Over 20 years ago, Patek Philippe had unified all of its operating and production units from a scattering of facilities across Geneva into a central campus in Plan Les Ouates. While that might seem good business sense, it was a high risk decision made during the 1995-96 period of industry turmoil. Yet, two decades down the line Thierry Stern is following in the same footsteps as his predecessor, Philippe Stern, his father, making a decision to expand once more during the dark days of 2015-16, investing in the future. By next year, Patek Philippe’s Home gets a new 110,000m2 building with seven floors, four of them underground and bringing the firm’s know-how, expertise and 2400 strong workforce into one glamourous CHF 500 million new campus; the kicker? All financed by the company’s own coffers.
The building designed by Geneva Architects Frisk de Marignac Pidoux is planned to be eco-friendly, featuring the newest systems for sustainability and energy efficiency – where once unused energy generated by the machines is converted into heat waste, it is now recycled to heat the residential community surrounding Patek Philippe’s high tech home to fine watchmaking. Where the existing buildings are sufficiently lit with artificial sources and darkened in some departments using only spot lighting for detailed work, the new building maximises natural lighting while supplying an abundant parking area for mobility devices, turning the Patek’s Home in Plan Les Ouates into a eco-friendly business city.
It’s the sort of forward thinking which is not only evident in their new watch novelties but also demonstrated with the alacrity of the building permit issued from the offices of the Canton of Geneva – 3 months (quite unheard of in the civil bureaucracy). According to urban planning office, the plan was given the green light not just for the pure financial investment invested in the infrastructure project but also about the innovation and future of watchmaking.
But, Patek Philippe is more than the sum of its infrastructure and technology, the maison and the spirit of its watchmaking enterprise exists in its people, the grand new building and the automation it houses within are merely the tools for its many artisans from CNC operator to chamferers to execute the traditions of high horology. During a lunch with Dirk Paulsen, Board member of GMT Singapore, distributor of Patek Philippe Singapore, we managed to get a few of our burning questions answered
Given some of the brow-raising servicing costs borne by collectors, does Patek Philippe profit from customer service?
No, the servicing costs are a reflection of material and labour used in the process of servicing and often, it doesn’t even cover actual costs. Though Patek Philippe loses financially, what we gain is absolute customer satisfaction. But there are limits as well, as in the case of a customer who wanted a watch damaged during the tragedy of September 11 repaired. The watch was absolutely fused together, there weren’t enough individual components to even recover from the watch – repair would mean making an entirely new watch. Since all servicing work is hand-done without industrialisation, there’s absolutely no money to be made, it’s all cost.
How does Patek Philippe’s Singapore Service centre compare globally with other official Patek service centres?
There are 56 service centres across the world, with 250 staff, the majority are watchmakers while the remainder perform administrative tasks pertaining to customer service. Because of Patek Philippe’s long history, the number of pieces to be serviced often outstrips our annual production.
It’s common complaint with collectors that servicing usually means an inordinate amount of time away from their wrists…
[Laughs] It can take a long time simply because without industrialised servicing processes, servicing is entirely hand done and the quality of our workmanship literally assures that the watch returning to you is tantamount to a brand new piece because the quality controls are exactly the same as the production models. Most watches take a month and some take a year or more depending on the problems and the conditions it was received. Either way, when a watch is returned, it’s a fresh piece with a new twelve month warranty period against defects.
How do you keep 150 years worth of spare parts?
Actually, we keep more than the spare parts but also the blueprints and the tooling. As far as spare parts go, we do keep enough spare parts for 150 years but for vintage components, they are reproduced by hand according to diagrams almost exactly as they were made hundreds of years ago. That said, all watches made from the 1970s onwards has parts and components produced in an additional run to cover probably demand for the next 40 years. At the level of quality they’re produced, the expense is a cost well spent. It also has the added benefit of maintaining the skills, disciplines required to service watches from the entire history of the firm as well as keeping some of the traditional machines in good running order.
What sort of servicing can the Patek Philippe Singapore service centre handle?
Depending on the experience of the watchmakers here, we can service up to level 3 perpetual calendars. Goes without saying that everything can be done in Geneva, and the training team there trains 200 watchmakers each year, watchmakers from the Singapore centre go up to attend and cross-train on a mix of watches and complications which they will deal with at the local branch. However, if the watch is from a new collection, it always goes back to Geneva during the first year or so because we prefer our experienced watchmakers to service an entirely new collection while the others attend refresher courses.
You mentioned that quality control is held to the same standard as your production pieces, how do you ensure this outside Geneva?
An annual audit is conducted to not just evaluate the quality of service and repairs of the watchmaker but also how the administrative staff conduct customer service operations. Patek Philippe personnel visit these centres in secret and go through the entire customer service process.
Next week, the final instalment of our visit to Patek Philippe’s Home in Plan-Les-Ouates will culminate with our tour of the legendary restoration department.