Icons & Innovators: Patek Philippe: In Perfect Time

  • Michael Korda

Consider for a moment how difficult it is to acquire any object of undisputed quality, tradition, and style in a time when almost everything is a product of badge engineering. If what you seek is unimpeachable, old-fashioned, handmade quality in a possession that will not only last for your lifetime, but also for your children’s, and their children’s, and one that will infallibly reflect your good taste, judgment, and wealth, I can think of only two objects that qualify. One is a Purdey shotgun, but for that you have to be interested in shooting, go to London to be measured for the gun, and wait about two years (if you’re lucky) for it to be produced and delivered. The other, just as unmistakably perfect but easier to acquire and use every day (and carry through Customs), is a Patek Philippe watch—expensive, elegant, distinctive in style, made by hand in small quantities, and, beyond any argument, the best watch in the world since 1839 or 1845, depending on how you interpret the company’s history.

To mark the new millennium, Patek Philippe’s master watchmakers spent eight years developing the Star Caliber 2000 pocket watch, a double-faced timepiece featuring 21 complications, making it the third most complicated watch in the world. The two most complicated watches in the world also are Patek Philippes. 

Of course, whether you actually need the best watch in the world is up to you. Today the exact time blinks all around us on cell phones, appliances, computers, VCRs, even automobile dashboards. Those who are obsessed with knowing the exact time can buy a plastic digital watch for under $200 that responds to the electronic signal from the atomic clock at Fort Collins, Colo. While this timepiece boasts accuracy within one ten-thousandth of a second, it looks like a plastic digital watch.

When the founders of Patek Philippe, an exiled Polish aristocrat-turned-watch salesman (Patek) and a French inventor and watchmaker (Philippe), began making watches in the first half of the 19th century, they consciously followed the traditions of high quality, beauty, and impeccable workmanship established by Abraham Bréguet, the great 18th-century watchmaker to such esteemed clients as Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette, and Napoléon. Back then, the main purpose of a watch was, of course, to keep accurate time. The other was to proclaim—with its dazzling design, elegance, and obvious expensiveness—the wearer’s wealth, power, and sense of style.

TIMELESS DESIGN

Sky Moon Tourbillon: Seventy-five years ago, if you wanted to obtain a timepiece that represented the pinnacle of watchmaking, you commissioned a highly complicated watch from Patek Philippe. That option is no longer available since out-of-control secondary market prices compelled the company to cease manufacturing one-of-a-kind pieces, which were quickly resold for substantial profits. Today, if you want the ultimate Patek Philippe, you hope for a chance to procure a Sky Moon Tourbillon, which involves an interview with company officials to determine whether you are suitable for ownership and then several years of waiting for delivery.
 
Introduced in 2001, the Sky Moon Tourbillon (Ref. 5002) remains the world’s most complicated production wristwatch. Other timepieces may include a tourbillon, minute repeater, and perpetual calendar, but the Sky Moon Tourbillon’s astronomical functions, located on the reverse dial, distinguish it from those grand-complication wristwatches. With sidereal time, lunar phase and orbit, and star chart functions, this is a genuine astronomical watch, one of the rarest watchmaking genres.

Today, for most people, wearing a fine watch is either a habit or a way of demonstrating that one can afford to purchase such an extravagant accessory. Cleverly, watchmakers also have created niches for their products, which they vigorously reinforce with targeted advertising. Rolex, for example, promotes an image of active owners who climb glaciers and go deep-sea diving. Some of Rolex’s most collectible sport models can fetch more money in stainless steel than in 18-karat gold; stainless steel implies tough, butch, serious sportsman (or woman), while 18-karat gold suggests people who sit around the pool playing cards and smoking cigars.

No such stereotypes apply to Patek Philippe, whose ads often depict an elegant, well-dressed man with a child, implying that you will leave the Patek you buy to your son, and he to his. The subliminal message is that you are not buying a watch, you are buying an heirloom. That this is the case is indisputable. Most of the Pateks made in the past 165 years are still in circulation (or in museums). The company maintains a complete, detailed record of every watch it has manufactured, and many of them remain in daily use.

I am a modest collector of Patek watches whose most accurate watch is an 1869 Patek Philippe pocket chronometer demi-hunter in 18-karat gold and blue enamel, which still ticks in near-perfect synchronization with the atomic clock signal. My everyday watch—a stainless steel (very rare for Patek) wristwatch that displays the date, phases of the moon, and a power reserve indicator—is so accurate that you could almost set the atomic clock by it. This piece embodies some of the characteristics that distinguish Patek. The stainless steel Ref. 5085/1A was made in small quantities in 2001 as a kind of entry-level watch, with a few complications (functions that indicate more than hours, minutes, and seconds); it was priced at $21,500. Its limited production is typical of Patek and ensures that your watch increases in value every day you wear it, since rarity makes it more collectible. The price, as well, is pure Patek: Its entry-level complicated watch in steel is more expensive than the top-of-the-line gold watches of many other manufacturers.

