Patek Philippe Watch History

When one speaks with watch collectors, dealers, and enthusiasts from all walks of life, one brand is consistently singled out as being "the Rolls-Royce of watches". Like that esteemed auto manufacturer, it is a name that has become synonymous with perfection, exclusivity and the finest craftsmanship. The company is Patek Philippe, and its history offers a compelling insight into how this unique, family-held watch company has dominated the Swiss watch industry for over 160 years. Patek Philippe was the result of two brilliant but very different men joining forces to create a company that has endured almost unchanged to this day. The saga began when Antoine Norbert de Patek, a Polish refugee and former soldier, immigrated to Geneva to study painting with A. Calame, the famous landscape painter whom he had met in Paris. Although Patek pursued a career as an artist for a short time, it was not the vocation for which he was destined. Instead, he began overseeing the assembly of high-quality movements into fine cases. Through this, he met the Czech-Polish watchmaker Francois Czapek, and the men decided to go into business together. On May 1, 1839, Antoine Norbert de Patek founded the firm of Patek, Czapek & Co., with its headquarters at Quai des Bergues 29.

The young firm did well enough, but may have remained a footnote in the annals of horology had it not been for a fortuitous meeting in 1844 between Patek and up-and-coming Genevois watchmaker, Jean Adrien Philippe. Philippe, who had emigrated from France, succeeded in constructing an extremely flat pocket watch that could be wound up and set by means of the crown, instead of with a key. His partnership with Czapek all but over, Patek offered the ambitious young watchmaker a job as Technical Director of the firm, and dissolved Patek, Czapek & Co. in 1845. The new company, Patek & Co., was formed that same year, and thanks to Adrien Philippe's ingenuity and hard work, business steadily improved. To recognize his partner's efforts, Patek again re-organized the firm in 1851, this time as Patek Philippe & Co. Patek and Philippe forged a unique partnership that spoke to their individual talents. Patek was a talented salesman as well as a fearless traveler. Although at the time, crossing the ocean was a dangerous undertaking at best, Patek traveled around the world to promote the brand and market his firm's watches. He documented these journeys in his personal diaries, and related the many hardships he and other travelers faced. Adrien Philippe, on the other hand, was content to remain in Geneva and focus his efforts on overseeing the technical direction of the firm, as well as its day-to-day production. In any event, the partnership worked so well that by the time of his death, in 1877, Patek had been granted the title of Count by Pope Pius IX. Adrien Philippe outlived Patek by 17 years and died in 1894.

Following the co-founders' death, three longtime company employees -- including Edouard Kohn, who would later go on to buy Ekregen -- became partners in the firm. In 1901, Patek Philippe was reorganized as a stock corporation under the name "Ancienne Manufacture d'Horlogerie Patek Philippe & Cie, SA". It was also re-capitalized with 1.6 million Swiss francs, a huge sum of money in those days. Although Patek Philippe did not manufacture the bulk of its own ebauches until 1910, Patek Philippe watches remained at the highest quality. One can find ultra-complicated watches from this era that are simply remarkable in their designs and advanced features. Needless to say, the company's headquarters received frequent visits from wealthy businessmen and royalty of the era. As a result, Patek Philippe built a lavish showroom where they could entertain their most important guests while discreetly conducting business. It is also interesting to note that during this period, Patek Philippe custom-manufactured watches to a jeweler's specifications and even produced an entire line of Art Deco influenced watches especially for the Brazilian jeweler, Gondolo & Labourian. Today, "Gondolo" watches sold by that firm are considered quite desirable and rare.

Unfortunately, the company's fortunes suffered as a result of the Great Depression. The market for expensive watches evaporated overnight, sales plummeted and a financially stable "white knight" had to be found to rescue the company from the depths of despair. David LeCoultre, the movement manufacturer from the Vallee de Joux, placed a bid -- but for reasons unknown, his offer was rejected. Patek Philippe was finally sold to Charles and Jean Stern, who owned "Fabrique de Cadrans Stern Freres", the company that exclusively supplied dials for Patek Philippe watches. A new general manager, Jean Pfister, was hired. Pfister's first move was to re-tool the factory so that Patek Philippe could once again fabricate its own ebauches. For the first time in years, Patek Philippe was able to control every aspect of its production and thanks to such best-selling models as the Calatrava Patek Philippe watch (introduced in 1932), sales picked up and the company's financial health gradually improved. This period marks a time of great innovation and the creation of many spectacular watches. Watches with world time indication, as well as sophisticated perpetual calendar watches such as the Reference 1526, were introduced into the marketplace and quickly re-established Patek Philippe as the industry leader. Another advantage Patek Philippe had over its competition was the fact that it was a family-run business. As such, major business decisions did not have to meet with approval from a board of directors. In 1934, Henri Stern, son of Charles Stern, was sent to New York, where he assumed responsibility for the American distribution of Patek Philippe watches. The Henri Stern Agency was established in New York City for this purpose and remains in business to this day.

During the 1950s, the watchmakers at Patek Philippe developed a number of amazing watches. Hand-painted enamel dials, world time watches, minute repeaters, split-second chronographs and other spectacular timekeepers were to prove extremely popular with wealthy clients of the firm. At the same time, even regular production watches were of spectacular quality. Among the most collectible of these are the automatic Patek Philippe watches with Calibres 12-600 or 27-460, such as the Ref. 2526 which features a genuine porcelain enamel dial. Due to the incredible beauty of this wristwatch, as well as its unique (and easily damaged) dial, this particular model is in high demand by collectors and commands high prices at auction. Indeed, it is not uncommon for certain Patek Philippe watches, such as minute repeaters, to have increased 10,000% in value over their original retail prices! In 1958, Henri Stern was recalled to Switzerland, to replace Jean Pfister as President and Managing Director of the Patek Philippe parent company. Henri Stern's contribution to the success of Patek Philippe was to allow the company to grow, without compromising its founding principles. Under his watchful eye, the company introduced such models as the Nautilus watch, and bravely weathered the industry's economic crisis of the 70s and 80s. The After Sales Service Department was greatly improved and further advances were made in the development of new movements. One such breakthrough was the 240 Caliber, a self-winding movement featuring a micro-rotor that allowed Patek Philippe's designers to produce flat automatic wristwatches.

n 1990, Henri Stern stepped down as President of Patek Philippe to enjoy a well-deserved retirement. Since then, his son Philippe Stern, who began working at Patek Philippe in 1977, has been responsible for overseeing the company's business activities. Philippe Stern has proven himself to be a highly capable, responsible executive, introducing successful models such as the 24 ladies watch, the Ref. 5035, the Gondolo watch series (in honor of the Patek Philippe watches created for Gondolo & Labourian) and many others. In addition, Patek Philippe consolidated its many workshops throughout Geneva, moving into a new state-of-the-art headquarters in 1996. One thing that has not changed, nor will it for that matter, is the issue of Patek Philippe's ownership. Philippe Stern promises that Patek Philippe will continue as a family-owned company, despite enormous financial incentives for him and other family members to "sell out" to a conglomerate. To that end, Stern is training his son Thierry to someday succeed him as president of Patek Philippe. Thus, when Thierry takes over the company, he will be the fourth generation of the Stern family entrusted with guiding the destiny of this unique House. In doing so, he will honor a grand tradition which dates back to 1845…and a partnership whose spirit lives on forever in every marvelous Patek Philippe watch.