Patek Philippe Celebrates 175th Anniversary in Style
New York Times, November 5, 2014
GENEVA — If guests at Patek Philippe’s 175th anniversary gala in mid-October were expecting a sedate celebration, in keeping with the watchmaker’s reputation for maintaining a low profile, they may have been surprised to find themselves witnesses to a spectacle.
From the elaborate animated film that depicted the firm’s milestone achievements since its 1839 founding here to the Champagne-and-caviar soirée that followed, the splashy evening was a must-attend occasion for the community of collectors, journalists and retailers who thrive on the art, not to mention the commerce, of watchmaking.
Held at Patek Philippe’s manufacturing facility in Plan-les-Ouates, a suburb of Geneva, the festivities were highlighted by the unveiling of six new wristwatches. The showpiece was a double-face reversible watch called the Grandmaster Chime. Sheathed in an ornately engraved 18-karat rose gold case, it boasts 20 complications, including a perpetual calendar, a minute repeater, a second time zone, a leap year cycle and esoteric chiming mechanisms known as grand and petite sonneries.
With 1,366 movement components and 214 case components, the $2.6 million model is the most complex wristwatch the firm has ever produced. Only seven will be made, one of which will go to the Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva.
The Grandmaster Chime is “the result of seven years of hard work,” said Patek Philippe’s president, Thierry Stern, as he unveiled the timepiece before a crowd of some 300 journalists. His father, Philippe Stern, whom he succeeded in 2009, stood beside him on stage, underscoring the company’s defining characteristic. In an industry beset by acquisitions and consolidations, Patek Philippe — acquired by the brothers Charles and Jean Stern in 1932 and passed down from father to son through four succeeding generations — remains resolutely independent.
“The decision-making process of the Sterns is not the same as the big groups or the people who have to worry about shareholders and profit margins,” said Larry Pettinelli, the president of Patek Philippe USA and a 26-year veteran of the company. “It’s more about moving watchmaking forward.”
Like the Calibre 89, the world’s most complicated portable timepiece, introduced in 1989 to mark Patek’s 150th anniversary, the Grandmaster Chime is a testament to the company’s particular expertise: making intricate movements jam-packed with complications and marketing them in highly limited series.
“Patek has always had consistency, quality and greater variety than any other maker,” said Daryn Schnipper, head of Sotheby’s International Watch Division. “And when the Patek Philippe Museum opened in 2001, that immediately reinforced what people felt before: that they care so much about their watches and longevity.”
The company’s commitment to mechanical watchmaking — solidified in 1996, when it inaugurated the facility in Plan-les-Ouates — was reflected in a 3-D computer-generated film, shown during the anniversary event, that explored the microcosm inside the Grandmaster Chime. Soaring between pinions, wheels and levers, the camera provided a dizzying view of the complexity that Patek Philippe has spent the past 175 years mastering.
Founded in 1839 by Antoine Norbert de Patek and François Czapek, Polish and Bohemian immigrants to Geneva, respectively, the firm — then known as Patek, Czapek & Cie — was renamed Patek Philippe in 1851 to reflect the partnership between Mr. Patek and the French watchmaker Jean Adrien Philippe.
Although the company was always a respected maker in Geneva’s competitive watchmaking community, it wasn’t until the 20th century that it emerged as a powerhouse of mechanical timekeeping.
That was when American collectors like the automobile magnate James Ward Packard and the banking scion Henry Graves pushed the company to create horological masterpieces.
Then as now, Patek Philippe maintained an abiding respect for the past, refusing to go in for trends or gimmicks.
“In many brands, the future is more important,” said Jean-Claude Biver, head of the watch division at the French luxury goods company LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. “But the Stern family always believed that the past is as important as the future and you should treat both with the same energy and attention.”
The wisdom of that world view was made clear in 1989, when a yellow gold version of the Calibre 89 sold at auction in Geneva for the then-staggering sum of $3.2 million.
“The publicity was unprecedented,” Mr. Pettinelli said. “From that point on, we had many more people following the brand — and that’s where I think some of the collectors from today came from.”
Over the coming week, many of those collectors are preparing for what John Reardon, the international head of Christie’s watch department, described as “the World Cup of the watch world.”
On Nov. 9, Christie’s will hold a thematic evening sale in Geneva dedicated to Patek Philippe’s 175th anniversary. Featuring 100 timepieces chosen from around the world, the sale includes a unique 18-karat gold single button split-seconds chronograph manufactured in 1930, retailed by Cartier and owned by the aviation pioneer William E. Boeing. The wristwatch is expected to fetch as much as 800,000 Swiss francs, or $850,000.
Sotheby’s will follow that sale with a special auction of its own on Nov. 11, when the Henry Graves Supercomplication, an astronomical pocket watch delivered to the New York banker in 1933, goes on the block. Considered the holy grail of watch collecting, the Graves Supercomplication was sold to an anonymous bidder at Sotheby’s in 1999 for the record-breaking sum of $11 million. Its buyer was later revealed to be a sheikh from Qatar, and Patek Philippe the underbidder.
Now that the Supercomplication is back, with an estimated price of 15 million Swiss francs, or $15.8 million, the watch world will be watching closely to see what it fetches.
“If there’s any constant with this watch, it’s the uncertainty and serendipity that has followed it since it was delivered to Graves in 1933,” said Stacy Perman, author of “A Grand Complication: The Race to Build the World’s Most Legendary Watch,” her 2013 book about the Supercomplication.
Ms. Perman did not discount the possibility that the piece might sell to another “wild card” buyer, as it did in 1999, or perhaps even to Patek Philippe itself.
During a smoke break at the opening night of the anniversary party in Geneva, however, Thierry Stern denied that Patek would bid for the Supercomplication.
“I think $16 million is too high,” he said, smiling enigmatically.