210. watch-knowledge


PATEK PHILIPPE - The manufacture within a manufacture

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March 2016


Patek Philippe’s famous slogan, “You never actually own a Patek Philippe, you merely look after it for the next generation,” places its creators under something of an obligation to put those words into practice. If not, this dogmatic declaration would be just another advertising cliché. I thought the best way to find out whether this promise of longevity had any substance was to go and see first-hand how a company like Patek Philippe manages its after-sales service. I was not disappointed. In fact, I was blown away.

"We will take on anything, and I do mean anything, made since 1839, provided it is signed Patek, Czapek & Cie – Fabricants à Genève, Patek & Cie – Fabricants à Genève, Philippe & Cie or Patek Philippe. Everything in our current collections is handled by our aftersales service, and the rest goes to our restoration department," explains our guide Jan-Philip Senger, who joined the company in 1964. As he speaks, he gesticulates towards the benches where a hundred or so watchmakers are working.
Every discipline is represented: watchmaker, watch-repairer, restorer, escapement maker, timing adjuster, pivot maker, jeweller, polisher, micro-technician, assembler, case-fitter and quality controller. All the branches of a complete manufacture are here under one roof. This Patek  Philippe department is more than just a factory: it is also a repository of watchmaking lore. People sometimes say that the cemeteries of the Vallée de Joux are full of watchmaking secrets that have been lost forever. Here, however, these trade secrets are proudly passed on. When it comes to restoring or rebuilding the spindle of a gear-train that was cut out by hand not long after 1839, there’s no CNC machine that’s up to the task.

Dials
Dials
Stocks of old components
Stocks of old components
Wheel blanks
Wheel blanks
Pivot making
Pivot making
Balance pivot control
Balance pivot control
Control wheel pivot centring
Control wheel pivot centring

 RESTORATION BY EAR

Let’s meet Franck Pernet, one of the ‘stars’ of this workshop, which is probably unique in the world. Despite his work demanding an almost Buddhist degree of concentration, he becomes garrulous and animated as he describes his job with infectious enthusiasm.
“When I’m drilling pivots on the lathe all my senses are heightened. I listen to the metal, I hear the sound change with each micron, and it’s my ears that tell me when it’s right, when it’s time to stop.” Rebuilding spindles and gears is the basis of all restoration work.
Everything begins with the gear train, the fundamental moving part, which is the most subject to wear and oxidisation. “Right up to the start of industrialisation each handmade watch was, to all intents and purposes, a unique piece. Standardisation only came in gradually.
In order to restore or rebuild a timepiece you have to, in a way, retrace the steps of the person who made it, a century or more ago.” No sooner has he finished his explanation than he turns back to his bench to demonstrate the use of the bow. We are told it takes ten years or more to master the lathe – an invention that has been traced back to Ancient Egypt in 1300 BC – with the hair’s-breadth precision necessary. But however ancient it may be, the lathe is by no means obsolete. Once set in motion with the bow or motor, it is capable of performing actions that are invisible to the naked eye, so infinitesimally fine that only the ear, the eye (aided by a loupe) and the hand of the craftsman can detect them.
Surely there can’t be too many people left who master these techniques? “When I arrived, 22 years ago, there were two generations. Now, there’s just one, and I’m currently training up two new young lathe turners!” he says proudly. “But we work as a team. All the different disciplines have their role to play.”

Driving in of balance pivot tool
Driving in of balance pivot tool
Balance setting
Balance setting
Balance adjusting
Balance adjusting
Wheel flat control
Wheel flat control
Toothing machine
Toothing machine
Hands
Hands

 150 YEARS’ WORTH OF SPARE PARTS

There are not many people who know how to use a depthing tool compass, which measures the distance between a gear and the adjacent pinion, or operate a mandrel lathe (which, despite its rudimentary appearance, makes it possible to increase the precision of placing gears, pinions and escapements in three dimensions), or perform chamfering, knowing which particular wooden or metal file to use, or the bevelling and polishing of plates and bridges, flat polishing or rounding, or countless other skills, some of which very nearly disappeared without trace.
Here, the tools and the activities that go with them are carefully husbanded, like a living treasure. And a second treasure is to be found close by, in the ranks of cupboards, cabinets and miniature wooden drawers. “The enormous advantage we have is that Patek Philippe has operated continuously since its creation, and we have never thrown anything away. Our drawers are filled with period components which were deliberately produced in excess, blanks dating back decades, which we are now finishing today. It means we can meet 90% to 95% of our restoration requirements. If anything is missing, we make it. You should also be aware that every watch made by Patek  Philippe is catalogued in our archives. Using the serial numbers of the cases and movements we can keep track of the history of each watch. We call this the ‘carnet de santé’ or health record,” notes Jan-Philip Senger. “We have 150 years’ worth of components, which is 6 to 8 million parts,” he adds. “It’s extremely expensive to keep these stock levels, not to mention all the tools, but it’s a priceless asset!”

Alain Battmann, former head of the Restoration Workshop (he still works there, seemingly disinclined to leave) explains how the workshop’s structure evolved. “Before, the department was called watch repair, but after the incredible boom of the early 1990s, when thousands of people suddenly seemed to realise that their grandfather’s old Patek Philippe might actually be worth something, we were inundated with watches. That was when we split the workshop into two parts: one for everything from 1839 to 1970, and the other from 1971 to the present day.” He goes on to explain the procedure. “We examine the piece and start by cleaning it up, dismantling it, keeping as many components as possible, evaluating what can be kept and what needs to be replaced, and we draw up an estimate. Once we have been given the go-ahead we rebuild the gears, rebush the components, give them to the watchmaker to assemble, repolish the steel components by hand, lubricate, get the balance wheel/hairspring in working order and make adjustments. The same goes for the case: we replace the crown, refurbish or rebuild the dial, polish and check everything over, both before and after the movement is replaced in the case, which comes to 2 x 18 days for checking alone...”

Hand pivot making
Hand pivot making
Hand polishing
Hand polishing
Winding mechanism arbor
Winding mechanism arbor
Winding mechanism adjustment
Winding mechanism adjustment
Oxidised movement
Oxidised movement
Manual polishing
Manual polishing

 THE TRACES OF TIME

Watch restoration, like architecture, has its schools of thought: some feel it is better to leave some evidence of the passage of time, others want their timepiece to look like new. At Patek Philippe, the rule is to change as few components as possible, in order to leave the piece in its original, historic, condition. Twenty years ago many collectors thought differently, and it was usual for watches to be completely repolished. Today, it seems, collectors prefer their timepieces to retain some trace of their past. But whatever the aesthetic, Patek Philippe always seeks to leave the watch as close as possible to its original state. For example, the pinion axles are always the first thing to go. Generally, thanks to the extensive inventory, the watchmakers in the workshop can make them from semi-finished blanks. But if a particular blank no longer exists, they redesign this minuscule component and insert it into the original sprocket wheel.
The same goes for the case. The ‘manufacture within a manufacture’, which is equipped with every machine that could possibly be needed, is capable of rebuilding anything, as well as soldering, filling and polishing. The service is necessarily personalised because, as the watchmaker at his bench points out, “Every watch has led a different life, it has passed through the hands of different owners, sometimes been ‘repaired’ more or less carefully on the other side of the world... Each watch has its own face, its own personality, its own emotion, if I can put it like that.”

See the article: Meeting with Laurent Cantin, Director of International Client Services, Patek Philippe

Source: Europa Star February/March 2016 Magazine Issue