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Pocket watch with minute repeater made for the Royal Family of Siam, circa 1897.

The last of the family-owned watch houses

Demanding nothing short of perfection, Patek Philippe crafts timepieces that are meant to become heirlooms.
Rheea Hermoso-Prudente | Jan 24 2019

What makes a Patek Philippe watch eminently desirable? While undoubtedly elegant, it isn't showy. Yet a simple model can cost more than a house or a car. A Patek Philippe Ref. 1591 stainless steel watch with a perpetual calendar sold for nearly USD 3 million at an auction in 2007, the highest ever paid for a steel watch at that time. 

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Founding fathers Polish Antoni Patek (left) and the Frenchman Adrien Philippe (right).

These prices reflect the quality and craftsmanship that go into every perfected timepiece. Watchmakers at Patek Philippe train for a minimum of four years before they can start working on basic watches alone—and at least 15 years before they can even touch complications like tourbillons or minute repeaters. The rigor ensures that each watch is "crafted to perfection and immaculately finished." The 200 watchmakers the company employs produce only 40,000 pieces a year (Rolex, in comparison, produces about 2,000 watches a day).

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The Patek Philippe Seal replaced the Geneva seal and appears on all watches made completely made and assembled in-house.

The perfection watchmakers strive for is hard-won, what with the complications that Patek timepieces are known for, among them, annual calendars, multiple time zones, power reserve, fly-back, split-seconds chronograph, tourbillon, and minute repeater. That's not to mention some of the brand's more esoteric features like sidereal time, running equation of time, and sky charts.

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The “Butterfly” watch with enamel, pearls, and gold, made for the Chinese market, circa 1850.

But the bar of perfection is never fixed; it's notched only higher. More than 70 of Patek's employees spend their days in the Research and Development department, looking for new ways and materials to make their timepieces more efficient and accurate (eliminating friction is a big deal with them). Every component of the timepiece is made in-house as well. Patek owns companies for watch cases, gem-setting, dials, movement casing and finishing, decorating, and steel components—the better to control every aspect of the watch.

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The Patek Philippe manufacture, then and now.

Patek is so exacting, it no longer relies on the Geneva Seal—one of the highest accolades in the Swiss watch industry given to watch movements that pass the inspection process. Instead, the company has come up with its own Patek Philippe seal, which covers not just movements but the entire watch. The company seal means that each timepiece comes with a lifetime guarantee of servicing and restoration. With watches dating back to the eighteenth century, that guarantee certainly outlives the original owner.

The bold promise to stand by their product comes from the fact that Patek is answerable to no one except itself. As the last of the independent, family-owned watch houses, Patek Philippe has free rein over its strategies. Thierry Stern, president of the company, once told us, "If you're in a group, or if you are owned by shareholders, they will never really let you invest for such a long time...[It is] always very important not to depend on shareholders, but really just to focus on the line for the future."

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The “Peony” quarter-repeating watch with centerseconds, made for the Chinese market, circa 1805.

The Stern family, who has been at Patek's helm for four generations since buying the company in 1932, has long resisted buy-outs. This allows them to preserve the tradition of the brand. "Patek Philippe wants the owners of its watches to feel the joy of acquiring a pleasing product which can become a family heirloom, something which can serve as an emotional link between generations," says past president Philippe Stern in his declaration of the company's ten founding values. This is why Patek's ad, "You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation," resonates with Patek owners and admirers.

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The reference 1518 perpetual calendar chronograph from 1941 is considered one of the most collectible Patek timepieces.

In the end, it's not about function. After all, any watch can tell time. Neither is it about form. You can rock an 18-karat gold watch as much as a gold-plated one. In the end, it's about how you feel about the timepiece, and the emotions it incites. And that is something that Patek Philippe, with its passion for heritage and craftsmanship, does extremely well.


This story first appeared in Vault Magazine Issue 2 2011.