Inside Story: The Patek Philippe Museum

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The Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva feels so much like a 5-star hotel, it asks to be reviewed as one. The marble foyer, the stylish receptionists, the hushed elegance exudes a combination of warmth and authority more typically found at the Four Seasons.

As guests in this maison d’haute horlogerie, my family could not have been made more welcome. Even the access for my 13-year old son in his wheelchair was exquisite – an ingenious concealed lift floated him up from the ground floor to the lobby level, and a special wheelchair was provided that boosted his seating position up so that he was at head-level to the rest of us, the perfect height to view the items on display.

Those displays begin on the top floor, where there is a historical archive of the early years of Patek Philippe, charting the early life of its founder Antoni Norbert Patek in Poland, where he fought in battles for independence from Russia, and his subsequent moves to Paris and then Geneva as his watch business evolved.

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The archive meanders right up to recent history, including a somewhat self-indulgent corner devoted to the desk of Henri Stern, the mastermind of Patek’s evolution into a global super-brand during his tenure as president from 1958-1990.

Star of the top floor is a leather-bound, hand-written, tome that registers some of the earliest watches made by the company, including listings of the cost of the materials used, and artisans involved, in the making of each timepiece. Each listing is followed by the name of the customer and the price paid. The detailed ledger records a company with a firm grip on profit margins as material and labour costs amounting to, say, 250 francs, created a watch that then sold for 380 francs.

The next floor down is dedicated to the history of watches from the early 16th century. Two cabinets contain timepieces from the dawn of watch making – the era when the spring-driven mechanisms of clocks could be made sufficiently small to be portable. Perhaps the best in the museum is the Runde Halsuhr, a drum-watch with foliot and movement made of iron that traces its origin back to Southern Germany in around 1540.

The next 400 years are dominated by the development of pocket watches, and the Patek Philippe Museum holds a peerless collection that takes you through the evolution from purely decorative pieces of jewellery that barely helped tell the time, to accurate watches that were relied upon by armed forces around the world for life-and-death time keeping in war.

Much of the history of this era is captured in the extraordinary artwork on the watches, particularly the miniature enamelled portraits that adorned the watches of Europe’s nobility in the 17th and 18th centuries. Many of the exhibits were owned by the royalty and celebrities of the day, and are now protected for the public to see thanks to the largesse of Patek Philippe Museum’s trustees.

The next floor down is devoted to Patek Philippe, with watches presented from the company’s creation in 1839 through to the present day. The early pieces are extraordinary in their mechanics and art, particularly pocket watches commissioned for Russian royalty of the time, such as the gold quarter-repeating pendant watch sold to Russian Princess Zubów in 1840.

Patek’s first ever wrist watch is also on display. The key-winding lady’s bracelet watch was created in 1868 and sold to Hungarian Countess Koscowicz in 1876. It isn’t until you see it up close that you appreciate the design cues it provides for the Reverso, which was launched by Jaeger-LeCoultre in the 1930s. Interestingly, there is a Patek Philippe ‘Reverso’ in the museum, which was created a few years later but was never produced in volume.

The evolution of Patek Philippe followed much the same trajectory as its contemporary watch makers in the 19th century, and many of the Patek pocket watches on the display are identical in style to the watches of its rivals that you see on the floor above.

Unique to Patek, however, is its mastery of complications, best demonstrated in the extraordinary Caliber 89, which was created to mark the company’s 150th anniversary. So much has been written about this watch that it seems unnecessary to mention its 1728 components delivering 30 functions but, to see it up close and in minute detail is the enduring memory of the entire museum visit.

Back to the hushed floor of the reception and you are shown some of the benches and machines that Patek’s craftsmen have used throughout its history. Their gnarled and time-worn practicality sit in stark contrast to the artistic and microscopic miracles they have created.

Trip Advisor, the public-driven reviews site for all things touristic, lists the Patek Philippe Museum as the third best thing to do in Geneva after the lake and the shopping. I beg to differ. Visiting the museum is by far the best thing to do in the city, and is also well worth crossing continents and oceans to experience.

 

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