One could argue that continuity is the primary element distinguishing Patek Philippe from its Swiss watchmaking rivals. The company’s adherence to mechanical watchmaking during the quartz revolution of the 1970s paid huge dividends when the craft returned to prominence in the 1980s. In the ensuing decades, demand—and aftermarket prices—for Patek Philippe’s most exclusive timepieces soared. Thierry Stern, the CEO, embodies the company’s continuity. The Stern family has owned Patek Philippe since 1932; when Thierry became president in 2009, he assumed the post that had been held successively by his great-grandfather, grandfather, and father.
I learned a lot from the retailers in the Middle East with respect to the way they control their family businesses. Most of the time it is only one family member, often the older brother, who controls the family business. They saw that this is the best way to preserve the company. I think it’s a very good way to do it, because it allows you to be very clean and clear in your strategy. When there are several people with large blocks of shares, it is always unknown who will be active in the business, and if they will be tempted to sell them. I have two children. I will have to choose who will be the next president and have all the shares. It could be a difficult decision.
The most important idea that came from both my father and grandfather was the relationship—that there is a mutual respect between a brand like Patek, the retailer, and the final client. Both of them always taught me to have respect and to stay down to earth. They also emphasized a taste for the details—to follow up on everything, to make sure things look nice, figures are correct. This is very important, in the watches as well as in daily work. Everything in the company must possess quality.
[Family management] allows you to do what is right. You do not have an outside shareholder who is going to look at the short-term vision. This is very important for Patek, as we are able to launch projects over 8 to 10 years, like the Star Calibre, Calibre 89, or building a new factory. For collectors, the long-term vision is also important, because they can have confidence that the pieces they buy will still be a part of our line.
While we are not guardians for other companies, we do consider ourselves guardians of Swiss quality and different forms of craftsmanship. Part of this is because we never really consider Patek Philippe a business in a conventional sense. Sure, we need to survive and to sell, but those are really secondary. We strongly believe at Patek that if you’re making a strong product, then money will follow.
Today there are a lot of collectors, but there are also individuals who are looking for a unique piece because they know it will bring a good price at auction. Most of the time I say no to [requests for one-of-a-kind] pieces that in 10 years will bring a fantastic result at auction, even if the high price might provide benefits for the company.
Some clients do deserve specific pieces, with a special dial or engraved case, but I never do specific movements. That’s not possible. I just hope the clients who buy special pieces won’t sell them right away. The auctions may be a great advertisement for Patek, but they disturb the vision I have for the company. I must nonetheless accept them.
Changing with the Times
The style we have created is something that is really lasting. [Designing watches] is actually a fantastic challenge, because our creative envelope is very narrow. We have to build something that will last while still seducing people today, both young and old. Today the evolution at Patek is to a slightly younger style, but our older clients are really pleased. We always need to evolve, to create new movements, new ideas in terms of design. Maintaining the same philosophy is part of it, but it’s not enough. We always need to develop new products.
When I was growing up I got to know the disciplines by going to watchmaking school and working all over Patek, not only because I wanted to know the people, but because I wanted to be able to create products. This allows you to survive and evolve at the same time. Today this is the only way to stay independent. If you want to be number one, you have to always bring something new.