Why Patek Philippe Remains Still and Forever the King of High Watchmaking

At its latest Watch Art Grand Exhibition, the manufacture continues its mission to share its savoir-faire, latest technical innovations and peerless métiers d’art to the Land of the Rising Sun.

When people ask me why it is that Patek Philippe, which already has staggering wait lists for almost all its watches and certainly its much sought-after complication, high-complication, grand-complication and sport models, would spend a staggering sum — easily in the millions — to showcase their history and craft in their Grand Exhibitions, my three-word response is invariably: “Because they can.”

 

Which is not meant to be so much glib as factual. As a wholly family-owned and -run company, Thierry and Philippe Stern can decide how to deploy their capital. For them, the objective has never been to sell more watches, but to tell the world their story with the greatest authenticity. Because when it comes to high watchmaking, the innovation of game-changing complications and the creation of peerless métiers d’art, there is only one king. And that king is Patek Philippe.

 

Even industry legend Jean-Claude Biver — a man who has, in some ways, competed against Patek Philippe for over 40 years since he revived Blancpain in 1982 — collects almost exclusively Patek Philippe watches himself. Why? He explains, “Because Patek is the best. It is as simple as that. No brand has brought greater creativity, better quality and more beautiful designs to watchmaking. No one.”

 

Today, all watch brands are engaged on a single-minded mission to create broader awareness, greater desirability and to reach the next generation of consumers. But each one at the top does it in a different way. Audemars Piguet has decided to engage with popular culture like hip hop and Marvel Comics. Rolex today completely dominates the world of sports, despite it very brilliantly shifting beyond the sports market and into the high-luxury world with its watches.

 

But no one tells the story of the history of watchmaking better than Patek Philippe. And when you attend the Grand Exhibition in Tokyo’s Sumitomo Sankaku Hiroba as a new watch fan, a young person still in his early formative stage in terms of taste, there is one message you will leave with — the one irrefutable and unassailable truth that will be imparted upon you so that it bonds forever with your psyche — which is that the history of high watchmaking is the story of Patek Philippe itself, certainly throughout the 20th century and now in our new millennium.

Patek Philippe’s Watch Art Grand Exhibition in Tokyo’s Sumitomo Sankaku Hiroba

Nicholas Foulkes, President of the Geneva Grand Prix, and the journalist extraordinaire who literally wrote the book on Patek Philippe, says, “The motivation for Patek Philippe to stage these extraordinary Grand Exhibitions is the same one that inspired Philippe Stern to create the Patek Philippe salon in Geneva. Because when you enter inside and walk through the history of watchmaking, you realize that no brand has had a greater influence on shaping high watchmaking than Patek Philippe, thanks to the extraordinary leadership of the Stern family.”

Auro Montanari, one of the world’s foremost Patek Philippe historians and the author of the amazing Patek Philippe Steel Watches, says, “No one has achieved more to shape the culture of high watchmaking than Patek Philippe. Look at 1941, the world was at war, but Patek Philippe made two of the most iconic watches of all time: Ref. 1518, the world’s first serially produced perpetual calendar chronograph; and Ref. 1526, the world’s first serially produced perpetual calendar.”

From left: Patek Philippe Ref. 1518 and Ref. 1526

Montanari’s point is extremely salient, because in the annals of modern horology, there is no brand more synergistically associated with the perpetual calendar wristwatch. Patek Philippe was the very first to create a perpetual calendar wristwatch in 1925, the first to create a retrograde perpetual calendar wristwatch in 1937, as well as the very first to produce a perpetual calendar wristwatch in series in 1941 with the legendary Ref. 1526. The manufacture was the first to create a sweep-seconds perpetual calendar wristwatch in 1944 with the Ref. 1591, and the first to serially produce this complication in 1951 with the Ref. 2497. It was also the first to create a self-winding perpetual calendar beginning in 1962 with the iconic Ref. 3448 — in fact, it would take a full 16 years before another Swiss watchmaker could match this achievement.

The iconic Patek Philippe Ref. 3448

In addition, as Montanari points out, Patek Philippe was also the first to create a perpetual calendar chronograph in 1941 with the legendary Ref. 1518. And Patek Philippe holds the record for the most expensive vintage perpetual calendar ever sold at auction: the stainless steel Ref. 1518 perpetual calendar chronograph which went under the hammer for just over CHF 11 million at a Phillips Bacs & Russo auction in 2016.

