The Secret For Eternal Youth: Patek Philippe Is 175 Years Young
Patek Philippe represents the very tip of the haute horlogerie pyramid today, but after nearly two centuries, it’s hard to imagine the humble beginnings of this absolutely regal watchmaker.
One hundred seventy-five years ago today, May 1, Patek Philippe was born when Patek, Czapek & Cie was incorporated in house number 29, right on the Quai des Bergues in Geneva.
If you are familiar with Geneva, you know that this is right next door to where the Hotel des Bergues Four Seasons is located today. Two moves later, the company found itself located where the current Geneva boutique stands (which is called “the salon” by locals).
Now, almost two centuries later, the factory comprises a sprawling complex in the Geneva suburb of Plan-les-Ouates and other locations around the canton. These are home to the company’s more than one thousand employees.
Founded in 1839, the Genevan manufacture garnered an excellent reputation for itself right from the get-go. Presence at numerous world’s fairs, universal exhibitions, and other international competitions sealed its reputation and aided in making a number of all-important connections to crowned heads, royal blood, and up-and-coming industrialists, all looking to adorn themselves with the latest in timekeeping accessories. Patek Philippe never failed to provide the perfect, most unique, intricately aesthetic timekeepers to these discerning clients.
One hundred seventy-five years is an enormous span of time for a watch company to be in continuous existence and consistently producing not just timepieces, but top-of-the-range timepieces.
What is the secret of this quintessentially traditional company, which has managed to move with the times so gracefully, continuing to appeal to younger people just getting bit by the horology bug as much as older, settled collectors? Particularly in this era of smart watches and youthful hipsters using their iPhones as timekeeping instruments?
Moving with the times
How has Patek Philippe retained such relevance through all these years? In my opinion, by not resting on its laurels, but rather moving forward, innovating, trying out the new and perhaps unexplored, while at the same time perpetuating the traditional arts, skills and crafts that it built its business on – such as the enameling that continues to be a big part of today’s unique masterpieces.
Here are two excellent examples of recent innovation:
1) The foray into sophisticated timekeeping for women.
In 1999, Patek Philippe introduced the Twenty-4 model, which was certainly one of the first purpose-built luxury watches for the female wrist in the modern era, even if most of the versions were still quartz.
Fast forward precisely ten years later to 2009, to mark the grand reopening of the flagship boutique on Place Vendôme in Paris. The star of the evening was a timepiece called Ladies First: the prestigious company’s first hand-wound chronograph fully conceived, developed, and manufactured in-house was dedicated to women. Imagine that!
Patek Philippe president Thierry Stern signified his continued desire to serve the ladies market with classic mechanical treasures during an interview with me at the event. He had been quite motivated by the success of the Twenty-4, but also stated that his decision was sealed by the many requests he had received for just such a timepiece.
“The whole world told me it is now time for such a ladies watch,” he confirmed. “We don’t want to be aggressive in the ladies market; we actually see it as a continuation [of what we have been doing].” The Ladies First chronograph, powered by Caliber 29-535, was designed specifically with female connoisseurs in mind.
2) Experimentation with and implementation of new materials.
I think no one was more surprised than I was when in 2005 Patek Philippe launched Reference 5250, a very limited timepiece containing the first Patek Philippe Advanced Research silicon-technology escape wheel.
That watch, however, only foreshadowed things to come. Six years later at a special press conference in Neuchâtel at CSEM (Swiss Center for Electronics and Microtechnology), Philippe Stern himself announced that the company’s silicon Spiromax balance spring would become the brand’s new standard and be gradually added to all future Patek Philippe calibers.
Officially introduced in 2006, the Spiromax balance spring, created in Silinvar (Patek Philippe’s “brand” of silicon), has been used since 2008 in limited editions in conjunction with the Pulsomax escapement (escape wheel, pallet lever, pallet fork) to increase efficiency.
That Philippe Stern-presided press conference also introduced the GyromaxSi, a balance bucking conventional design while keeping the same principle as the original Gyromax balance wheel the company patented in 1951. Its four small, slotted poising weights allow precision regulation of the balance spring according to the principle of variable inertia.
The GyromaxSi boasts a Silinvar body with two perfectly balanced sides weighted by 24-karat gold rims and the four gold poising screws, which make extreme precision regulation of the rate possible.
The combination of all three of these components made for one solid subgroup called the Oscillomax, which warranted a total of 17 patents.
Naturally not all
Patek Philippe has literally introduced so many complicated highlights over the years that it would be impossible to even begin listing them all here. Suffice it to say that the company has registered more than 80 patents over the course of its history, earning a fully justified reputation as the crème de la crème of haute horlogerie.
Though the 2014 Baselworld introductions seemed to lack in terms of a huge talking piece, this is not uncommon at Patek Philippe. The company prefers to save its “wow watches” for special celebrations outside of the hustle and bustle of trade fairs.
And that is why I am really, really looking forward to the official celebration of this milestone anniversary taking place in October this year. Though I am not privy to what is coming, my educated guess is that there will be more than one extremely masterful timepiece and that one or more will contain chiming complications.
For more information on Patek Philippe’s long history, check out this interactive timeline the brand set up in honor of the anniversary year: www.patek.com/contents/default/en/175th_anniversary.html