The story of Patek Philippe
Man’s dabbling into portable mechanical timepieces began about 500 years ago. With Patek Philippe having just celebrated its 175th anniversary three years ago, doing the math reveals that the illustrious Genevan watch manufacturer has co-written a third of its intriguing history. While indeed there are many brands that claim to be older, most of them had discontinued their activities in the course of time and were reestablished by completely foreign people at a much later date. Conversely, Patek Philippe has endeavoured without interruption since its inception on 1 May 1839 and has always been privately owned. Today, it is widely viewed as one of haute horlogerie‘s most prestigious names and a leading manufacturer of fine mechanical timepieces.
This is the story of a manufacture that was born from the fascinations of a Polish immigrant; the story of a manufacture that has endured trials and tribulations and – in spite of all that – stayed true to its ethos.
This is the story of Patek Philippe.
Antoine Norbert de Patek
Antoine Norbert de Patek was born in Poland in 1812 and grew up in testing times. At the age of 16, he joined the Polish 1st Mounted Rifles Regiment and fought in the Polish-Russian War, also known as the November Uprising (1830-1831). In 1831, he received the Virtuti Militari, Poland’s highest military decoration for acts of heroism (similar to the American Medal of Honor). Later in that year, the Polish uprising against Russian occupational forces was crushed, forcing Patek and his fellow soldiers to embark on the ‘Great Emigration’ toward Western Europe. Patek had initially settled in France though he was later forced to resettle in Switzerland after an unfavourable decree was issued by the French government (under pressure from the Russian embassy).
It was in Geneva, Switzerland that he became fascinated by the city’s watchmaking heritage and the complementary artistry of engravers, enamellers, and jewellers. As a refugee, Patek sought the company of immigrants and became acquainted with François Czapek, a Polish watchmaker of Czech descent. On the 1st of May 1839, Patek along with Czapek and Thomas Moreau (his wife’s uncle) formed Patek, Czapek & Cie – Fabricants à Genève; little did Patek know that this was the beginning of a lasting legacy.
The company was successful from the beginning, but increasing discord between Patek and Czapek inevitably meant that the two men eventually had to part ways. On a lookout for a new partner, Patek met gifted French watchmaker Jean Adrien Philippe at the French Industrial Exposition of 1844 in Paris.
It was at the exhibition that Philippe’s patented invention, a mechanism for winding a movement and setting the hands without requiring a separate key, was awarded a Gold Medal. Naturally, this caught Patek’s eye. A year later, Patek terminated his partnership with Czapek and together with Jean Adrien Philipppe and Vincent Gostkowski, a third partner, established a new company under the name Patek & Cie – Fabricants à Genève. In 1851, the company was renamed Patek, Philippe & Cie. While modern production processes were adopted by Philippe, Patek pursued an innovative style of marketing that would rank the manufacture’s watches among the world’s most sought-after timepieces.
Patek’s travels took him far and wide, from the USA to Germany, from Italy to Russia. Patek never was physically robust to begin with; in 1875, as his anaemia worsened, he felt compelled to designate a successor to prevent his lifework from being endangered. Three employees – Cingria, Rouge and Köhn – injected capital into the company and became co-owners of the manufacture. On 1 March 1877, Antoine Norbert de Patek died at the age of 65. His son Léon was only 20 years old and did not want to join the company. He ceded all rights against an annual apanage of 10,000 francs and lived on this annuity as a rentier until he passed away in 1927.
Jean Adrien Philippe
The son of a watchmaker, Jean Adrien Philippe was born on 16 April 1815, in La Bazoche-Gouet, France. After a period as a journeyman, Philippe settled down in Paris where he invented a mechanism that allowed pocket watches to be wound and set by means of a crown rather than a key.
In 1844, he displayed his watches at the industrial exhibition in Paris where they attracted Patek. A year later in 1845, Philippe joined the company as technical director where he became responsible for the manufacturing of current models, the ongoing improvement of production processes, and the development of new models and mechanisms. Initially, he concentrated on perfecting his keyless winding and hand-setting system that relied on a crown in the pendant of the pocket watch and was protected by French patent No. 1317 dated 1845. In 1860 and 1861, he was granted two further patents for additional enhancements of his crown winding and hand-setting system. While Patek actively encouraged artisanal perfection, the lavish decoration of watches with engravings, enameling techniques, and precious stones that transform them into luxurious works of art, Philippe was driven by his horological aspirations and continuously stressed the refinement of the underlying technologies and the ongoing development of complications.
