications includes, in the front dial, the minute repeater with cathedral chimes, tourbillon escapement (a mechanism that helps to maintain the watch very precise), perpetual calendar (meaning it does not need adjustments on leap years), just to name a few. The back side shows sidereal time, a sky map (thus its name), and the moon’s phase and orbit.
Sure, a Patek Philippe – any model, as you have seen – is expensive. But consider the amount of time needed to produce one watch: it takes nine months to assemble a Golden Ellipse, or several years for a complicated model. As one of their ads say, “every element is microscopically hand-finished to a tolerance which represents a fraction of the thickness of a human hair”. Then comes testing and regulating, with many hours spent on these fine procedures to ensure that even a mechanical Patek (yes, they have some quartz models) is precise to a fault.
Actually, the gold in a Patek never represents more than 25% of its cost; its main cost is the “time, patience, tradition and absolute dedication to flawlessness”. And, as one of their best ads say, “The value of a gold Patek Philippe goes up, even when the price of gold goes down”…
links for Philips Bacs & Russo – https://www.phillips.com/departments/department?DepartmentName=Watches; for Antiquorum – http://www.antiquorum.com/home/; for Sothebys – http://www.sothebys.com/en/departments/watches.html; for Gianni Agnelli as Gentleman of Style in GG – https://www.gentlemansgazette.com/gianni-agnelli-style-gentleman/