Patek Philippe Wristwatch
ESSE, Featured, Haute Horlogerie, The Holy Trinity

From 1839 to Now – The Legend of Patek Philippe

This is the second instalment of the ‘Holy Trinity’ series wherein I bring you the story behind the three most premier Swiss watchmakers. Subscribe to the Exalted Poise newsletter and stay tuned for the third and final part of the series.

Patek Philippe is among the premier most Swiss watchmakers with a rich history spanning across more than 180 years. As they near a couple centuries of uninterrupted, privately owned operation, let’s discover what makes Patek Philippe so revered.

The Beginning

The tale of Patek Philippe begins with a Polish immigrant by the name of Antoine Norbert De Patek. Patek was born in Poland in 1812 and grew up in hard times. He joined the Polish army when he was 16 and fought against the Russians in the November Uprising (1830-1831). He was awarded the Virtuti Militari, Poland’s highest military decoration before he was forced to flee Poland when the polish uprising against Russia was thwarted later that year.

Patek temporarily settled in France, until he had to flee to Switzerland due to an unfavourable decree from the French government (who were pressurised by the Russians). Geneva would become the place where Patek gave birth to a horological legend, one that would stand the test of time and wars to come.

As a refugee, Patek naturally sought the company of immigrants and became acquainted with François Czapek, a Polish watchmaker of Czech descent. On the 1st of May1839, Patek along with François and Thomas Moreau (his wife’s uncle) formed Patek, Czapek & Cie – Fabricants à Genève.

The company tasted success from its inception. However, disagreements arose between Patek and Czapek. Foreseeing a split-up, Patek began his hunt for a new partner. Patek met the gifted French watchmaker Jean Adrien Philippe in Paris at the French Industrial Exposition of 1844.

Impressed by Philippe’s technical brilliance, Patek dissolved his partnership with Czapek in 1845 and recruited Philippe and Vincent Gostkowski (a third partner) to establish a new company under the name, Patek & Cie – Fabricants à Genève. The company was renamed to Patek, Philippe & Cie in 1851.

Jean Adrien Philippe, son of a watchmaker was born on 16 April 1815, in La Bazoche-Gouet, France. After a period of living as a journeyman, Philippe settled in Paris where he devised a mechanism which could turn the dials of a watch with the help of an enclosed crown instead of a key. The design was a hallmark invention of the horological industry, serving as a foundational concept for movement designs even today.

Philippe displayed his mechanism at the French Industrial Exposition of 1844 and won a gold medal. He won a patent for the mechanism in 1845, the same year he joined the company as Technical Director, where he was responsible for manufacturing, improving the production process and developing new models and mechanisms.

Pushing Boundaries

In 1845, the duo produced their first watch together featuring Philippe’s keyless winding and hand setting mechanism. Philippe continued to perfect his crown mechanism and was awarded two more patents for additional improvements in 1860 and 1861.

Assumed to be personally used by Jean Adrien Philippe

While Philippe took responsibility of modernising the production processes, Patek focused on expanding the brand. His innovative marketing techniques would rank the Maison’s watches among the world’s most sought-after timepieces. Patek’s passion for intricate, well-crafted, innovative watches was complemented by Philippe’s ambition to continuously refine movements and underlying mechanisms. This glorious partnership propelled the Maison to great reputation.

As part of the company’s expansion efforts, Patek travelled across the world. A hallmark event of these travels was the partnership with Tiffany and Co. in 1851. This relationship with the North American giant has survived till today. In 1853, Patek showcased his watches at the Exhibition of the Industry of all Nations in New York City, where he received a silver medal. Just two years later, the brand received another silver medal at the World’s Fair in New York City.

As the company’s international reputation snowballed, Patek didn’t slowdown. He focused ample energy on the partnership with Tiffany & Co. whilst also travelling to cities across the US until he had 150 orders for his watches. This persistence left an impression on both Tiffany & Co. and the American market. A reputation Patek Philippe has maintained to this day.

Notice the Tiffay & Co. label on the dial

In 1863, Philippe produced the first pocket watch with a tourbillon and invented a main spring called the ‘slipping spring’. Later, in 1868, the first Patek Philippe wristwatch was born. Created for the Countess Koscowicz of Hungary, it included a cylinder escapement and eight jewels.