Philippe’s invention of the keyless works was so visionary that wristwatch winding mechanisms of today still follow his design concept. The ambitions of the two founders culminated in the respected manufacture that is Patek Philippe today.
The founders’ successors
Following the death of Antoine Norbert de Patek in 1877, his son Léon withdrew in return for a lifelong annuity. In 1891, two years before he passed away, Jean Adrien Philippe (then already aged 76) handed his position over to his youngest son, Joseph Emile Philippe. That very same year, Köhn left the company – succeeded by François Antoine Conty, who for years had supervised production – and Cingria too returned his shares. To assure the company’s continuity beyond partnership agreements that were limited in time, the owners in 1901 decided to adopt the by now customary legal form of a joint-stock company. “Patek Philippe & Cie” became “Ancienne Manufacture d’horlogerie Patek, Philippe & Cie, Société Anonyme”. Its share capital amounted to 1.6 million Swiss francs, and five of the seven shareholders served terms on the board of directors: A. Bénassy-Philippe as chairman, with members Jean Perrier, François Antoine Conty, Joseph Emile Philippe, and Alfred G. Stein. The latter managed the New York office through which Patek Philippe watches were distributed in the USA.
After the decease of Joseph Emile Philippe, his son Adrien became the last scion of a company founder’s family. In 1932, as a result of the global economic crisis, the company became financially distressed and sought a buyer.
The beginning of the Stern era
The Wall Street Crash of 1929, otherwise known as Black Tuesday, was the most devastating stock market crash in the history of the United States. It signalled the beginning of the 12-year Great Depression that impacted the world. Ancienne Manufacture d’horlogerie Patek, Philippe & Cie SA was not spared from the abyss and suffered financial duress as many of its customers defaulted on payment obligations. In effort to avoid being taken over by a competitor, the directors contacted brothers Charles and Jean Stern whose company ‘Cadrans Stern Frères’ produced top quality dials and ranked among Patek Philippe’s preferred suppliers. The two companies had previously enjoyed an amicable relationship. Prompted by their desire to preserve and perpetuate Swiss watchmaking tradition, the Stern brothers not only helped Patek Philippe out but also took a stake in the company in 1932 and wholly acquired it within a year.
They decided against immediately taking over the helm of Patek Philippe and instead hired respected watchmaker and horological specialist Jean Pfister (poached from Tavannes Watch Co. in Geneva) as the firm’s chief executive. Pfister remained the company’s technical director until his retirement in 1958.
“Dial-making was our core business and we had been supplying for generations. At the time, the good business was in the dial factory, there were two brothers who decided to propose a takeover when a major crisis arose and Patek was not in a really good shape. Of the two, one would run Patek Philippe and the other would continue running the dial factory.” – Thierry Stern
Before the year 1932 ended, Patek Philippe launched the Ref. 96, a watch that would go down in history as the prototype of the meanwhile legendary Calatrava collection.
In 1934, Charles Stern was appointed chairman of the board of directors and his son Henri Stern joined the company to assist him. He established the Henri Stern Watch Agency in New York in 1946 which served as the sole importer and distributor of Patek Philippe watches for the USA. Henri Stern was appointed chairman and chief executive upon the retirement of Jean Pfister in 1958.
He also began collecting rare and unique timepieces that were kept in the manufacture; they eventually constituted the foundation of the Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva. When the demand for lavishly decorated timepieces with engravings, miniature painting, cloisonné and champlevé enamel waned, he nonetheless repeatedly commissioned works from the few remaining artists whose craftsmanship had contributed significantly to the reputation of Geneva but who were gradually fading into oblivion. The richly decorated timepieces that found no purchaser were simply added to his collection as a tribute to their makers.