Of course price is not the point when it comes to perfection. While Patek watches are unabashedly expensive, they accrue in value, and there is steady demand for them in the aftermarket (or pre-owned) watch business.

What you get for your money is not just a superlative instrument designed to last many lifetimes, you also acquire a connection to an institution. The company refers to itself as “la maison,” the house of Patek, and the buyer is “le client,” the client. When it comes time, every four years or so, to service the watch, Monsieur le client (or Madame la cliente) is treated with hushed, exquisite courtesy and ushered into an elegant, beautifully furnished room (in New York, it’s in Rockefeller Center, towering above the skating rink), where the watch is eventually returned not only serviced, but repolished and looking brand-new. Patek believes in perfect service as well as perfect watches.

In recent years, some watch manufacturers have fueled rapid expansion by purchasing completed watch movements and placing them in branded cases. Patek, on the other hand, remains a relatively small company (the total number of Pateks made since the founding of the company is about the same as the number of watches Rolex manufactures every year) that produces almost everything by hand, employing the help of the latest technology.

But beyond that, one of Patek’s greatest achievements, today as in the past, is the distinctive look of its watches. Patek watches are instantly recognizable by their elegance, superb finish, and timeless style—they never appear old-fashioned, or retro, or futuristic. Even the ones that are supposedly “pour le sport” could almost be worn with black tie, or even white tie.

A quick review of a Patek catalog should convince anyone that it is a brand dedicated to putting a work of art on the client’s wrist, starting at a rather modest $12,000 or so for a Patek Philippe stainless steel Aquanaut sports watch. From there, you can graduate to models with grand complications, such as a minute repeater that chimes to tell the time when you push a tiny lever (Ref. 5079), or a perpetual calendar watch with moon phases (Ref. 5036/1), or a world timer that tells the time in cities all over the world (Ref. 5110), or increasingly exotic combinations of such complications, culminating in the Ref. 5102G. This timepiece, priced at $181,650, displays hours and minutes of mean solar time, a sky chart, phases and orbit of the moon, and time of meridian passage of Sirius and the moon (in case that is something you need to know). No electronics, no batteries, no digital displays, no dials with numbers so small you cannot read them—these are functional watches, exquisitely designed mechanisms with hundreds of hand-finished, tiny pieces that will go on ticking long after you’ve stopped.

TIMELESS DESIGN

 

Caliber 89: As the Swiss watch industry reached its nadir in 1979, Philippe Stern, chairman of Patek Philippe, challenged his watchmakers to build the most complicated watch ever made. Ten years later, to commemorate the company’s 150th anniversary, Patek Philippe’s engineers delivered the Caliber 89, an immense two-pound-plus turnip of a pocket watch with 33 complications, including a full range of astronomical and musical functions, historically regarded as specialties of the house. The Caliber 89 watches, only four of which were produced, marked the first time that Patek Philippe employed engineering schematics and computer-aided design to help preserve its watchmakers’ specialized techniques. Until then, they had been retained only in the memories of the masters who passed them on to apprentices.

Calatrava 3919: The most recognizable Patek Philippe, this member of the classic Calatrava family is not a Patek Philippe design per se. In the early 1980s, when the brand was seeking a more effective print advertising campaign, Geneva ad man Rene Bittel suggested creating an image of a watch that would represent Patek Philippe’s prized heritage and understated sensibilities. The rendering displayed a crisp dial with Roman numerals, a gold hobnail bezel, and a distinctive small seconds hand. Patek Philippe president Philippe Stern wisely instructed the company’s watchmakers to create a real timepiece that corresponded to the ad. That watch, the Ref. 3919, quickly became the brand’s top seller.  —James D. Malcolmson

If you are going to own a watch, it might as well be a timepiece that you buckle on your wrist every day with pride, pleasure, and the particular satisfaction that comes from knowing you own the very best.

After all, how often is perfection within our grasp? Given that point of view, a Patek is one of the most satisfying investments you can make. In a world in which objects are increasingly disposable, traded in regularly for the newest model or fanciest technology, a Patek stands out as uniquely ageless—a purchase for a lifetime. As the company’s chairman, Philippe Stern, says, when you buy one, “You take possession of a precious object.” Or, perhaps, it takes possession of you.

Michael Korda is a best-selling author of both fiction and non-fiction works and the editor-in-chief and corporate vice president of Simon & Schuster. His 2004 book Marking Time celebrates watch collecting with history, anecdotes, and practical information about watches and watch collecting.

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