The First Patek Philippe Wristwatch

As Patek’s anemia worsened in 1875, he began searching for a successor so that his life’s work would be preserved. Three employees, Cingria, Rouge and Köhn – injected capital into the company and became co-owners of the Maison. Patek passed away on 1st March 1867 at the age of 65. His son, Léon was 20 years old at the time and was disinterested in running the company. He gave up all rights against an annual payment of 10,000 Swiss francs, which he lived on until his death in 1927.

Soon after Patek’s death, Philippe brought in his son Jospeh Emile Philippe and began training him to be his successor. Emile took over as Technical Director in 1891. In 1894, Adrien Philippe too passed away. The same year, Köhn left the Maison and his position was succeeded by François Antoine Conty, who had supervised production for years. Cingria also returned his shares around the same time.

To secure the company’s future, the new owners decided the adopt the by then customary legal form of a joint-stock company. ‘Patek Philippe & Cie’ was now ‘Ancienne Manufacture d’horlogerie Patek, Philippe & Cie, Société Anonyme’. The share capital amounted to 1.6 million Swiss Francs and five of the seven shareholders served as members of the Board of Directors: A. Bénassy-Philippe as chairman, with members Jean Perrier, François Antoine Conty, Joseph Emile Philippe, and Alfred G. Stein. The latter was responsible for running the New York office through which watches were sold in the American market.

Even amidst this rigorous changing of hands, Patek Philippe put out creations such as the “Duke of Regla” Westminster chime pocket watch in 1910, the first complicated ladies’ wristwatch with a five-minute repeater in 1916, the first split-seconds chronograph wristwatch in 1923 and the first Patek Philippe wristwatch with a perpetual calendar in 1925. James Ward Packard collected his Patek Philippe astronomical pocket watch, the ‘Packard’ in 1927. 

Post the death of its legendary founders, Patek Philippe continued to be an icon of innovation in the watchmaking industry. The leadership of Joseph Emile Philippe was a fitting tribute to his father’s legacy. After Emile’s death, his son Adrien became the last owner who belonged to the founding family.

An Era of Transformation

The Wall Street Crash of 1929 (known as Black Tuesday) was the most devastating stock market crash in the history of the United States. It sparked a 12-year long depression that would envelope the world. Unfortunately, Ancienne Manufacture d’horlogerie Patek, Philippe & Cie SA was caught right in the middle of it and had to seek an outside buyer. This is where the Stern Brothers stepped in.

Charles and Jean Stern owned a company ‘Cadrans Stern Frères’ that produced high quality dials. They were also among Patek Philippe’s preferred suppliers at the time. Naturally, the companies enjoyed an amicable relationship, which led to Patek Philippe reaching out to the Stern Brothers. The Stern Brothers helped by purchasing a stake in 1932 and then wholly acquired it within a year.

Post the acquisition, instead of appointing themselves at the helm of Patek Philippe, the Stern Brothers decided to hire respected watchmaker and horological specialist Jean Pfister (poached from Tavannes Watch Co. in Geneva) as the firm’s chief executive. This proved to be a smart decision. Pfister served as the company’s technical director until his retirement in 1958.

Before the end of 1932, Patek Philippe released the Ref. 96, a watch that would go down in history as the prototype of the legendary Calatrava collection. In 1933, they created the “Graves” supercomplication pocket watch for Henry Graves Jr. The Graves sold at a Sotheby’s auction in November 2014 for $24.3 million.

The Graves Supercomplication

In 1934, Charles Stern was appointed chairman of the Board of Directors and his son Henri Stern joined the company to assist him. Patek also began regular production of its perpetual calendar wristwatches in 1941. Patek Philippe further cemented themselves as a watchmaker of the highest calibre by winning a record number of awards for precision in 1944 at the Geneva Observatory.

Henri established the Henri Stern Watch Agency in New York in 1946. It served as the sole importer and distributor of Patek Philippe watches in the USA.

Henri Stern also laid a remarkable foundation to the Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva by collecting rare and unique timepieces that were kept in the Maison. As the demand for lavish, outrageous timepieces with heavy decorations waned, Henri still commissioned such pieces to preserve the sacred art practised by few remaining artisans. Pieces that could not find a buyer were simply added to his collection.

