Accessories are made to adorn necks, ears, fingers, and lapels where they often serve the purpose of enhancing and adding a bit of interest. Yet, there is one accessory that isn't purely decorative as it performs a specific task. It keeps us on schedule and aware of how quickly time is fleeting. If you haven't guessed already, that functional item is a watch. One company, which has been making timepieces since 1839, not only provides sensible watches, but both beauty and innovation are at the helm of what has made Patek Philippe successful for almost two centuries.
From the Ground Up
The company had humble beginnings with Antoni Patek, a Polish watchmaker, and Franciszek Czapek formed Patek, Czapek & Cie in May of 1839. Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on how you look at it – the men parted ways and liquidated in 1845. Both went on to start their own companies with Patek naming his Patek & Cie.
Meanwhile, in 1844, French watchmaker Jean Adrien Philippe entered his keyless winding and hand-setting mechanism into a competition at the Industrial Exposition in Paris. He won a bronze medal for his design and subsequently obtained the patent for his idea in 1845. Patek and Philippe joined forces in 1845, and the company was renamed Patek, Philippe & Cie in 1851.
Often referred to as the "Holy Grail brand" of watchmakers, these modest beginnings laid the foundation for the brand Patek Philippe. Their work was pioneering and began to be noticed by customers and other companies alike. In 1851 Queen Victoria acquired a lovely blue keyless pendant watch featuring rose-cut diamonds within a bouquet. A timepiece suspended from an enamel and diamond brooch was also in the queen's collection.
Enter Tiffany & Co.
That same year Patek Philippe began working with Tiffany & Co. in a relationship that continues to this day. The Patek Philippe designs won silver medals in both the Exhibition of the Industry of all Nations in 1853 and the 1855 World's Fair, both in New York City. With the US as an intrigue, Patek traveled around the United States until he had orders for 150 watches. His drive was impressive to Tiffany & Co, which was a partner whose relationship Patek wanted to grow and foster.
While Patek focused on the business end of things, Philippe was using his creativity and knowledge to develop and implement new techniques into the designs of Patek Philippe, including their first wristwatch in 1868. The duo of Patek and Philippe was a perfect combination as the company's name continued to be associated with elegant and technically innovative timepieces.
Changes, Challenges and Calatrava
In March of 1877, at the age of 65, Patek passed away. The Calatrava Cross became the registered company logo of Patek Philippe, and in 1891 Philippe handed his position in the business over to his youngest son, Emile Philippe. The older Philippe passed away in 1894. In 1901, the company remained a family run business with the addition of seven shareholders.
During the depression in 1932, the Swiss Stern brothers – Jean and Charles Henri – purchased Patek Philippe, and the Stern family still owns the company to this day. It continued to thrive and produce pioneering designs under the Sterns, which included the notable Calatrava watch. Designer David Penney designed the first Calatrava timepiece.
Penney wanted to produce a watch that was classic, understated, and elegant. In 1932 pocket watches were still the norm, so he designed the Calatrava as a timeless wristwatch, which was named after the cross symbol of the 12th century Calatrava Knights. Coincidentally, Patek Philippe had already registered the Calatrava Cross design as a trademark 45 years earlier. Today these watches sell in the $20-$30,000 range at auction, and they are considered a must-have by many watch collectors. The company continues to produce new styles of Calatrava watches.
Leaving a Mark on Watch Making History
In 1944 Patek Philippe won a record number of prizes at the Geneva Observatory competition for their work in precision. Their work is so precise that in 1962, a tourbillion movement watch achieved the world timekeeping precision record – an achievement that remains unbroken to this day. Other models and collections followed, such as the 1968 Golden Eclipse collection, the 1976 Nautilus model, and the 150th-anniversary watch in 1989 that included 33 complications, such as moon phases, a minute repeater, and a perpetual calendar.
Patek Philippe manufactures the components for their watches, and they continue to produce timepieces with mechanical movements and either winding or automatic mechanisms. Besides, they constructed quartz watches and were one of the 20 original Swiss companies that collaborated to develop the Swiss quartz movements.
To this day, the company has made insurmountable contributions to the watchmaking industry. They hold over 100 patents, which include patents on the perpetual calendar mechanism, self-winding mechanism, double chronograph, and time zone watches.
Adored by All
Queen Victoria wasn't their only fan. Actors, artists, and several other social elites have worn Patek Philippe timepieces. Notable names include Marie Curie, Pablo Picasso, Nelson Mandela, Walt Disney, JP Morgan, Charlotte Bronte, John F Kennedy, Clark Gable, Andy Warhol, and Albert Einstein, who owned a gold pocket watch.
The Swiss luxury watch manufacturer has over 400 retail locations around the globe and is one of the oldest watch manufacturers with a continuous history since its founding. A museum that chronicles the Patek Philippe story and showcases timepieces founded in Geneva in 2001.
Patek Philippe in Modern TImes
The company is now headed up by president Thierry Stern of the original purchasing family. The Patek Philippe slogan of, "You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation," reigns true. Although the purchaser who paid the highest price ever recorded at an auction for a pocket watch - almost 24 million dollars for a Patek Philippe in 2014 - surely hopes he owns his. No matter what, the legacy and innovativeness of this company are still very much intact.