Patek Philippe is not among the oldest Swiss watchmakers--that distinction falls to Blancpain (1735), Vacheron Constantin (1755), and Perrelet (1777), and it’s not among the top selling, that distinction would largely go to watches in the more popular price ranges, such as Timex and Seiko. But it is distinct in its precision engineering even within an already elite group of pre-eminent luxury watchmakers. The company claims to be the last independent watchmaker in Geneva; it is almost certainly in an exclusive minority of independent, family-owned watchmakers worldwide.
Founded by Polish-born Antoine Norbert de Patek in 1839, the company was originally called Patek, Czapek & Co. In 1845, the inventor of the crown winding and setting system, Jean Adrien Philippe, became the new partner, replacing Czapek to form Patek Philippe in 1851.
Patek and Philippe set out to make the world’s finest watches with top quality performance and reliability. The design, crafting, manufacturing, finishing and assembly have always been completed in-house by master craftsmen.
Patek Philippe meets the requirements of the Geneva Seal--a mark of distinction, which began in 1886 as a way to ensure origin and craftsmanship of clocks and watches. The rules are such that only manual and self-winding mechanical movements can receive the Geneva Seal. Every watch in the Patek Philippe collection qualifies under these regulations.
The quality is not lost on those with the cash and the class to own one or two of the exclusive watches. The wrists of Marie Curie, Léon Tolstoï, Queen Victoria and Richard Wagner all reportedly sported a Patek Philippe at one time or another.
But the company goes for a more personal approach when promoting its brand. Communication typically consists of tasteful black and white photography of an anonymous parent and child scene to convey the generational aspects of owning a Patek Philippe.
Works of photographers such as Mary Ellen Mark, Regan Cameron, Régine Mahaux, and Ellen von Unwerth, illustrate the reliability and timelessness of the watch, typically with the tagline “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely take care of it for the next generation.”
Recent efforts have been underway in the last decade to attract a largely untapped female audience. The creation of the Twenty-4, a watch marketed toward women, carries the tagline “Who will you be in the next 24 hours” and features color photographs of a striking woman with the titles “mother, wife, boss, daughter, friend.”
The watchmaker also publishes books on horology and an eponymous magazine, covering such diverse topics as millenary, pets, flowers, lace and, the more obvious, like the origins of Greenwich Mean Time. The timelessness of the content and the production quality of the publication all reinforce the impression of Patek Philippe as a brand of premium distinction and lasting excellence.
With the current state of economy, one would think luxury brand watchmaking would grind to a standstill. However, according to a survey in the Financial Times, jewelry sales slowed while the watch industry enjoyed a boom year (March 2001). The FT places Patek Philippe’s worth around the US$ 900M (983.5M euros) mark. Not that anyone’s interested in selling. The ability to remain free of global conglomerates means Patek Philippe can continue making watches at its relatively glacial pace of 23,000 a year--a figure with which the company claims to be content.
The brand is now headed by another Philippe. Philippe Stern, whose family acquired the company in 1932, is the third generation to head the company, and plans are underway for the succession of Thierry Stern, the president’s son, to continue the tradition. The eventual retirement of the elder Stern will leave more time for his leisure pursuits of sailing, skiing and dog sledding. And the handing down of the company will reinforce the notion that Patek Philippe is among the family heirlooms to be treasured for generations.