ou could say that the concept of heritage is baked into Patek Philippe. The company’s famous slogan, “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation”, is more than just an advertising tagline, albeit a particularly well-known one.
It reflects a multifaceted reality that, although it undoubtedly finds its expression in the timeless nature of the watches produced by the Geneva-based family firm, is equally rooted in the company’s splendid museum in the heart of the city, its customer service department capable of repairing any watch ever made by Patek Philippe since the company was founded in 1839, and in its ultra-rigorous curation of its historical records.
Europa Star was granted the rare privilege of being able to discuss this with Philippe Stern himself. Although in 2009 he moved aside to allow his son, Thierry Stern, to take over the day-to-day responsibility of running the company, Philippe was more than happy to step out of the shadows to talk to us about the vitally important concept of heritage.
Europa Star: Let’s start off with the most visible, the most public aspect. You would probably agree that the Patek Philippe Museum is the most spectacular demonstration of the importance the company attaches to its heritage. It’s one of the finest watch museums in the world. So how was it developed, and why?
Philippe Stern: I joined the family firm in 1962, and I quickly realised that we didn’t really have an in-house collection. There were a few pocket watches kept in cabinets, which contained perhaps forty or so assorted timepieces that happened to be in our possession.
During my travels around the United States, where I had been sent, I realised that there was a core group of collectors who were interested in our history, and in watch history in general. So I decided to delve a little deeper and, little by little, I began to build up a collection of Patek Philippe watches from all eras, which I bought as opportunities presented themselves. At the time, the idea was mainly to create a collection for posterity. Back then, in the 1960s, collectors weren’t really interested in wristwatches, and you could find them at unbelievable prices. For instance, I remember I picked up a very rare minute repeater, a Reference 2419, for 30,000 Swiss francs. It’s a tidy sum, but a watch like that would set you back around a million today.
- Philippe Stern, when he was president, in the room where all the company records going back to 1839 are carefully preserved. Every watch made is individually recorded and documented according to a classification method that has remained unchanged since the beginning.
The scope of your collection quickly expanded from just Patek Philippe to encompass the entire history of watchmaking.
Originally, the ambition was to map out the evolution of Patek Philippe’s watchmaking, right back to the company’s creation in 1839. But around 1975 or 1976, I started becoming interested in old watches from the very earliest days. The idea was to be able to illustrate, step by step, the entire technical and aesthetic evolution of horology, from its invention in the 16th century – including the first watch ever made – up to 1839. From that date, Patek Philippe watches take over the story, providing a chronological illustration of the rest of the historical timeline.
“I picked up a very rare minute repeater, a Reference 2419, for 30,000 Swiss francs. It’s a tidy sum, but a watch like that would set you back around a million today.”
Clearly, there was also an educational imperative behind the creation of such a comprehensive collection.
From the beginning I wanted to be able to show this collection to the public. At that time, there weren’t really any museums that recounted the history of watchmaking. All of our hundreds of acquisitions, many of them at auction, were made with this in mind. I was looking for well-documented pieces in good condition, that illustrated the most important stages and the most striking developments in the industry and in the decorative arts. We collected around 2,500 pieces in total.
Currently, you’re homing in even further on the educational aspects of your exhibits in the museum.
Yes, we’re revising all our exhibits in order to better situate the pieces in their historical context. Visitors can now enhance their experience with the help of an iPad. Each display case is numbered and, on an iPad or on the interactive terminals, visitors can read a detailed explanation of each watch on display. The idea is to link the exhibits with cultural developments, historical events, European civilisation and developments that emerged in Germany, England and then Switzerland.
- A young Philippe Stern with then-president Henri Stern in the 1960s. Behind the two men are the modest display cases that, at the time, contained the entire private collection of Patek Philippe.
Watchmaking does not exist in a sterile bubble: it is indissociably of its time, in every respect. These improvements to our presentation required considerable efforts. I personally read over all the texts. The display cases have been reworked and we’ve reduced the number of pieces on display. There were too many of them! We decided that the ideal number was a thousand, spread among 150 cases. We can’t have the public feeling overwhelmed!
But this preoccupation with heritage is not just about the watches on display.
No, of course not. We also have automata, objects featuring miniature enamel painting – a major speciality of Geneva – and machines. And don’t forget our library, which houses more than 8,000 works on horology, some of them extremely rare, plus a plethora of documents and our company archives.
All this effort is in the interests of passing on knowledge. How important is that, in watchmaking?
