Even if you’re not a regular peruser of these pages, you’ll have heard the name Patek Philippe. Like Burberry or Mercedes-Benz, it’s one of those brands people just know.
And if you’re a watch enthusiast, chances are you not only know about Patek Philippe but have one of its watches (probably a Nautilus) at the top of your wish list, alongside a Rolex Yacht-Master and an Omega Speedmaster.
“If you ask the average man in the street what the best watch in the world is, the chances are they will say Rolex, even if they don’t know why. Ask someone with a little watch awareness and they will probably say Patek, but again the reason will be ‘They just are, aren’t they?’,” explains Adrian Hailwood, director of Fellows Auctioneers, one of the oldest auction houses in the UK, with a specialist interest in watches and jewellery. “Also, once you’ve claimed the position of ‘Best watch brand in the world’ it is hard to lose it.”
Taking a historical perspective, Hailwood ascribes Patek’s continued allure to its innovative streak, as well as not being too badly affected by WWII. “It had a strong mid 20th century, with some genuinely groundbreaking complications,” he says. “And this was at a time when many other high-end watch brands weren’t producing much or barely existed at all.
"It also helped that it was selling into a market that was only peripherally involved in WWII; at that time Patek did well in the USA [thanks to the American public not experiencing rationing or recession as we did in the UK]. This means there are more good pieces from the 1940s and 1950s for collectors to get their teeth into.”
The other factor from Patek’s past that contributes to the reputation it enjoys today is its success at auction. Back in the 1960s, a man called Alan Banbery started at the Swiss watchmaker. He began to acquire vintage Pateks at auction houses as a way to furnish a room – the visitor’s waiting room at the Rue du Rhona head quarters to be precise.
Banbery and Philippe Stern thought it would be a good idea to display examples from Patek’s back catalogue in the room, only they didn’t have any to hand. Banbery got wind of a private auction of the personal effects of a Swiss actor called Michel Simon. Among the lots was a collection of 400 pocket and wrist watches, which, as luck would have it, contained five vintage Pateks in excellent condition.
This archive was the genus of the Patek Philippe museum and the beginnings of the brand driving up its own prices at auction in order to furnish its burgeoning vintage collection. But it wasn’t just acquisition that was driving up prices – Patek was clever enough to mount exhibitions of these extraordinary pieces around the world, using them as a way to reacquaint the public with the brand and illustrate the prestige accrued by 130 years in the business.
However, what really cemented Patek Philippe’s reputation as an auction-house hit was the decision made by the Geneva-based Habsburg Feldman (later known as Antiquorum) to hold a monobrand auction called The Art of Patek Philippe. It was a move that cemented Patek’s reputation as a brand of value and importance to connoisseurs and collectors alike.
“An auction is a popularity contest and buyers want the best items, so the one with the higher perceived value gets more interest, more competition and so makes more money – which, in turn, makes it more attractive and so pushes the price of the next one higher again,” says Hailwood. “Rarer, ‘better’ watches, if there were such things, might not have the brand awareness and therefore so many bidders chasing them. In the 20th and 21st centuries, branding is everything.”
Branding is key but if you don’t have the product to back it up then you will quickly get found out. Luckily Patek is pretty good at making watches too.
“Whatever it does, it’s successful,” says Brian Duffy, CEO of Aurum Holdings, the UK’s largest luxury watch and jewellery retailer, which has Watches of Switzerland Mappin & Webb and Goldsmiths under its umbrella. “We have waiting lists for its watches. The biggest is for the Nautilus and especially for the special editions of this watch. We don’t actually ever have the latter in stock; they just go direct to clients.” Duffy thinks the appeal is down to Patek’s blend of traditional watchmaking – it’s a brand that’s done a great deal to preserve crafts such as enamelling, guilloche and engraving – and innovation.
You’ve only got to look at the recent Aquanaut Travel Time Ref. 5650G, unveiled at Baselworld 2017. The case design of the watch might be classic but the watch is the fifth in the brand’s Advanced Research series, which has historically showcased Patek’s innovations in silicon.
This Aquanaut is no different – it contains the new Spiromax balance spring that now has a two terminal curves. This small adjustment to the balance has made the watch astonishingly accurate, gaining or losing between -1 and +2 seconds every 24 hours; that’s the sort of accuracy you get with a tourbillon.
The other impressive innovation, which is proudly displayed just behind the nine o’clock is Patek’s new time-zone setting device. Gone are the usual arrangement of cogs and pinions and in its place is one single piece of flexible steel. This compliant mechanism means Patek has been able to reduce 37 parts down to 12 and reduce the risk of the function going wrong thanks to a lack of mechanical play, with no need for lubrication.
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However, it isn’t just all toys for the boys, this is a brand that pays as much attention to its women’s watches as it does its more masculine creations.
“Women tend to want a watch that’s suitable for all occasions,” explains Lynn Schroeder, managing director of luxury watch and jewellery retailer Wempe, which has a branch on Bond Street. “Styles such as the Patek Twenty–4, as the name suggests, is designed to be worn for twenty four hours of the day. The chic, effortless design makes it the perfect all-rounder.”
And that seems to be the essence of Patek’s success – whatever the occasion, it has a watch for it. And, as the adverts attest, they are so well made you can pass them on to the next generation. Or, if you think they don’t deserve them, they will fetch enough at auction to send you on a round-the-world trip. Not many brands can promise that.