In terms of venue we couldn’t have been offered a better location to interview Patek Philippe’s president Thierry Stern. Sat in the meeting room of the company’s Creation Department in its Plans-les-Ouates manufacture, Stern explains it is where he feels most comfortable, being part of the process that designs new models.
Given the location I start by asking him about Patek’s most contentious release this year, an annual calendar chronograph in steel, the ref.5960/1A that replaced existing models in gold and platinum.
“I did it a little bit on the side,” Stern admits. “I wanted to do something slightly different and it’s nice that you can still surprise people. In this type of business most of the people, whether it’s retailers or journalists, they will always tell you ‘We know, you’re going to launch this, this and this’ because its logical.
“Most of the time they’re not wrong, to be frank. So sometimes I like also to surprise everybody by saying ‘Ok, you expect me to go here, no. I go there.’ There was no hidden agenda behind this watch, it’s just I thought it would be cool. Most of the people here were afraid about it.”
Those people included Thierry’s father and Patek’s honorary president Philippe, who said that while the watch wasn’t for him he understood it was a design exhibiting Patek Philippe’s DNA. Eventually Stern divulges that he was trying to encourage a younger buyer with the watch.
“This is the beauty of Patek. You can do it because you’re alone, because you’re independent. Then I chose to do it for fun, for professional fun, let’s say it like this.”
Following Antoine Norbert de Patek’s death in 1877 the company became a general partnership and then a joint-stock partnership in 1901. Patek Philippe has been wholly controlled by the Sterns since 1932 when the family, then a dial supplier to Patek, bought the company. An unbroken run of 82 years in control, without having any shareholders to answer to, has afforded the Sterns a rare opportunity in company management.
“It’s the strategy that you can build, you can really look 10-20 years ahead, planning something as concrete as this building [the Plans les Ouates manufacture opened in 1996]. This was maybe not possible to do with shareholders, they will say no ‘we keep the money’. In terms of strategy I can also talk with the retailers, or more often it’s the distributors, saying we will not change, there is no will to change, there are no shareholders looking to make quick money.”
That stability and sense of timelessness is at the core of Patek’s strategy, to create watches that will stand the test of time rather than make a quick buck in the space of a couple of years.
“I’m not looking to do something that will have a big success for maybe six months and then it’s over. That’s not what we like; we prefer to have something that will last for 10, 20, 30, 50 or even 100 years. That’s the difficulty actually; the line is very narrow in terms of creation. You need to be innovative but at the same time know that this watch will still be wearable in 20 years from now without knowing the size or the colour in the future. This is why we have to maintain a certain level of aesthetic. Very often we have requests, somebody asks me for a Mickey Mouse watch, and believe me somebody asked me for it, I will say no. So what I will not do is something that will not last and something that is inappropriate for the brand in terms of image and quality. It’s quite simple in one way because I grew up in Patek, so in my mind the design is very clear.”
Patek Philippe still occasionally accepts private commissions from owners who are ‘knowledgeable and passionate’ but Stern has since reserved the creation of titanium pieces for charity auctions such as the ref. 5004T that sold at the 5th Edition of Only Watch last year for CHF 2,950,000 (£1,967,272).
This year Patek Philippe celebrates the 175th anniversary of its founding, when Polish cavalry officer-turned-watch entrepreneur Antoine Norbert de Patek sought out the expertise of French watchmaker Jean Adrien Philippe, who had just developed the keyless works necessary for winding and adjusting watches without a key.
In previous anniversary years Patek Philippe has developed astonishing ‘supercomplications’ such as the Calibre 89, the world’s most complicated watch, and the Star Calibre 2000. These watches were years in the making, released in strictly limited numbers and cost millions; meaning they were only within reach of the most well-funded collectors. While Stern isn’t giving away much until the official reveal in October, he promises that this year’s commemorative releases will be a more inclusive affair.
“What I can tell you is it will not be something unique. You cannot always create the biggest, most complicated watch in the world. Today the client also expects to share this moment with us, that means that if I’m only having one masterpiece and that’s it, it’s not really something you can share with everybody. So there will be different types of watches, for both men and ladies.”
The company’s 175 years have not all been plain sailing though. Just like any other company, it is exposed to the ebb and flow of the global economy. The Stern family’s long reign at the top has helped Thierry develop a confident strategy for coping in times of crisis.
“First you preserve the people and the knowhow they have and secondly to try to develop something new, because we know that after the crisis things will be better and you need to be ready with something new and very strong. That’s the only way to get out of a crisis with a lot of success.
