Rare are the independent family-owned watch brands of this size and with this history. Patek Philippe has had a retail outlet at the same address on the prestigious Rue du Rhône in Geneva for over 160 years and has been making some of the world’s finest timepieces for even longer than that.
Just like the brand’s advertising campaign, which plays on the theme of handing down its watches from generation to generation, without ever actually owning them, the management of Patek Philippe has also been handed down through the generations of the Stern family and the head of creation at the firm is none other than the wife of company president Thierry Stern.
As a brand with both a history and a level of prestige to maintain, it’s not surprising that the majority of Patek Philippe’s timepieces are produced in precious metals such as platinum and white gold, yellow gold or rose gold. Popular vintage models can also be found in the now less-trendy yellow gold, but their value to collectors can be eclipsed by far by the much rarer models with a stainless steel case, which can fetch record sums at auction. For example, only four Reference 1518 models in steel are known to exist. So when one came up at the Phillips Geneva Watch Auction four in 2016, the watch sparked a bidding war that lasted over ten minutes before selling for 11 million Swiss francs, setting a new price record for a wristwatch sold at auction at the time. Yellow gold has, however, slowly made its way back into the collection and can now be found in all of the major product lines with the notable exceptions of the Aquanaut, Nautilus and Twenty-4, which are only available in white gold, rose gold and stainless steel.
As a participant at the bi-annual Only Watch charity auction, Patek Philippe has also produced unique pieces of its watches, taking the opportunity to metals other than gold to increase the value of the watch - and the proceeds for charity. In 2015 it presented a unique piece of its Ref. 5016 perpetual calendar with a case in stainless steel. In 2017, where the colours of the auction are yellow and black, the brand offered a unique Ref. 5208 with three complications and a case in titanium. On the past two editions of the auction, the hammer price of this unique piece has been more than that of all the other lots combined.
The product range includes legendary names such as the Aquanaut, Nautilus and Calatrava collections. There is a long waiting list for the former, even though it is among the more affordable models offered by the brand. Where Patek Philippe excels is in the unusual combination of key movement complications, such as chronographs with annual or perpetual calendar. It is also known for its world time models, which combine ease of use and legibility with artistic details on the dial such as hand-painted enamel and hand engine-turned decorations. The Ref. 5230 world time model presented in 2016 was updated to take account the latest changes in time zones and comes with a white gold or rose gold case and high-contrast black and white dials. As the most precious metal of all used in watchmaking, platinum is reserved for these complications. Models in platinum are available, as an exception, on the Calatrava and Golden Ellipse (which in this case is not so golden).
The family-owned brand is also famous for its grand complications and has twice produced the most complicated wristwatch ever, such as the Grandmaster Chime Ref. 5175, produced for the company’s 175th anniversary, which was the first grande sonnerie wristwatch in the collection and had a rose gold case, a double-sided display with two white dials and a separate calendar display.This watch boasts 20 complications including two patented world-firsts in chiming mechanisms. Although its price was a closely-guarded secret, it was rumoured to be approximately 2.5 million Swiss francs. An expensive way to tell the time!
Patek Philippe is one of the few genuine “manufacture” watch brands, outsourcing production of just a fraction of the components it needs for its watches and producing the rest in-house. Its almost maniacal levels of quality control for the standardised components for its movements, such as the mainplates, bridges and gear trains, allow it to certify each mechanical watch with the Patek Philippe Seal, which guarantees even better precision than the ISO-certified chronometer status and ensures that the dial always shows the right time.
Such levels of quality come at a price, of course, although it is a price that collectors are more than willing to pay for these watches, as is shown by the waiting lists and the staggering mark-ups seen for rarer pieces at auction. Nevertheless, Patek Philippe is following some of its peers and is now much more open on its new patek.com website, where for an extra click visitors can see the prices of all the models in the current collection. Another example of the company’s openness is the huge Grand Exhibitions that it organises at great expense to show off its history and collections to the general public. These exhibitions take two years to plan and set up and have brought the brand closer to watch fans and curious visitors in cities such as Munich, Dubai, London and New York.