Belfast Telegraph

Standing the test of time

Defying the current trend towards value, prestigious watchmakers Patek Philippe say demand has never been stronger for their meticulously crafted timepieces. David Elliott finds out what makes them so special

For the most part, the global downturn has hit the economy in some of the most obvious places: value retailers have prospered over their premium competitors, restaurants have had to introduce offers to fill tables and car sales have tumbled off a cliff.

So it stands to reason that on a trip to the world’s most prestigious watchmakers a reporter should gird himself for examples of more of the same as buyers search out cheaper, mass-produced alternatives. Not so, it seems, for Patek Philippe, one, if not the, most prestigious name in the world of watches.

“Demand has never been stronger,” Mark Hearn, the managing director of Patek Philippe UK, said in an interview with Business Month. “We have 40 points of sale throughout the UK and Ireland and are selling around 45,000 watches a year.”

That figure may sound relatively conservative but to realise why it is such an astounding performance you need to understand Patek Philippe itself, and indeed the aura which surrounds the name.

It is first made apparent when mentioning the name in company. The reaction is either a quizzical ‘who?’ or, for those in the know, there is an immediate look of awe.

The latter expression is because a Patek Philippe watch is considered to be one of the best-engineered timepieces money can buy. If you’re in the market for a watch which will stand the test of time and, crucially, have the funds to buy one, a Patek is for you. It’s the watchmaker’s watch and graces the wrists of everyone from royals to captains of industry to aficionados the world over.

As you would expect, such quality and cache doesn’t come cheap, but then watches are one item where you really do get what you pay for. For £8,000 you could have yourself a ladies’ wrist watch, while for £14,000 you could buy a mens’ watch, but that’s just for entry level models and as the complications — hands which offer additional functions aside from timing — mount, prices tend to climb.

For the accurately titled Grand Complications — watches with indicators such as the perpetual calendar which can automatically recognise a leap year or the minute repeater which chimes the time at the press of a button — expect the price to reflect the additional skill which goes into the timepiece.

And you might be surprised to learn that Patek Philippe watches are available here in Northern Ireland through jeweller Lunns.

But the test of a real quality product is how well it holds its value, and it’s here where a Patek really shows its prestige. Although the vast majority of the company’s watches don’t tend to stray outside the owners’ families — hence the clever advertising line ‘You never actually own a Patek Philippe, you merely look after it for the next generation’ — when a Patek Philippe does reach the open market it’s clear how demand for such time pieces is incredibly high, particularly for older models.

For instance, in the spring sales of 2011, a unique single-button chronograph fetched a cool $3.6m. Good, but a few hundred thousand dollars short of the highest amount ever paid for a wristwatch at auction of $4m in 2002. And yes, that was also for a Patek Philippe.

If you’re in that category of people who hadn’t ever heard of Patek Philippe, you’re probably wondering what all the fuss is about. Why do these watches attract such interest and why are buyers willing to pay such high prices at auction?

To find this out, it’s necessary to understand how a Patek Philippe is made.

To say that a great deal of care and attention goes into making one of the company’s watches is something of an understatement, one akin to saying the great El Bulli restaurant near Barcelona served up a decent plate of food in its day.

From the outset, the Patek Philippe ‘Manufacture’ oozes excellence and soon after arriving it’s clear that an earlier throwaway remark from Mr Hearn that “we could almost eat our lunch from the floor”, could feasibly be true and not entirely disagreeable.

The workshops themselves are like none you will have laid eyes on before, replicating laboratory conditions where the science is engineering, not chemistry. And what engineering.

Every part of a Patek Philippe watch is made from scratch: from the base plate on to which the moving parts of the watch are fixed, to the cogs and springs which make it function, to the case which encloses it. This means that the range of skills housed under the roof of the Manufacture is vast, with each part of the process requiring a different set of specialities to complete the 1,300 to 1,500 steps which go in to making each movement’s components.

One of the most important qualities which an employee of the company must possess in spades is patience. Each tooth of each steel pinion and wheel — which are so small a magnifying glass is needed to work on them — is polished by hand with a beech wood disc, itself crafted from a beech branch in the workshop. And each and every pivot is burnished and all sharp edges are chamfered and put through a quality process which can detect even the most minute flaw.

Every automatic movement made by the company is put through 600 hours of quality control before the assembled watches are taken through testing for between 15 days and one month.

All this, as you would imagine, is not a fast process and although the 45,000 watches a year throughput sounds a lot, it is miniscule when compared to other watch makers.

And for the grand complications, the process can take many months, if not years. Given the complexity of these watches, the assembly of each is carried out by one individual rather than in stages by a number of watchmakers. Once completed, they have to undergo an additional quality control stage: the watchmaker personally takes the finished watch to the office of Thierry Stern, the president of the company, to receive his personal approval.

One of the most hallowed places at the Manufacture is the service centre where Patek Philippe watches from around the world come to be serviced and repaired. Not all the watches it produces arrive here, but only those over 30 years of age — as younger models can be serviced in licensed regional centres.

Here some of the best watchmakers in the world disassemble time pieces which can be more than 100 years old, some of which haven’t been serviced in all that time.

To repair these watches, which can be worth millions of pounds, the experts are able to borrow tools from the nearby Patek Philippe museum and, given the forethought of previous generations of watchmakers at the company, pick from a stock of spares built up since the 19th century.

Given the longevity of the family-owned company and its products, you can be sure that in 100 years time a new generation of watchmakers will be working on the current crop of Patek Philippe watches with the same care. As an example of a company swimming against the tide, Patek Philippe offer inspiration in these difficult economic times and clear lessons in how detail, care and utmost quality is the key to producing sought-after products.

History

In 1839, two Polish immigrants Antoni Patek and Franciszek Czapek joined forces to found Patek, Czapek & Cie in Geneva. In 1844, Mr Patek met the French watchmaker, Mr Adrien Philippe in Paris and in 1851 it was renamed Patek Philippe & Cie, before changing once more in 1901 for Ancienne Manufacture d’Horlogerie Patek Philippe & Cie, S.A. In 1932, the company was purchased by Charles and Jean Stern, two brothers who owned a fine dial manufacture in Geneva. Since then, Patek Philippe S.A. remains a family owned firm. In 2009 the company presidency was passed from the third to the fourth generation: Thierry Stern became president and his father Philippe Stern honorary president.

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