 

Ahmed Shary Rahman, modern Patek Philippe collector and GPHG jury member, says, “More than shaping the history of high watchmaking. Patek is high watchmaking. And what I love is that when they launch new watches, it’s never a gimmick; it’s never to create a social media sensation, but to introduce new functional complications backed by a tremendous amount of research and new functional innovations.” The message is clear: amid a world where watch brands are launching a constant dizzying array of newer, better, splashier, crazier timepieces, Patek Philippe makes real watches. What do I mean by this? Let’s take a look at two timepieces introduced during the Tokyo Grand Exhibition as examples of real watchmaking.

Quadruple Complication Limited Edition Tokyo 2023 Ref. 5308P-010

You didn’t think that all this talk about Patek Philippe and perpetual calendars was going to lead nowhere, did you? So the predecessor to the Ref. 5308 was the Ref. 5208 launched in 2011. The latter featured an instantaneous perpetual calendar shown in apertures, a minute repeater and a chronograph. Famously at the time of the launch, there was only one other instantaneous perpetual calendar shown in apertures, which was made by Roger Dubuis; but as that brand abandoned this model, Patek Philippe then became the only brand with this function. Add to that the magnificent song of the world’s best minute repeaters and you already have a heady and alluring combination.

Patek Philippe Quadruple Complication Ref. 5308P-010 Limited Edition Tokyo 2023

But then Patek Philippe also added a chronograph. How? Patek Philippe’s Head of Watch Development, Philip Barat — who’s also known as “Mr Plexi” for his capacity to explain complex mechanisms using plexiglass models — says, “Amusingly, this is the one and only time that Patek Philippe had ever made a modular chronograph. The module in this case sits between the perpetual calendar mechanism and the minute repeater base caliber, but it is a highly efficient chronograph mechanism, which doesn’t draw much power for the underlying base caliber despite being laterally coupled.”

 

What was super amusing at the Tokyo Grand Exhibition was that the Ref. 5308, by all standards an utterly mind-blowing game-changing timepiece, was simply put on display in a vitrine in the Grand Complication room with a small plaque that read “New Model”. But it was when you read “Split Second Chronograph” in the watch’s description that things got exciting. There is no brand more famous for the split-seconds chronograph or “rattrapante” than Patek Philippe. As proof of this, they even brought the legendary “Duke Ellington” Ref. 1563, a simply incredible split-seconds chronograph version of the famous Ref. 1463 Tasti Tondi, with them to the Tokyo Exhibition.

Patek Philippe Ref. 542 HU in pink gold

Patek Philippe has also been an incredible innovator in the world of split-seconds chronographs, designing an isolator mechanism first for the Lemania 2310 — or CH27-525 in Patek speak — found in the Ref. 5004, as well as an all-new isolator mechanism for the in-house CH29-535, which is found in the Ref. 5204 and Ref. 5370. So, what is an isolator? To understand this, you need to visualize how a split-seconds chronograph works.

A Brief Look at Split-Second Chronographs

Basically, the split-seconds wheel is connected to the chronograph seconds wheel by a spring-loaded arm that sits against a heart cam found on the chronograph wheel. So when the split-seconds brake stops the split-seconds wheel, the chronograph can still continue to turn. But when it is released thanks to this arm, the split-seconds wheel can catch up immediately.

 

Now the problem is that the pressure of the arm against the heart cam can sometimes cause either a huge drag on the amplitude of the balance wheel, or it can cause the watch to stop altogether, especially when power reserve or mainspring torque is not high.

 

I cannot tell you how many super-high-end split-seconds chronographs I know of that are guilty of this flaw because they don’t have isolators, but let me just say there are a lot of them. So, of course, when Patek Philippe was going to add a split-seconds chronograph to the Ref. 5208 to create the Ref. 5308, they were going to do so accompanied by an isolator. Philip Barat says, “We didn’t want to increase the thickness of the movement, so we created an isolator mechanism that is on the same level as the split-seconds train, in between the split-seconds brake and the chronograph mechanism.”

 

But of course, typical of Patek Philippe, that’s not all. Indeed this laterally-coupled chronograph features a brilliant drive wheel made from nickel phosphorous using the LIGA process, which allows for the creation of extremely complex shapes down to a micron’s tolerance. A laterally-coupled chronograph means that the drive wheel and chrono wheel engage on the perimeter of both wheels using gear teeth.