The Stern Brothers’ take over was validated when Patek Philippe established its electronics department in 1946, which soon went on to become a leading provider of information systems for railways and airports. Patek had developed an expertise in solid state time-keeping circuitry. They were awarded patents in 1949 and 1951 for their proprietary Gyromax balance, which allowed the rate of a movement to be precision-adjusted solely by altering the moment of inertia of the balance.

Patek registered a patent for a self-winding mechanism called the caliber 12-600 at in 1953. Another couple patents were registered in 1954 for photoelectric clocks. In 1956, Patek Philippe built the first all-electronic clock which two years later won ‘The Award for Miniaturization’ in the USA. In 1958, Henri Stern succeeded Jean Pfister as chairman and chief executive upon the latter’s retirement.

A Patek Philippe photoelectric clock

Patek filed patents for time-zone watches in 1959. And in 1962, they broke the world record for precision in a chronometry competition hosted by the Geneva Observatory with their classic, all mechanical tourbillon movement. The first Golden Ellipse (ref. 2548) was launched in 1968.

By 1968, Patek Philippe had also begun to collaborate with other major Swiss watchmakers. This collaboration culminated in 1970 with ‘Beta 21’, the first serially produced Swiss quartz movement for wristwatches. Patek Philippe also launched a quartz table clock with photoelectric cells and a patented automatic winder with a peripheral rotor around the same time period.

Patek Philippe saw a period of constant innovation and invention under Henri Stern. The availability of several new technologies meant that Patek had to be active on all fronts. Yet, amidst it all, the vision of the original founders for creating the world’s best and most elegant timepieces was not forgotten; and that was the direction into the future.

The Third Generation of Stern

Philippe Stern, son of Henri Stern was born in 1938. He spent part of his childhood in USA but retained familiarity with his family background and the business they operated in Geneva. Despite being highly interested in the Maison, Philippe tried to make a career in information technology. However, he later joined the Henri Stern Watch Agency at New York in 1963. After moving to Geneva and joining Patek Philippe in 1966, he acquainted himself with all the processes and operations of manufacturing.

Soon, Philippe began to combine his expertise in IT with watchmaking. He catalysed quantum leaps in technological developments, a lot of which went on to affect the entire industry. As Quartz movement prices, which were much more expensive than their mechanical counterparts, began to plummet sharply, Philippe was tasked with envisioning a new kind of watch that better represented his generation.

Enter, the Nautilus Ref 3700/1A. Launched in 1976, it was an exceptional wristwatch that combined the simply causal with Patek Philippe’s signature elegance. The watch was led by the slogan, ‘One of the world’s most expensive watches is made of steel.’ The watch remains a favourite of enthusiasts to this day, effortlessly conveying the Patek Philippe legend.

Following the success of the Nautilus, Philippe was appointed CEO in 1977. Philippe understood that the classic mechanical watch stood a chance against quartz movements only if they were truly high-end products, perceived as art and a collector’s item.

The famous ultra-thin Patek Philippe Caliber 240 was also presented in 1977. With its patented automatic winder and a 22K gold mini-rotor totally recessed in the plate, the 240 served as the ideal movement for other thin wristwatches such as the elegant Perpetual Calendar Ref. 3940 introduced in 1985. Next year, Patek filed a patent for a secular perpetual calendar with retrograde date indication.

The 3940G

Philippe had big ambitions for the company. He recruited engineers to transform Patek from a craftsmanship driven to an industrial manufacturer. The speciality for artisanship was preserved. But now watches would be manufactured using detailed blueprints and certain parts machine made to ensure lifelong serviceability of the timepieces.

The motto was, “Everything that a hand can do better than a machine, we will do. But when machine can assist the work of a person, we will not adhere blindly to tradition.”  

At its 150th Anniversary in 1989, Patek Philippe developed what is one among the most complicated portable timepiece in the world: the Calibre 89 with 33 complications.

Calibre 89 and the Date-of-Easter complication

Part of Philippe’s ambition for the Maison was to ensure complete independence. He determined that it was the only way to ensure sustained quality levels and craftsmanship. Patek Philippe was quite autonomous at the time and relied on very few suppliers for a small number of movement blanks. But even this was corrected shortly after.