Upholding tradition, however, did not mean shunning innovation. Quite the contrary, inventiveness has always been core at Patek Philippe. The manufacture was well versed in solid-state circuitry for timekeeping, and Patek Philippe, with its electronics department established in 1946, soon became a leading provider of information systems for railway stations and airports. In 1949 and 1951, Patek Philippe was granted patents for its proprietary Gyromax balance, which allowed the rate of a movement to be precision-adjusted solely by altering the moment of inertia of the balance.
Two patents for photoelectric table clocks were issued in 1954, and in 1956, the manufacture built the first all-electronic clock that two years later received the “Award for Miniaturization” in the USA. In stark contrast, the Patek Philippe tourbillon movement, which in 1962 broke the world record for precision in a chronometry competition hosted by the Geneva Observatory, was a classic all-mechanical calibre. Starting in 1968, the manufacture pooled its resources with those of other Swiss watchmaking companies for a project that in 1970 culminated with the presentation of the ‘Beta 21’, the first serially produced Swiss quartz movement for wristwatches.
The same period marked the launch of the first Patek Philippe quartz table clock with photoelectric cells and a patented automatic winder with a peripheral rotor. New technologies made it necessary for Patek Philippe to be active on all fronts. But the founders’ objective of crafting the world’s best and most beautiful watches was never forgotten. Meanwhile, the third generation Stern family member had begun to work his way up the ladder in the manufacture.
Henri’s son Philippe Stern, born in 1938, spent part of his childhood in the USA. Because of his family background, he was aware of the traditions of the manufacture and of his native Geneva, but was also familiar with modern trends long before they were adopted in Europe. Although deeply interested in Patek Philippe, he initially opted for an information technology career. He began to work at the Henri Stern Watch Agency in New York in 1963. Then, when he joined Patek Philippe in Geneva in 1966, he first had to acquaint himself with all of the manufacture’s operations.
What Philippe Stern had learned in the computer world soon manifested itself in the watch industry as well: an ever faster and more radical cycle of quantum leaps in technical developments. While the first quartz wristwatches were perceptibly more expensive than mechanical ones, prices began to plummet drastically in the 1970s. During this period, Philippe Stern was asked to assume the responsibility for a new watch model that would represent his generation. As a sports enthusiast, Philippe envisioned a casual timepiece imbued with the elegance of the Patek Philippe style. The result was the Nautilus Ref 3700/1A launched in 1976 with the slogan: “One of the world’s most expensive watches is made of steel”. The Nautilus was to be his journeyman’s piece, and it, as we know, remains a classic and a quintessential Patek Philippe timepiece to this day.
In 1977, Philippe Stern was appointed CEO of Patek Philippe. He knew that the classic mechanical watch stood a chance against the more precise and much cheaper quartz watches only if it was a genuine high-end product, or even better, a work of art and a collector’s item. The famous ultra-thin Patek Philippe Caliber 240 was presented in 1977 (the calibre celebrates its 40th anniversary this year). With its patented automatic winder and a 22K gold mini-rotor totally recessed in the plate, it was the ideal movement for thin wristwatches such as the elegant Perpetual Calendar Ref. 3940 introduced in 1985.
He recruited engineers to transform Patek Philippe from a craftsmanship-driven to an industrial manufacture. The commitment to artisanship was preserved, but the watches were designed on the basis of detailed blueprints and the parts crafted with latest-generation machines to assure the reproducibility of components and quality standards, and to safeguard the manufacture’s ability to service and repair all Patek Philippe watches henceforth.
“Everything that a hand can do better than a machine, we will do. But when machine can assist the work of a person, we will not adhere blindly to tradition.”
In 1989, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the manufacture, Patek Philippe developed what is one of the most complicated portable timepiece in the world: the Calibre 89 with 33 complications.
Modern-day Patek Philippe
The auction of the first Calibre 89 established a new record for timepieces under the gavel: it sold for 4.6 million Swiss francs. The limited-edition anniversary wristwatches – the Jump Hour Ref. 3969 and the Calatrava Officer Ref. 3960 – were quickly sold out. Additionally, Patek Philippe revived the popularity of minute repeaters (the queen of complications) with two self-winding wristwatch models: the Ref. 3979 (Calibre R 27 PS) with subsidiary seconds and the Ref. 3974 (Calibre R 27 Q) with a perpetual calendar.