 

The problem is that a lot of the time, as the clutch falls, the teeth hit each other rather than falling back into place in between each other. This causes backlash, meaning the seconds hand jumps either backwards or sometimes forwards, as the teeth struggle to find their place. Patek Philippe has solved this by creating a drive wheel where the teeth are flexible and each features its own leaf spring. As a result, the instantaneous perpetual calendar works perfectly with jumps of just 30 milliseconds even when the watch is down to just 10 hours of power reserve.

A Quick Refresher on Patek Philippe World Timers

What motivated Patek Philippe to create their first World Timers? Well, let’s look at this in the context of Patek Philippe’s history. The maison was acquired by the Stern family and run by brothers Charles and Jean Stern in 1932. This marked the start point of Patek Philippe’s truly glorious era, which stretches across the 20th century to this day. And it cannot be overstated how brilliantly creative Charles and Jean Stern were.

 

Just nine years into their stewardship and in the throes of the Second World War, they launched two of the most important timepieces ever made — the Ref. 1518, the world’s first serially produced perpetual calendar chronograph, and the Ref. 1526, the world’s first serially produced perpetual calendar — and single-handedly introduced us to the era of complicated wristwatches.

 

In 1937, Charles’s son, Henri Stern, brought Patek Philippe to the United States. Henri was a global gadabout like no other, fearlessly venturing to South America and other far-flung destinations to spread the gospel of Patek Philippe, now under the leadership of his father and uncle. What was clear was that the Sterns discussed the type of wristwatches the modern gentleman and, in particular, the American would like to wear. Their answer was: a watch made for the traveling man, a man of elegance who circumnavigates the earth in style.

Patek Philippe Retrograde Perpetual Calendar Wristwatch from 1937

Around this time, Louis Cottier had approached all of the major names in Geneva with his invention, the world-time complication. The very first piece that he delivered was one made for Baszanger, which had a dial made by the Sterns. Serendipity would have Louis Cottier and the Sterns set out on one of the most magical and mutually beneficial collaborations that would bear fruit in their legendary World Time and Travel Time complications.

 

On display at the Patek Philippe Grand Exhibition in Tokyo, amid a magnificent array of both vintage and contemporary timepieces, was a gem known as the Patek Philippe Ref. 542 HU. The Ref. 542 HU is absolutely stunning to look at with its small 28mm case, Cottier’s hour hand with a bisected circle design, and unusually long lugs. Cased in yellow gold, it is also special in that it is the very first Patek Philippe World Time wristwatch where noon and midnight are shown using a sun and a moon in the 24-hour ring. The genius of the Ref. 542 HU relates to the use of a large rotating bezel that bears the names of 31 locations for the earth’s 24 zones, meaning that you can easily switch the name of your local city.

 

According to Sotheby’s, five examples are known to exist, two of which were on display at the Tokyo exhibition. But it was this pink gold example that literally made my jaw drop as I stared transfixed in front of it.

Patek Philippe Ref. 542 HU in pink gold

Also on display was a stunning Patek Philippe Ref. 2523 World Timer with a cloisonné enamel map. This model has created quite a stir as a rare yellow gold version with a North American map of it was recently sold at auction for a staggering USD 8.5 million. While the initial Patek Philippe World Timers such as the Ref. 1415 featured engraved bezels which were manually turned to any new local city, in 1953, Cottier and Patek Philippe unveiled a stunning watch featuring the all-new caliber 12-400 HU, with a second smaller crown that turned an inner rotating city disk. The watch this new complication came in was an absolute masterwork of design and featured stunning faceted lugs that were made for Patek Philippe by Gerlach.

Patek Philippe Ref. 2523 World Timer

Yet, strangely, despite its unique beauty, the Ref. 2523 didn’t sell particularly well and, as a result, were made in very small quantities. The number of watches made is a topic of debate, but the total for the Ref. 2523 and Ref. 2523/1, according to Patek Philippe, can be placed at less than 40 in yellow gold, more than 10 in rose gold and just one in white gold.

World Time Limited Edition Tokyo 2023 Reference 5330G-010

Now let’s shift gears to talk about a modern watch. Because at the Tokyo Grand Exhibition, Patek Philippe launched what is, in my opinion, one of the most brilliantly innovative and enchantingly beautiful watches of all time: the 300-piece limited-edition World Time Limited Edition Tokyo 2023 Ref. 5330G with date. This is the third time a modern world-timer by Patek Philippe has featured an additional complication: a chronograph version, Ref. 5930, was launched in 2016; and a cloisonné enamel minute repeater version which strikes local time, Ref. 5331, was made first in 2017 for the New York Grand Exhibition depicting Manhattan’s skyline.