In 1993, Henri Stern transferred the presidency to Philippe, and in 1994, Philippe Stern’s son Thierry joined the company as a member of the family’s fourth generation. 1993 also witnessed the birth of the diverse Gondolo collection.

Philippe began to work on realising his ambitions for the company. The first was to increase resources. Patek Philippe doubled their employee count during Philippe Stern’s tenure. The Patek Philippe ateliers spread out across Geneva were also consolidated under one roof, a manufacturing complex built from the ground up fully self-funded by the company. Located at Plan-les-Ouates, a suburb in Geneva, the workshop was inaugurated in 1996.

Patek Philippe expressed its family philosophy of ‘One Generation to the Next’ in 1996 with an international image campaign. This campaign has extensively evolved to what we see today as, ‘You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.’ Patek also filed a patent for the Annual Calendar mechanism in 1996.

The Aquanaut collection was introduced in 1997. And in 1999, they put out the first Twenty~4 (Ref.  4910/10A). Patek Philippe then outdid themselves for the nth time with the Star Caliber 2000 launched in 2000 to mark a millennium. 

Star Caliber 2000

To The Present

Philippe’s biggest dream was realised in 2001, with the inauguration of the Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva’s Plainpalais district. He had religiously collected the most iconic Patek timepieces for more than 40 years and the end product was a stunning collection of more than 2000 timepieces, automata, and enamel miniatures as well as a library with more than 8000 works dedicated to the measurement of time. It was among the world’s most eminent horological museums from the very start.

The museum inauguration was complemented by the launch of the most complicated Patek Philippe double faced wristwatch till then: the Sky Moon Tourbillon, Ref. 5002. Shortly after, Patek introduced the 10-day Tourbillon, Ref. 5101P.

Philippe’s ambitions of independence and ambition were further realised with the launch of the “Patek Philippe Advanced Research” department which focused on novel materials and avant-garde technologies. It would go on to become a key pillar of the manufacture’s philosophy – “Tradition & Innovation” The first tangible result was an escape wheel made of a revolutionary silicon derivative which was presented in 2005: the Annual Calendar Ref. 5250.

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Ref. 5250G (2005) Annual Calendar Advanced Research

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The renovated Rue Du Rhône salons in Geneva were opened in 2006.The same year, they launched the silicon-based Spiromax balance spring. In 2008, they brought out the Pulsomax silicon-based escapement.

Thierry Stern succeeded his father as president in August 2009. His father Philippe Stern became honorary president and Claude Peny remained CEO. Soon after, Thierry proposed the newly designed Patek Philippe Seal which clearly outlined the company’s commitment to high quality. The Patek Philippe Seal superseded the Geneva Seal, truly establishing Patek in a league of its own.

The Patek Philippe Seal

Patek Philippe unveiled its 175th anniversary collection in October 2014. Enthusiasts and fans all over the world were anxious to see what the Masion would put out and whether it would do justice to the 150th anniversary collection. Suffice to say, Patek Philippe didn’t disappoint.

The collection featured timepieces such as the World-Timer with Moonphase Ref. 5575G and Chiming Jump Hour Ref. 5275P. As stunning as they were, all eyes were drawn toward the collection’s crown jewel: The Grandmaster Chime Ref. 5175R – Patek Philippe’s most complicated and most expensive wristwatch ever.

Moonphase Ref. 5575G
Chiming Jump Hour Ref. 5275P

The manufacturer today boasts of a rich heritage of more than 180 years, representing a pinnacle in haute horology. Yet, in the increasingly competitive watchmaking landscape of today, further plagued by unfavourable market conditions, Patek Philippe’s approach to the future is cautious.

“As long as we have the passion and we are well organised with good people, I don’t imagine we can fall. Patek Philippe is a never ending story of creation and renewal. We will always be there with fine products and I can’t imagine a day where I will run out of ideas. Movements may be getting more complicated but they’re always useful and not gimmicks, the evolution of technology is also helping us bring new ideas to fruition. Barring some catastrophic mistake, it’s unlikely Patek will fall but there will never be a time for us to sit and relax.” – Thierry Stern

Featured Image by @bluepatek (Instagram)

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