“It was never to go lower, it was always to go higher. You can do it when you have the financial shoulders to do it, for sure, we had it, we were lucky. Patek Philippe was also smart enough not to produce too many watches so that we were in trouble, because this would also be the danger. It is not because you do something cheaper during a crisis that you will be successful, I do not believe people will buy it. If I buy a Patek, I buy a cool one. If you buy a Porsche, you buy the cool one, not the awful one that no-one is willing to buy even if it is half the price.”
A cursory glance at Patek Philippe’s range might suggest a purely traditional watch brand but that brand has been driven by nearly two centuries of innovative horology, boasting many world firsts including the first wristwatches to include perpetual calendars and minute repeaters and a host of important patents.
“Since the beginning Patek was always meant to be creative,” Stern explains. “We have this tradition of innovation otherwise, if you do not innovate, there is no tradition. You will not last. Today it’s as important as yesterday to always have new ideas, new concepts. If you are a watch lover of course you will find something new, something better. This is what we like and this is what we do all the time. But there are some rules we have to follow and those rules are to protect the DNA of the brand, we have a certain DNA which is more classical, it’s also about not only aesthetic but about accuracy and it doesn’t mean you should only do old-style watches, not at all.
“For me it was very important that I could really have the chance to propose many different types of watches in the collection, including movement and style, so that for someone looking for a watch, whether he’s 20 years old or 80 years old, I hope he will really find a design that he likes.”
I ask Stern how innovative it is possible to be in such a well established field of engineering and design.
“It’s always possible because you can always have ideas. This is something very important for me, innovation is always something you can always discover with new materials, with new technology. The way to create today is fantastic because we have a lot of access to plenty of information, in the past there was no internet, there was no phone so it was more difficult. But today you need also to be open yourself, to look at what others are doing, to look at what all the engineering schools are doing, what they are proposing. It’s really a matter of curiosity. If you are curious of course there will always be new ideas. This is why today, in terms of movements, I am already working on 2022 and 2023 now. There are always things to do.”
Today Patek Philippe is in a curious position. Without increasing production the company does not manufacture enough watches [currently around 55,000 annually] to expand into new markets but won’t expand at the risk of dropping standards or losing the feel of a company with a relatively small global workforce of 2,000. The situation means that Patek must carefully manage its stock, refusing to strip supply from long-standing retailers in order to speculate on new markets.
“We are losing share, to be frank, we know and accept that every year we are losing share because the others are increasing a lot, taking more space but, bon, c’est la vie. What can I do? There is nothing else I can do, so I accept to lose share. But I still fight to keep the best location in the store.”
Increasing production would also require a massive programme of staff development as watch-makers take many years to train. Stern estimates that if he sought to double production, it might take 20 years to implement. Patek currently has three in-house training programmes which cater for its own watch-makers, young students and people looking to change their careers at the age of 41.
“Am I looking to raise more money by just selling double? I could do that but that’s not the point, the point is to preserve Patek, so that the next generation will also be proud of our work, be proud to work for Patek and that the client will still be proud to wait for one.”
One position that is unlikely to change under Stern’s leadership is the company’s policy of not allowing online sales. Patek Philippe remains one of last remaining watch brands to veto any kind of e-commerce.
“We believe that people who are buying a Patek like the contact and we like it too. The network we have, the retailers, are the best in the world. We do not have a lot of them, we are talking about slightly more than 400 retailers worldwide. They have the contact with the client, how can I have this contact through a website? It won’t be possible. The clients are asking many types of questions, they need also to see the watch, to touch it, they need good advice and all of that is not possible through the internet.”
Patek Philippe has always been welcoming of new technology and was one of the first manufactures to explore and introduce all-electric clocks and quartz watch movements. Today quartz movements only feature in the company’s ladies collection, accounting for just over a fifth of the movements produced annually. I ask Stern if Patek Philippe’s position on quartz is likely to change.
“It’s difficult to know. Talking about Patek high end watches, it will go lower I think because now the women’s segment has been really strong in terms of mechanical watches. They are now learning a lot about what is inside the watch, they are very interested about that. A woman buying a complicated Patek, most of them today will be buying alone, without the husband or the friends. They are a self-made woman, they are able to pay for it and they are interested in buying something more than just quartz.
“But quartz is still there because it’s an easy watch; drop it for a month and it will still work. Also in terms of design it helps me a lot because it’s much smaller and thinner, so I can go for a specific design where a mechanical movement will not fit inside the case. A good example is the Twenty-4, there’s no way I can fit a mechanical movement inside; I do not have the space. So that is why we will keep it [quartz] but I think the demand will be more for the mechanical watches.”