By Thomas Bach
In a business where the competition has almost exploded during latter years, the distinctive Patek Philippe still tops the collectors’ lists. The watch is a Swiss legend standing as a symbol of the Alp Country’s traditions.
In order to understand a make like Patek Philippe, it is necessary to look at the history of the founders and their importance to the world of watches. Antoni Nobert Patek de Prawdzik was born in the Russian-controlled Polen at the beginning of the 19th Century. At 16 years of age he joined the Polish army and fought for three terrible years against the Russian superior force. The unequal battle ended in 1831 when the Russian forces crushed the rebels and forced the young Patek into exile in France. In Paris he worked for the Polish refugee commission, and much to his regret he realised that he would hardly ever return to his native country. He therefore chose to change his name to the more French-sounding Antoine Norbert de Patek in an attempt to integrate himself. He had big plans for his future, and even though he remained a generous person till his dying day, his ambition was to become a important man. He wanted to work in a lucrative jewel and watch industry, live a sophisticated life and rub shoulders with the European nobility. In 1839 Patek moved to Geneva – because then as now Geneva was the Capital of the world of watches in the watch’s homeland. Here he started his company in collaboration with the Czech-born watchmaker Franςois Czapek. Patek, Czapek & Co. was established on May 1st of the same year and thereby placed the foundation stones to an institution within the watch industry. To begin with they produced about 200 watches annually, a figure that didn’t live up to Patek’s ambitions. But at a fair in Paris in 1844 Patek heard of Jean Adrien Philippe – a young progressive watchmaker – who had made a name for himself by manufacturing very narrow watches of high quality and with a special crown wheel that eliminated key winding. This was a heaven-sent opportunity for Patek. His contract with Czapek was in its last year, and he therefore convinced the young watchmaker and his partner, Vincent Gostowski, to join the company. He broke with Czapek and changed the company name to Patek & Co. With himself in the more financial role Patek left the creative development to Philippe, and this proved to be the perfect decision. Philippe modernised the production, incorporated new work methods and tools,which not only improved the numbers but also the quality of the watches. The company prospered by this development, and Philippe continued his inventions, so at the end of 1850 Patek decided to show his appreciation of Philippe’s work, and effective on January 1st, 1951, the company’s name became Patek Philippe & Co. – a legend was born.
By now the make had established itself among such distinguished houses as Vacheron Constantin, Breguet and Perrelet, and Patek had reached his goal. But that did not necessarily mean that one rested on one’s laurels. Philippe continued to be one of the best in the business, he published books and was closely tied to the well-established newspaper “Journal de Genève” as a writer in the field of watches. Patek, on the other hand, devoted himself to voluntary work for the Catholic Church. His dedicated engagement reached the Pope’s ears. He became impressed with Patek’s unselfish work and considerable donations, and in a gesture of appreciation the Pope ennobled a very proud Patek. Count Antoine Norbert de Patek died on May 1st, 1877. The following years Philippe continued his work and added to the legend. But by the end of the 1880s Philippe had become an old man, and in order to ensure the make’s continuation, he trained Patek’s son and his own son-in-law. But still the great watchmaker was unable to keep the company on family hands. When Jean Adrien Philippe died in 1894 he left behind a gap, which the two young men were unable to fill alone. The heirs lost the actual control in connection with company’s stock exchange quotation seven years later. However, it was a difficult period for the entire business and many makes changed hands. Europe was very unsettled in the years leading up to World War I, and many companies experienced further difficulties in the years to follow. In 1932 something positive finally happened for the make Patek Philippe. The company was purchased by the Stern brothers, Charles and Jean, who were already established in the business, but needed a flagship. The two brothers’ ambition and quality level was equal to the two deceased founders, and they soon brought the company back to its former strength. Today the family still owns the company, and it is one of the few not under the auspices of a large concern. In addition, Patek Philippe is characterised by being one of the few makes, which produces everything itself, everything from watchcases to the works. The market will therefore not be deluged with watches, which of course is instrumental in increasing the demand, not to mention the collection value. Because as they themselves say: – You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely take care of it for the next generation.
“You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely take care of it for the next generation”