Patek Phillippe, The Ladies First Chronograph

Patek Phillippe, The Ladies First Chronograph

Patek Shifts Course

New York Times, November 26, 2009

Patek Philippe, regarded by aficionados as the finest timepiece manufacturer in the world, does not, as a rule, go in for gimmicks. Owned by the Stern family of Geneva since 1932, the brand is revered by mostly male collectors for its classic good looks and mechanical virtuosity as well as its conservative, long-term marketing vision: predictable in the nicest way possible.

All of which makes the introduction of Patek’s newest watch, the Ladies First Chronograph, extraordinary. The mechanism that powers the timepiece, unveiled in early November at the company’s newly renovated Paris salon on Place Vendôme, is the successor to a legendary chronograph caliber developed exclusively for Patek Philippe by Nouvelle Lémania in 1986.

Touted as the first watch to have been designed and built to the standards of the Patek Philippe Seal, a set of in-house quality standards codified this year, the $79,800 ladies’ timepiece, available from next year in two dial versions — opalescent silver or black with a guilloche pattern — is sure to surprise the brand’s traditional fans.

“They all think I’m going left and I’m going right,” said Thierry Stern, who took over from his father, Philippe Stern, as president of the company in October, referring to the brand’s male fans. “All those women who used to listen to their husbands say, ‘Look at my watch, look how good it is.’ Here is their revenge.”

What makes the revenge especially sweet is that the manual-wind movement, housed in a cushion-shaped, 18-karat rose gold case strewn with diamonds, is visible through a sapphire-crystal exhibition back. Among collectors, its maze of levers, bridges and wheels passes for “watch porn,” as watch enthusiasts sometimes refer to the kick they get from looking at a watch’s insides.

“The previous version of that classic manual winding lateral clutch chronograph movement was recognized as one of the most beautiful movements ever made,” said James D. Malcolmson, contributing watch editor at Robb Report, a luxury lifestyle magazine. “Men will wish that piece didn’t have diamonds.”

Shying away from the diamonds is certainly new for Patek’s male collectors, who until now didn’t have to worry about competing with women for the brand’s attention. The vast majority of Patek’s sales to women came from its Twenty~4 collection of quartz timepieces, launched in 1999. The watch opened the brand to young women who could afford its $6,200 entry price. The strategy positioned Patek Philippe to compete in the same market as fashion houses such as Cartier, but ignored the growing market for women’s mechanical timepieces.

“We weren’t talking to those 35-year-old women who’d become the next Patek collectors,” said Larry Pettinelli, president of Patek Philippe USA. “Why shouldn’t ladies be able to take advantage of what makes Patek Patek? We see a huge potential not just to sell units but to create the same kind of love that men have for the brand.”

The women’s category represents, to some extent, a missed opportunity for the Swiss. When mechanical watchmaking came back into vogue in the late 1980s, marketers positioned watches as the ultimate accessories for men. Not until the turn of the millennium did they notice that women were borrowing their partner’s timepieces. A handful of prestige manufacturers, from Breguet to Girard-Perregaux, responded with a slew of complicated models bedecked with diamonds.

Mr. Stern, with the encouragement of his wife and creative director, Sandrine Stern, decided it was time for Patek Philippe to join the fray. Besides, manufacturing an in-house chronograph for women dovetailed nicely with the brand’s plans to expand its production of complications, for which it recently acquired from L'Oréal an adjoining property in Plan-les-Ouates, Geneva, for an annex facility.

The Sterns are not saying whether a follow-up gents edition is in the works, but it’s clear that a diamond-free version called, maybe, “Men’s Second Chronograph,” would meet with approval.