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Feature: 3 Things You’ve Got To Know About Patek Philippe

Here it is, number two in our In Focus series finalists. It could only be one of two watchmakers, and it’ll be no surprise as to which has come second: it is of course Patek Philippe. As well as this article, we’re posting a whole host of them on our blog right here on Watchfinder.com. This absolute powerhouse of a watchmaker has somehow made extreme high-end watch collecting a mainstream pastime beyond all expectations. There aren’t many other brands that operate in this price point that are as well known. On that note, here are three things you didn’t know about this global icon.

Patek Philippe Invented the Electric Clock

Did you ever hear the story of Kodak? The industry leader of film photography majorly shot itself in the foot by betting on the wrong horse when it chose to bury its new creation: the digital camera. The story goes that as early as 1975, Kodak engineer Steve Sasson was excited to present an invention that could take pictures without the need of film.

Here was an opportunity for Kodak to reinvent the game in a big way … and the company promptly turned the idea down. See, they didn’t think of it as an opportunity; more of a threat to the film business it currently dominated—basically, self-sabotage. And they stuck with their guns right the way until 2007, with a marketing campaign that stated, and I quote, “It’s not going to play grab-ass” with digital. The company filed for bankruptcy five years later. Not exactly the Kodak moment it’d hoped for.

So, you might imagine that a watchmaker as old and as festooned in tradition as Patek Philippe might look at the onward march of digital bristling on the horizon and do the same, digging its heels in deep and taking its pride right the way to its own, unnecessarily early grave. Many other watchmakers did just that, and now look at them. Except you can’t, because they’re gone.

Yet, somehow, like an old man posting sick memes on TikTok, Patek Philippe rose above the temptation to be conceited and did what any good business in the face of change should do: it innovated. It pivoted, it disrupted, whatever trendy term you want to use—but it did it. In 1956, several decades before the quartz crisis was even a thing, Patek Philippe created the world’s first electronic clock.

But did senior management at Patek Philippe do what Kodak’s did and hide this innovation? No! Instead, the business doubled down on the idea, building precision electronic clocks that found themselves in observatories, broadcast centres and even nuclear power plants. And these iconic Master Clock Systems, which towered on shelves of polished steel, instead of destroying the company, are actually some of the most collectible Patek Philippe relics available today. How’s that for a Kodak moment.

Patek Philippe Is Insanely Micromanaged

At work, there’s nothing worse than your boss hovering over your shoulder, backseat driving. Not only does it mean your boss isn’t doing their own job, more annoyingly for you it means you can’t do yours properly either. Every move you make is punctuated by a disapproving groan before you even have a chance to demonstrate what you’re trying to do. It gets to the point where you want to stand up and scream, “Well why don’t you do it then?!”

At Patek Philippe, they have this problem, from none other than President Thierry Stern. In one very specific circumstance, Mr Stern will step down from his role as President for a moment, just to get embroiled with the watchmakers and tell them how to their job.

This is especially unusual because, despite Patek Philippe being a low volume manufacturer of high-end watches, it’s not exactly a small company. The watchmaker employs some 2,000 people all around the world, with the majority based at its HQ in Geneva, so you’d think it would be a tough task for the President to find the time to get mixed up in the thick of things.

It all started in the days of Mr Stern’s grandfather, Henri Stern, when a young Thierry heard a minute repeater complication for the first time. The minute repeater is unlike any other complication in watchmaking today, in that it is still assembled in the traditional fashion. By that I mean where modern manufacture allows components to be crafted to a tolerance where they can be assembled without adjustment, the way a minute repeater works is just too sensitive for that.

So, the Master Watchmaker who builds a minute repeater must manually shape and tune the gongs and striking mechanism to ensure the correct sound is heard. Without this painstaking work, which can take up to 300 hours of literal fine-tuning, the repeater can sound dull and discordant, or even not work at all. It’s for this reason that Mr Stern chooses to personally test each and every minute repeater Patek Philippe makes, without a single one shipping to customers until they’ve had his official sign-off.

Patek Philippe Is Owned By Its Dial Supplier

When you’re as old as Patek Philippe, approaching two centuries as it happens, even with all the success and glory the watchmaker enjoys today, that doesn’t mean getting this far has been easy. There have been many pitfalls experienced by this old giant—not least of which happened in the 1930s, when, basically, nobody was buying what Patek Philippe was selling.

We consider Patek Philippe to be one of the greatest wristwatch makers today, but in truth the company found fame making pocket watches instead. Some of the greatest pocket watches ever made, such as the 1927 Packard with ten complications, the 1932 Graves with twenty-four complications and the 1989 Calibre 89 with a whopping thirty-three, came from the house of Patek Philippe—but that just wasn’t enough.

Aside from a few very wealthy customers, the general public of the 1930s did not want to buy Patek Philippe’s pocket watches any more. The Great Depression was in its darkest hour, people had no money, and given its successful use in the First World War, the wristwatch was fast on the rise. Patek Philippe had just become irrelevant. Obsolete. Dunzo.

The board of directors at Patek Philippe, in blind panic, tried to sell the business to anyone who’d stand still long enough to hear the pitch, even offering it to one Jacques-David LeCoultre, who was an administrator for the board. He declined, fancying his own watchmaker, which had just released the Reverso, to be in much better stead. He must have felt a pang of guilt, however, because he did throw Patek Philippe a bone, allowing them to sell the Reverso under its own name.

So desperate was Patek Philippe to sell the business that its final buyer wasn’t anyone you would expect. Not another watchmaker, nor wealthy enthusiast or even a cash injection from a government subsidy in exchange for public ownership—the people who bought Patek Philippe and still own it to this day—were its dial suppliers. Yes, the company that made the part of the watch most watchmakers can’t be bothered with owns Patek Philippe. And they probably bought it for a song. Jaeger-LeCoultre must be kicking itself.

I hope you enjoyed this article, learning a bit more about this incredible watchmaker, and I hope you enjoy the other articles here on Watchfinder.com as well. Make sure to check back for more Patek Philippe facts you didn’t know, coming up next time.

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