Class ceiling

Class ceiling

Traditional watchmakers – like any other manufacturer of high-quality merchandise – need to stay ahead of the game, writes Josh Sims.

S7 inset1For watch fans, one new model from Patek Philippe this year has been news enough to start a queue.

The Aquanaut, arguably Patek’s most famous model, certainly among its more contemporary designs, has been launched with its first complication – a dual time function.

That may mean little to those for whom a watch is just a means of telling the time, secondary perhaps to their mobile phone.

But to horolophiles, any new watch from Patek – one of the most revered of Swiss watch brands – is an event. The imminent Basel Watch Fair – where the world’s watch brands meet to show off their new wares – will no doubt spark similar interest. Certainly, Patek Philippe has seen one of the most adventurous periods in its recent history, perhaps aware that while it could coast on its illustrious reputation – the brand has almost come to define the watchmaker of watchmakers, challenged only perhaps by the likes of Vacheron Constatin, A Lange & Sohne and the more esoteric pieces from independent brands, the likes of MB&F – to do so would be to risk being overtaken in an ever-more dynamic market.

Recent launches from the company have, for example, included an ultra-classic self-winding Calatrava with an officer-style case (the Spanish knights who defended the citidel of Calatrava from the Moors in 1158 have given Patek its logo), with the same in red gold with a distinctive date-pointer hand.

Also included is the first world-time model for women – although the fact that the bezel is diamond studded may be more for sales appeal than the ability to find out the time in Caracas – and the Art Deco-inspired rounded square case of the Gondolo, also for women.

There have been several grand complications too, of course, notably an annual calendar regulator, using a new ultra-thin movement and the brand’s first regulator dial wristwatch.

Indeed, the ultra-thin movement is just the latest example of the brand’s reminder that its pedigree should not yet trump innovation. Its Oscillomax, for example, also launched last year, is a case in point.

It is a perpetual calendar model from the company’s limited edition Advanced Research collection.

The watch employs the company’s silicon-based Silinvar technology, using the material to make several components, including its patented Spiromax spring balance, Pulsomax escapement and GyromaxSi spring balance.

They add up not only to a clear indication of someone having fun in the patent-naming department, but, for those who understand the technicalities of improved functionality, accuracy and wear, Patek’s determination to be a brand as much looking to tomorrow as one that, with all its refined classicism in style terms, harks back to yesteryear.

Certainly Patek has a convincing record as a pioneer. Founded in 1839 by two Polish immigrants, Antoine Norbery de Patek, a salesman, and Francois Czapek, a watchmaker (the company was renamed Patek Philippe in 1851 when Czapek left and French watchmaker Adrien Philippe joined), the brand has a number of firsts to its name.

Not least is the creation in 1868 of the first Swiss wristwatch, made for Countess Koscowicz of Hungary. The 1880s saw patents for a precision regulator and a perpetual calendar; 1922 the first split-seconds chronograph; 1925 the first wristwatch with that perpetual calendar; 1956 the first all-electronic clock, and so on, with several “world’s most complicated complication” records along the way too.

S7 inset2In addition, the decades of the last halfcentury have seen the launch of a number of watch collections that are still with us, underpinning their iconic status among collectors, such as the Ellipse, Nautilus and the aforementioned Gondolo.

Small wonder that the Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva, which recently celebrated its tenth birthday, offers something of a roller-coaster ride through watch history – via some 2,000 watches and 8,000 books, not to mention housing the Caliber 89.

Whisper that name with some reverence if you are in watch circles – it is recognised the most complicated timepiece made to date. It has, in case you are wondering, very good security. Arguably, such developments would not have been possible with shareholders leaning over one’s shoulder looking at the bottom line. But with Patek Philippe the last remaining independent, family-owned Swiss watchmaker, that has allowed a degree of experiment only usually afforded to much smaller artisan companies.

The company has been in the hands of the Stern family since 1932, with Philippe Stern having driven much of the company’s growth and the next Stern in line, Thierry, having become president in 2009.

Family ownership has allowed it to maintain quality control too – Patek is one of the few companies to design, make and even distribute its watches entirely in-house, each carrying the Geneva Seal hallmark, signifying the meeting of the various criteria for fine watchmaking laid down by the Republic of Geneva in 1886.

Such aspects of the company also means its production is relatively small, from as little as five to, at most, a few hundred of each model.

But that rarity, naturally enough, is part of the appeal of owning a Patek Philippe. Those who have seen Patek Philippe’s advertising over recent years will know, however, that it plays on the idea of temporary ownership – that each watch is merely being safeguarded by its wearer until it is time to pass it on to some lucky recipient of this mechanical maestro heirloom.

It is a nice idea. But who are they kidding? What fool wouldn’t keep hold of their Patek unto the grave? The kids can earn their own.