 

The Ref. 5330G is a magnificent white gold Patek Philippe world-timer with a purple guilloche à main dial and the date placed at the perimeter. “Thierry spent a lot of time deciding where to place the date,” says Philip Barat. “At one point he was thinking to place it between the city disc and the 24-hour ring, but decided it was not visible enough.” Finally the decision was taken to place it at the very edge of the dial — on the rehaut that marks the transition to the bezel.

Patek Philippe World Time Ref. 5330G-010 Limited Edition Tokyo 2023

But then the question was, how to add a hand such that it would not disrupt the reading of all the other crucial world-time information? Barat explains, “We decided to use a glass hand that was almost invisible to the eye with a red hammer-shaped indicator. In order to do this, we had to learn how to weld the glass to a small tube that is coaxial to the cannon pinion.”

 

But that was far from the most complex technical feat required by the Ref. 5330G. Barat continues, “We realized we would have to deal with the International Date Line and that you could end up in a destination where the date was the day before when you travel east to west.” An example of this is a flight from Singapore to New York. In this scenario, you land the day before you departed. Amazingly, the Ref. 5330G understands this and compensates for it. But there is one more problem.

 

Barat says, “There is one hour a day where every one of the 24 zones is in the same date. So even when you cross the International Date Line, the date doesn’t change. We created a system with a differential mechanism to compensate for this. Actually, this is the second system we created, because in the first version we realized that the hand still wanted to change and you could see a sort of backwards and forwards tug of war on this hand during the one-hour period. Thierry immediately stopped production and had us rework the system to get it exactly right.”

 

This is a testament to how Patek Philippe never launches anything but a fully resolved timepiece. Ref. 5330G is exactly that and represents both transcendent beauty and, as always, real, functional innovation.

 

So now you understand the motivation behind Patek Philippe’s Grand Exhibition. As I pointed out earlier, this undertaking is both Herculean and extremely costly, but Patek Philippe clearly feels that it is worth everything — and I, for one, agree. It’s funny because, of late, it has been very fashionable to discuss the performance in terms of revenue of the world’s top watch brands. And many online pundits have discussed Patek Philippe’s ranking as the fifth biggest brand in the world at CHF 1.8 billion based on 68,000 units sold in 2022.

 

But, first of all, you need to understand something. Patek Philippe’s revenue is at the wholesale level. Patek Philippe — like Rolex, as opposed to Audemars Piguet and Richard Mille — believes in partnerships and always has. Could it shift to the model espoused by the latter to keep all revenue to itself and massively increase profit? Yes, easily. But Patek Philippe doesn’t because it is a family-owned company and thus makes decisions for the long term.

 

If you were to calculate Patek Philippe’s revenue at the retail level, it would probably exceed that of Cartier’s 2.75 billion — making it the number one high-luxury watch brand in the world. But Patek Philippe doesn’t need to, because it is already the number one watch brand in terms of desirability based on real authenticity and not marketing hype.

 

In many ways, even though they will never admit it, there is always a competition among the industry’s top CEOs to say that they make more revenue than the others. But Patek Philippe doesn’t think this way. Imagine if you were to go to a country where you don’t speak the language and perhaps the cultural differences there make you feel lost and confused.

 

Yet if you mention the name “Patek Philippe”, the vast majority of people around you, certainly in affluent circles, would immediately light up and want to talk to you. That is the power of Patek Philippe: it transcends language, culture, religion, and is the universal symbol for the very best when it comes to watchmaking. It has been for the last 100 years, and I am sure it will be so for the next 100.

 

So when people say, “Oh, but Patek Philippe doesn’t rank as high as this brand or that brand in terms of revenue,” tell them that it is because Patek Philippe is not playing this game. They are not motivated by revenue. They are motivated only by one thing: the preservation of their immortality as the very best.

 

I will say one last thing as a sort of warning to the rest of the industry. It is clear that with the completion of its new manufacture, Patek Philippe, which was previously restrained by the number of watches it could physically produce, is now capable of expansion. While the official statement is that this manufacture was created to “streamline production”, etc., the very brilliant Stern family is not going to invest CHF 600 million without a great reason.

 

With an already insurmountable delta between demand and supply, increasing production by, say, 30 percent, would do nothing to damage the desirability of Patek Philippe. It will, however, definitely take market share away from brands and groups that have profited all the times when a Patek Philippe was not available.

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