On May 10, 2010, a Patek Philippe 18K gold perpetual calendar chronograph wristwatch with moon phases from 1943 sold at a Christie’s auction in Geneva for an astounding $5.709 million. But it’s not the first time that a Patek Philippe timepiece has commanded such an celestial price. In fact, at a 1999 Sotheby’s auction in New York, a Patek Philippe pocket watch, the legendary Henry Graves Supercomplication, earned the distinction of being the most expensive watch ever sold when it brought in a dizzying $11.003 million. Of the one hundred most expensive watches ever sold at auction, fully eighty have been from Patek Philippe.
So what’s the deal with Patek Philippe? Why are they the rock stars of the horological community?
There are several reasons. Not the least of which is that Patek Philippe is a family-owned business that’s been around for a long time, doing what it does best in the way it sees fit. In 1839, two Polish immigrants – a businessman, Antoni Patek and a watchmaker, Franciszek Czapek – set up shop in Geneva as Patek, Czapek & Cie. Theirs was a short-lived partnership, and before long, Patek joined forces with the brilliant French watchmaker and inventor, Adrien Philippe. In 1845, the company was awarded the first of its many patents, this for a stem-winding timepiece, the forerunner of the modern watch.
By 1851, when the pair had officially established themselves as Patek, Philippe & Cie, the company made a splash on the international scene at the Great Exhibit in London and with Her Royal Majesty Queen Victoria, who was suitably impressed with the demonstration of the first watch that did not require a winding key. Patek Philippe timepieces quickly became sought-after collectibles and, over the years, have enjoyed a Who’s Who clientele that included, in addition to Queen Victoria, the likes of Czar Nicholas II, Countess Koscowics of Hungary, American financier Henry Graves, and Pope Pius XII.
In 1932, the company’s ownership was transferred to two brothers, Charles and Jean Stern, who inherited Patek Philippe’s vision and traditions and passed it on to their children and grandchildren. With the installation of Thierry Stern as the president of Patek Philippe in 2009, the company entered its fourth generation of leadership by a member of the Stern family.
Cutting-edge technology and innovation has defined Patek Philippe for over a century. In 1855, it introduced a dime-sized curiosity, the smallest watch ever made. It has received, and continues to receive, an impressive diversity of patents, over seventy in all, among them for a perpetual calendar mechanism for pocket watches (1889); a split-second chronograph (1902); time zone watches (1959/1962); an annual calendar mechanism (1996); and a state of winding indicator (1998). It is also known for developing the most complicated watches in the world. Not only is the Graves Supercomplication pocket watch, commissioned by Henry Graves, the most expensive watch ever sold, but at the time of its introduction in 1933, was considered the world’s most complicated timepiece, with nearly 900 parts and 24 features, or ‘complications.’ In 1989, to celebrate the company’s 150th anniversary, Patek Philippe released the Caliber 89, the newest heir to the title of the most complicated portable timepiece ever, with a whopping 33 ‘complications.’
In addition to the cachet of owning a watch that is a marvel of technology and coveted by the rich and famous, another factor that helps explain the high price tag of these timepieces is the care that goes into making them. Patek Philippe employs over 200 craftsmen, including jewelers, goldsmiths, enamellers, and engravers, to assemble the myriad components of each watch by hand – it can take between 1200 to 1500 individual steps to assemble a single movement’s components. No step is outsourced. Each watch undergoes at least 600 hours of quality control checks, and 30 days of observation and rigorous examination. A self-winding watch will run as many as 1,200 hours before leaving the workshop. The company does not skimp on research and development either. It can take three to five years to develop a new model, depending on the number of complications. The Caliber 89, with its 33 complications, was in development for nine years!
Owning a new Patek Philippe timepiece needn’t set you back in the millions. Heck, you can pick up a Twenty-4 diamond ladies’ watch for a little over $9,000. Admittedly, the range of prices for new Patek Philippes swings wildly from the low teens to half a million and then some. But the way Patek Philippe looks at it, when you purchase one of their watches, you are actually buying a work of art. Like a fine work of art, each model is produced in a small series – from as few as five to a few hundred. And similar to an artwork’s provenance, the company maintains an archive of every single timepiece ever sold since 1839. To underscore the proprietary attitude that Patek Philippe adopts towards its creations, look no further than their company’s value statement, “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.”
There are some who question the validity of the stratospheric prices Patek Philippe watches are now commanding on the auction block. Whether these watches make good investments seems hardly the point. The bottom line when it comes to owning a luxury watch is not really about the bottom line. Ever since Queen Victoria first fell in love with the keyless watch, owning a Patek Philippe timepiece seems to be less about the practicality of buying one, than about buying one simply because you can.