Philippe Stern regarded total independence as an indispensable prerequisite for assuring the quality of the company’s products without any compromise whatsoever. The manufacture is very autonomous and relied on partners – an external supplier – only for a small number movement blanks. This minor dependence, too, would soon be corrected. In 1993, Henri Stern transferred the presidency to his son Philippe, and in 1994, Philippe Stern’s son Thierry joined the company as a member of the family’s fourth generation.
But Philippe Stern remained at the helm of Patek Philippe and his ambitious goals required the development of new resources. Patek Philippe had multiple ateliers at various locations in Geneva, and he envisaged having them all under one roof. The manufacture acquired a plot of land in Plan-les-Ouates, a suburb of Geneva, and built a manufacturing complex there, funded entirely with its own capital. It was inaugurated in 1996. Since Philippe Stern’s appointment as CEO in 1977, the company’s staff had grown from about 300 to over 600 persons.
In 1996, Patek Philippe also expressed its family philosophy “from one generation to the next” with a new international image campaign. It has been continually refined and wrote history in horology and communication with its success and the awards it garnered – its slogan: “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.”
One of Philippe Stern’s biggest dreams came true in 2001. After having spent 40 years passionately and circumspectly assembling his private collection, he was finally able to inaugurate the Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva’s Plainpalais district. With an inventory of over 2000 timepieces, automata, and enamel miniatures as well as a library with more than 8000 works dedicated to the measurement of time, it was one of the world’s most eminent horological museums from the very start. A year later, the company invested in a new “Patek Philippe Advanced Research” department focused on novel materials and avant-garde technologies. It was to become a key pillar of the manufacture’s philosophy – “Tradition & Innovation” – and further strengthened the independence and technical superiority of Patek Philippe. The first tangible result was an escape wheel made of a revolutionary silicon derivative which was presented in 2005: the Annual Calendar Ref. 5250.
In August 2009, Thierry Stern succeeded his father as the president of the company. When he first joined the company in 1994, he had underwent basic watchmaker training and pursued internships in all of Patek Philippe’s departments. In 1997, he assumed the responsibility for the Benelux market for two years. A year later, he was appointed Creative Director. As a director at Patek Philippe, he contributed to the development of the company’s strategies while being gradually coached to one day assume the leadership.
With Thierry Stern at the helm, his father Philippe became honorary president while Claude Peny remained CEO. Shortly thereafter, he presented the Patek Philippe Seal with written and published directives that comprehensively defined the quality of Patek Philippe timepieces. Both Thierry Stern and his father Philippe were personally involved in drafting this constitution and implementing the transition from the Geneva Seal to the Patek Philippe Seal.
In October 2014, Patek Philippe presented its 175th anniversary collection. The world had anticipated with bated breath at what the manufacture might have in store for the special occasion – and whether or not it could live up to the high standards set by the 150th anniversary collection. In the collection were timepieces that included the World-Timer with Moonphase Ref. 5575G and Chiming Jump Hour Ref. 5275P. As stunning as they were, all eyes were, at the time, drawn towards the collection’s crown jewel: the Grandmaster Chime Ref. 5175R – the most complicated and most expensive Patek Philippe wristwatch ever at the time of writing. Suffice to say, the 175th anniversary collection was a rousing success.
It will be most interesting to see where Patek Philippe goes from here. The watchmaking industry as we know it today has not only become increasingly competitive but also faces unfavourable market conditions. On the future of Patek Philippe, sentiments are of cautious optimism:
“As long as we have the passion and we are well organised with good people, I don’t imagine we can fall. Patek Philippe is a never ending story of creation and renewal, we will always be there with fine products and I can’t imagine a day where I will run out of ideas. Movements may be getting more complicated but they’re always useful and not gimmicks, the evolution of technology is also helping us bring new ideas to fruition. Barring some catastrophic mistake, it’s unlikely Patek will fall but there will never be a time for us to sit and relax.” – Thierry Stern