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Hand finishing at Patek Philippe
Patek Philippe - The art of hand finishing: the case

Patek Philippe The art of hand finishing: the case

The quality of Patek Philippe’s finishes is built on a respect for tradition and a culture of excellence. Handcrafting is a major factor in this. We take a closer look at the watch case.

The case is the body of the watch, a sealed container that largely determines its overall appearance. It encloses the watch’s internal organs, frames its display and holds the bracelet, whose curves it anticipates. This multifaceted interface demands a specific savoir-faire, whose full potential can only be revealed by the intervention of human hands. According to the purist approach that Patek Philippe has chosen to take, the case deserves as much attention as the movement. After meticulous shaping by high-precision machines, the case of a Patek Philippe watch is still just a rough idea of what it will become. The next step is to make it beautiful, and this happens in two stages. The first is the smoothing, polishing and buffing. The second brings in texture, with motifs, engravings and jewels. In every case, the journey from raw material to finished surface is guided by human hands.

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After the raw metal has been stamped out, a long series of machining processes add the details, perforations, internal volumes and detailing to its curves. Once this shaping stage is complete, the unfinished case is passed on for finishing. A lengthy process of deburring smooths out all the edges and removes all traces of the tools that have been used. Then, if necessary, the lugs are soldered on. The Patek Philippe hallmark imposes quality criteria here too, including the requirement that all these operations are carried out by hand.

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The gold, platinum or steel, sometimes even titanium, are now cleaned up, but they are still lacking that tactile surface quality. This is the point at which the cases are polished. Using a variety of brushes of different grades, loaded with the appropriate buffing compounds, operators polish by hand every facet of the case, even its most inaccessible corners: down between the lugs, around the crown and, of course, the largest and most visible surfaces, the bezel and caseband. A gold case, for example, requires on average one and a half hours of polishing, while a platinum case can take up to four hours. At the end of the process a final diamond polishing stage sharpens those edges where a cleaner profile is required, like the bezel.

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Patek Philippe continues to offer hunter pocket watches as part of its current collection. These pieces require particular attention to their hinges, and the covers often feature a guilloché design. An old-fashioned hand-operated lathe is guided by a system of cams to execute the motif. However, the type of guillochage most frequently performed by Patek (if it’s correct to use the term “frequently” in this context) is on the bezels of some Calatrava models. The clou de Paris hobnail pattern is a Patek Philippe classic. The matrix of tiny pyramids with their rounded tops and clean edges requires expert work by specialists.

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Five years ago, Patek Philippe began covering some of its cases, particularly those of its grand complication watches, with intricately executed engravings, undertaken by craftsmen. This rare practice is applied to the caseband, bezel, lugs and sometimes even the pushers. Only an expert hand can oversee a task so precise and time-consuming, which requires weeks of work. What is more, engraving allows no room for error. If the burin slips and the line is marred, the entire object is compromised. Whether intaglio (fine engraving done with a burin), bas-relief (where the design stands out against the background) or champlevé (where the surface is hollowed out in preparation for enamelling), Patek Philippe’s savoir-faire stretches back in an unbroken line. The company has never stopped using these handcrafts, or offering them to the public in its watches, including through its line of Dome table clocks.

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Gem-setting at Patek Philippe, whether on men’s or women’s watches, also complies with the Patek Philippe hallmark specifications. Diamonds must be rated “Internally Flawless” for clarity and “Top Wesselton” for colour, with perfect proportions and finish, ensuring that the diamonds have optimal lustre. Stones must be traditionally set (never glued) and they must be level, correctly aligned and all at the same height. Diamond is naturally very hard, which makes it relatively easy to work with. But Patek Philippe also sets more fragile stones, including rubies, sapphires and emeralds. All these resources and expertise are available internally, in a dedicated workshop inside the Patek Philippe manufacture. And, of course, all of the procedures involved in gem-setting are carried out manually.

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