In mid September 2015, I was asked to visit the Patek Philippe headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. For the next several blog entries, I’ll continue chronicling my trip.
September 14, 2015
The months of excitement and tension building are about to come to fruition. For the watch nerd in me, the morning seems like Christmas. The hotel offers an outstanding breakfast of eggs, breakfast meats, fruits, fresh juice and a variety of breads. I down my double espresso to stave off my jet lag. And after breakfast we hop aboard our bus and make our way to Patek Philippe.
I have seen pictures of the front of the building but nothing can prepare me for the emotion I feel when we arrive. It is as if I am experiencing the emotional arrival of the birth of a child. I was told of the gravity of the feelings I would have, but until I experienced it firsthand I would not know — much of the trip was this way. There is a beautiful sculpture representing the mainspring of a timepiece that welcomes you to the epicenter of fine horlogerie. We enter the building and are presented with a visitor’s watchmaker jacket before making our way to orientation. We meet our guides for the week — Sylvia, Anne-Gaëlle and Celine — as we go through the itinerary. A further introduction of each of the guests, and we begin our training.
The first item covered is the Patek Philippe seal. Now first, in order to get to this “Level 4” training, each person has completed many hours of book and online learning courses offered by Patek Philippe. Each level has placed importance on the seal, as it explains the core values and history of the company. Being a family-owned business, Patek Philippe does not have anyone to answer to but themselves. Therefore, they can set their own quality standards, which they do, and at a level far superior to any company out there. They currently have 65 criteria included in their standards, applying to all mechanical watches in four areas: Bienfacture (quality), Rate Accuracy, Reliability, and Service. All of their criteria either meet (but typically exceed) the required Geneva seal COSC standards that all Swiss watchmakers must follow. It is a testament to the Stern family (the owners of Patek Philippe) and their requirement for excellence that they set themselves apart in such a way. After a quick coffee break, we split off into two groups to learn about the Creative Design Department and the Research & Development Department.
There are roughly 15 people in the Creative Design Department: four designers, an illustrator, one computer-aided design (CAD) artist, four who enamel, two guillocheurs, and one engraver. All of the departments work together at Patek Philippe, and it is no more apparent than in the Creative Design Department. They must work with R&D, watchmakers, case and bracelet makers, etc. in order to truly come up with a complete design in the beginning. Additionally we learned that many of these creations begin years (sometimes 7-10 years) in advance of release. For example, the new Patek Philippe Gondola ref. 5124G-011 began over two years prior to the release. Entirely new pieces take far longer. Every two weeks Mrs. Stern meets with the Creative Design Department to discuss the direction of the timepieces.
To get an idea of the logistics of the creation, after a Patek Philippe is discussed in detail and approved for creation, it is then sketched, both by hand and on the computer. Once the sketches are approved a resin model is created in two sizes. One size is made to be the exact size of the finished timepiece, the other is much larger to see the details of the case. Some references are created in the actual metal of the final piece, for example minute repeaters. Once these designs are approved, they are rarely seen again by the Creative Department unless there are problems that develop later on.
One last treat for us in the Creative Design Department was learning how the Patek Philippe Dome Clocks are created. Every Dome Clock is hand enameled in one way or another. One way is called Closoné, in which gold wire is used to create the outline of the shape, and then enamel is put into the shape for color. Another example is painting the enamel by using a powder mixed with certain oil. This can take many layers and a very long time to get the exact color one desires. We were able to see the different “test plates” in which color was shown on different color metals, in different finishes and textures, to see the variety that the same powder can produce an alternative color. Working in conjunction with the Creative Design Department is the Research and Development Department.
There are approximately 118 people who work in R&D, which is divided into two divisions. The first division is the movement. R&D determines if a movement is feasible, they develop the watch, create the plans, build a prototype, assemble and test it. During this process, the second division is completing similar tasks on the case. After the movement and the case come together, they then test them together, manufacture and put into production. After each stage in the process, there is extensive testing and quality control that takes place, again something that sets Patek Philippe apart from other watch manufactures.
Lunch at Patek Philippe is a treat. They have a cafeteria that is probably one of the best restaurants in the city. We were told a story that Thierry Stern loved going to a local restaurant every day for a long time. Eventually, he had the idea to hire away the chef from this restaurant and have him be the chef for Patek Philippe. It seems that most of the employees working at the facility eat here and enjoy every minute of it.
After lunch we were taken to see manufacturing of specific parts and pieces of the movement. We were shown how the gear train was assembled, the manufacturing of complicated parts and movements, and the manufacturing of main plates and bridges. We were also shown how all of these are hand finished by the best watchmakers in the world. One of my highlights during this was learning about the different hairsprings (apologies now I am watch nerding out). So the hairspring is essentially the heartbeat of the watch. It makes sure that the watch keeps the most accurate time. I will go into much more technical detail on Patek’s patented hairspring, the Spiromax later, but for now I wanted to just share that they essentially use two currently: the Spiromax and the Breguet. The Spiromax is used on most of their timepieces, while the Breguet is used on their tourbillons and some minute repeaters. The Breguet is larger and is still used as an homage to Patek’s heritage steeped in tradition. Both are used to ensure the most accurate time keeping.
Another highlight was witnessing the hand finishing that takes place on every piece inside a Patek Philippe. For instance, the circular graining that appears on many bridges and main plates are completed by hand. We saw two or three people completing this process (moving incredibly quickly), but better than any of us could do. We also saw hand finishing and polishing on parts that are never seen by the end consumer. Deep inside the recesses of the movement — hiding under the main plate, sandwiched between gears and wheels — these spare parts are all chamfered, polished and hand finished to the utmost quality. Something my grandfather taught me when I was a child is that when looking at a finished piece of jewelry, turn the piece over and look at the parts that are not seen when worn. Only then can you see the pride in craftsmanship that each artisan puts into his or her own works. The same holds true here with Patek Philippe. Do they need to put in the time and effort on parts that are not ever seen? Of course not. But, they do it because it is their name on the timepiece, and they do not want their craftsmanship to be anything but the best.
After our first day in the manufacture, we were lucky enough to get to go to the Patek Philippe Salon, which houses most of their current offerings. We got a brief history on the building and show room. The highlight of the Salon was being able to see some of the 175th anniversary pieces, and hearing the chime of a few of the minute repeaters. The décor reminded me of the Napoleonic time period, with chandeliers, leather wall paper, and riveted leather seats and couches. While we were in the Salon who walks in but Ben Clymer, the founder and editor-in-chief of Hodinkee. I was able to say hello to him, but he was flanked by two others who requested not to be named, who were there on very important business. After our tour we went to the top floor of the Salon and had drinks overlooking Lake Geneva, which was simply breathtaking.
Dinner was at Les Armures, with a traditional raclette appetizer and fondue entrée. You cannot prepare yourself for the engorgement that takes place on a trip like this. The amount of cheese ingested put me right to sleep that night.