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Calibrated Perfection by Siems Luckwaldt | 20th March, 2014 | Offices

Watchmaker Patek Philippe celebrates its 175th birthday in 2014. The company has remained true to its heritage of highly complex timepieces, as a recent exhibition in Munich impressively showed. Siems Luckwaldt joined the event and spoke to Patek President Thierry Stern.

Last fall, Thierry Stern, President of watch manufacturer Patek Philippe, hosted what was probably the most successful exhibition of timepieces in the last few years. For more than two weeks the “Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung” art gallery in Munich was the well-secured home of more than 430 exhibits. Among the highlights were the master watchmakers, engravers and enamel painters, who gave an insight into their magical, intricate skills deployed at the smallest of scales. Further highlights included the antique and cutting-edge exhibits: among them a box-shaped pocket watch from the 1530s and a 1924 Patek pocket watch with a tourbillon.

Another highpoint was the sparkling quartz crystal model from the “Twenty-4” ladies’ range, adorned with over 720 diamonds weighing a total of 36.3 carats. Plus, the legendary Star Caliber 2000: a unique pocket watch with a double-sided clock face, which includes the most beautiful depiction of the phases of the moon ever made. This masterpiece also boasts 21 features, such as a perpetual calendar and a melodious Westminster chime, making it the third most complex watch in the world. The number one and two spots are, of course, also held by Patek Philippe watches. Also on show in Munich were current models from the Travel Time, Calatrava, Gondolo, Nautilus and Aquanaut ranges, some of which were luxurious special editions.

Thierry Stern’s opening address was given in a mix of German and French, delivered with charming Swiss understatement, despite a company turnover of approximately 774 million euros in 2012. But patting himself on the back publically really isn’t Stern’s style. Rather, he reminisced about his first visit to the newly constructed company headquarters in Geneva in 1996. “Standing in the shell of the building with my father, in the place where we would soon be working with 1,600 of our colleagues, was an unforgettable experience for me. It was the beginning of a new era.”

Stern lives five minutes from the company HQ, together with his two sons and his wife Sandrine, the brand’s creative director and herself the daughter of a jeweler. His family not only provides support, they also supply first-hand market research data: “Although 65 percent of our sales are men’s watches, we know that women have a large say in the purchasing decisions of their husbands,” Stern explains. Watch No. 5200, launched at this year’s Baselworld trade fair, gives an insight into the details the watchmakers at Patek Philippe work on. Despite the energy intensive calendar, which displays the date and day of the week, the watch has a power reserve of eight days. This is made possible through the interplay of twin mainspring barrels and the oil-free Silinvar® escapement, developed by Patek. These features ensure that there is hardly any friction. Small dimensions and a four-Hertz frequency further distinguish this timepiece, which has been hailed as “revolutionary” among experts.

On May 1st, 1839, the Polish immigrant and merchant Antoine Norbert Count de Patek and watchmaker François Czapek founded the company Patek, Czapek & Cie in Geneva. Czapek later struck out on his own, leaving Patek’s new business partner Jean-Adrien Philippe to contribute the second part of the company’s current name. By inventing the winding crown, the two watchmakers rendered previously required watch keys obsolete. In 1932 the company was acquired by Geneva-based watch dial manufacturers Charles and Jean Stern. Since that time, the family has owned Patek Philippe S.A. – and currently does so in the fourth generation. The company launched the first watch with an automatic rotor winding mechanism in 1953. It also holds a further 80 patents and developed the Caliber 89, the world’s most complex pocket watch to date, which boasts 33 features and 1,728 parts, as well as the Sky Moon Tourbillon Ref. 5002, with its price tag of 700,000 euros.

While many competitors were forced to take a break at some point, Patek Philippe remained active, as the independent manufacturer of the “Komplikationen“ and “Grandes Complications” ranges, for example. Selling the company to an international conglomerate like Richemont or the Swatch Group is out of the question for Patek’s president Thierry Stern, who took over the business from his father and Patek’s honorary president Philippe Stern in 2009. “Once a year, someone will approach us with an offer. I then politely say ‘No, thank you,’ and that’s the end of that.” The freedom to be able to think long-term, and not to have to compromise on quality for the sake of shareholder value, is extremely important to Thierry Stern.

Conservatively, in the original sense of the word, is also how the Sterns conduct their business activities in the Far East. The brand refrained from engaging in any hype in China, unlike many of its euphoric competitors who attempted a risky entry into that desirable, booming market. At Patek, people stayed calm. “For me the greatest luxury is the service which we offer our clients for the whole lifespan of the watch,” emphasizes the 43-year-old during our conversation. So, instead of hastily erecting one boutique after another in China, the company opened the Maison Patek Philippe in Shanghai in 2012, a subsidiary, which is on par with the Salon Patek Philippe in Geneva.  This was followed by a service center with 30 employees and the Patek Philippe Institute Shanghai, which is dedicated to training junior watchmakers. The students, whose diligence assuages the industry’s worries about finding young talent, complete a total of 3,550 hours of training on a two-year course.

Thierry Stern does not (yet) worry about whether his sons, who are ten and twelve years old, will one day follow him into the family business. Even the all-pervasive digitalization of our lives does not cause him sleepless nights. Does he think watches with automatic clockworks, hundreds of small cogs, engravings and highly sophisticated intricacies are perhaps becoming anachronistic? Stern responds with a family anecdote: “A few years ago, one of my sons pointed at the clock on my desk and said: ‘Daddy, where do you plug in the charger?’ I told him: ‘That’s the great thing about it – it doesn’t need electricity.’ In that moment I knew that watches, like the ones made at Patek Philippe, will be around for a very long time.” SL

IssueGG Magazine 02/14
City/CountryMunich/ Germany
PhotographyPress Images Patek Philippe