It’s absolutely vital. But in order for anything to be passed on, it must first be kept. The concepts of conservation and preservation are at the heart of our family business. Throughout all the upheavals history has thrown at us, we have always been careful to keep everything – even during the quartz era, when so many watchmakers got rid of everything they thought was now useless. Letters, bills, original writings, photos, drawings, advertisements, models – we’ve kept them all. In the ledgers we have kept assiduously since our founding, it’s possible to find all the details about every single watch we have made throughout our history: the type of watch, movement number, calibre, case number, style, type of dial, date of manufacture, price, date sold, type of strap, and other information.
For several years now, vintage watches have been enjoying a huge revival. Have you noticed a resurgence of interest in older pieces?
Our archive extract service, which members of the public can access via a dedicated website, has experienced a phenomenal increase in traffic. In the last five years particularly, requests for information have gone through the roof. The same goes for our Client Services, which are committed to repairing or even restoring any watch made since 1836. We keep between 6 and 8 million parts in stock, some of them over 150 years old, and they cover around 95% of our requirements.
Whenever we stop producing a given watch, we manufacture enough additional components to meet our needs for the next fifty years or so. It’s a living legacy, a genuine treasure trove, which is very costly to maintain, but it’s essential in ensuring that the concept of legacy is not just an empty word but a concrete reality. Each year we undertake close to 90,000 interventions, overhauls and restorations. And this figure, which far exceeds our annual production, continues to grow.
- In 1996, Patek Philippe brought all its production facilities together in Plan-les-Ouates, on the outskirts of Geneva. At the time, it was assumed that this new ultra-modern building would meet their needs for decades. But in 2015 the decision was made to build an additional new building, budgeted at 500 million francs, and paid for in cash. That’s quite a bet on the future. “That was the last decision I took,” notes Philippe Stern, who has since passed the baton to his son Thierry Stern, now the company’s president.
But heritage is not just about objects; there’s also knowledge, expertise, trade secrets...
Indeed. In order for a heritage to remain alive, and to be passed on as a legacy, it must be maintained. And that happens when techniques and savoir-faire are passed down from one generation of watchmakers to the next, even when it might seem that a specific technology is obsolete and no longer serves any purpose. After all, who can be sure it might not come back one day? Our Dome table clocks, which reflect our mastery of the rarest artistic crafts, are a great example of this. Around 1965 we had a hundred of them or so in stock. No one was buying them any more, but we continued to make them. What we wanted above all was to preserve the expertise required to produce them. At the time, there was hardly anyone doing enamelling. We continued to give our enamellers work, so that their “secrets” would not be lost in the mists of time. Today, we’re very happy we took that decision. And our Dome table clocks are back in the spotlight. Who would have believed that, fifty years ago?
Auctions appear to have played a major role in reviving interest in watch history in general. Patek Philippe has been central to this, and auctions have also contributed significantly to the very high valuations for your watches.
In 1989, our 150th anniversary year, Osvaldo Patrizzi, the founder of Antiquorum, organised The Art of Patek Philippe, probably the first themed watch auction. He was a trailblazer and a true visionary, at a time when mechanical watchmaking was undergoing a renaissance.
In the same year, after nine years’ work, we unveiled our commemorative Calibre 89 pocket watch with its 33 complications, including a carillon with Grande and Petite Sonnerie and a minute repeater. The reason I mention this particular example is because it is emblematic of the work that goes into preserving our horological heritage. Our first minute repeater dates back to 1845 and we have produced them regularly ever since, in pocket watches and, from 1906, wristwatches, most of them based on movements sourced from the Vallée de Joux. That was the case up to the end of the 1950s. Most of these are rare pieces, made in the time-honoured fashion using traditional tools by master watchmakers who worked without a safety net, so to speak, adjusting and regulating their pieces individually. In fact, that’s the reason we have no real plans. The design and subsequent execution of the Calibre 89 marked a fundamental change of approach, because the idea was to be able to reproduce complicated mechanisms exactly.
Cue the engineers.
Exactly. We set up a technical and engineering office with the task of producing plans, deciding measurements, etc., in order to make operations repeatable. But in parallel, we still had movement blanks from the Vallée de Joux to give to our watch restorers, along with drawings and descriptions of old pieces: an unparalleled mine of information about how this or that mechanism worked, and the solutions devised by our predecessors. Without these archives, over which our engineers pored assiduously, we may never have been able to produce the masterpiece of complications that is the Calibre 89.
This operation, which was a celebration of the transmission of methods and solutions – and their transformation – as well as marking an evolution from purely manual ingenuity to a technical, reproducible approach, heralded the birth of a new generation of striking watches. It was a genuine renaissance, a new future, made possible by absorbing the lessons of the past. By documenting every operation, by giving ourselves the resources that guarantee our ability to reproduce a piece in the future, we guarantee the transmission of our heritage and the survival of our legacy over the long term.