175 Years Young

You don’t have to be an avid consumer of luxury watches to have gathered there’s much ado about Patek Philippe at the moment. The reason is we’re in the great Genevan watch house’s 175th anniversary year, and the fanfare that has been a decade in the planning is now in full swing.

It began in October with the ceremonial unveiling of its 175th anniversary collection of watches in Geneva, headlined by the brilliant £2,050,000 Grandmaster Chime (no relation to Grandmaster Flash).

The next installment begins on Sunday with Christie’s auction of 100 “rare and interesting” Pateks, and continues on Tuesday when Sotheby’s auction the Patek Philippe Henry Graves Supercomplication, the most expensive watch ever sold at auction. It went under the hammer in 1999 for a heady $11m, a sum that will be dwarfed next week should it get near its presale estimate of $17m.

Even if you’re not a watch aficionado, those numbers will still turn your head, just as they would if they were attached to a painting by an Old Master or a Ferrari 250 GTO. Patek pulls in the big bucks like no other watch brand – according to some reports, as many as 17 of the 20 most expensive watches ever sold at auction have Patek on the dial. But the question non-believers will be asking is simply: why?

Sotheby’s Daryn Schnipper reckons it’s partly due to the firm’s relentless focus on their illustrious history and how that spills into present production. “Combine that with the vast range of timepieces they have produced in 175 years,” he adds, “plus the unbroken lineage, and the result is huge client confidence, regardless of whether they purchase watches through auction or directly.”

Much of Patek’s aura lies in the watches’ exclusivity. Only seven Grandmaster Chimes will be made, and there’s only one Graves watch. It was commissioned by the American financier Henry Graves Jr, delivered in 1933 and remains the world’s most complicated watch made without the aid of a computer. They literally don’t make ’em like they used to.

That sense of rarity permeates the Patek collection like incense through a cathedral. Even now, after two decades of expansion and that ingenious, ubiquitous marketing campaign, Patek Philippe only makes 55,000 watches a year. Compare that to other household-name watch houses who routinely produce more than half a million watches annually, while industry titan Rolex makes at least double that.

Patek is smart. It knows there’s a queue of suitors for every watch it makes. It was recently reported the straight-up steel Nautilus time and date model has a waiting list 200- long at the firm’s Geneva boutique. Until it was discontinued recently, the Ref 5131 world timer with an enamel dial had a five-year waiting list. And if you want a minute repeating watch – a Patek speciality – you may not even be permitted the wait; Patek personally approves customers for such timepieces.

That gives a Patek watch kudos beyond the sum of its immaculately presented parts. Such is the brand’s cachet that luxury asset lender Borro recently reported it has issued 150 loans totalling £1.5m against Patek watches since 2008. Who needs a pension when you could invest in Patek Philippe..? Of course, exclusivity is nothing without horological excellence. Think minute repeaters that chime the time on demand; perpetual calendars that can cater for month lengths, even in leap years; split second chronographs that time two events that start at the same time but finish independently; ‘grand complication’ combinations of the above…

Even the simplest two handers have beguiling movements polished, decorated and assembled by hand in its Geneva workshops. Trouble is, before you can get your hands on one, you’ll need a generous wallet.

The average sales price of a Patek in the UK is over £30,000. Such is the sacrifice required to become the possessor of this year’s superstylish Nautilus Travel Time Chronograph Ref. 5990/1, or the exquisite cushion-shaped Ref. 5951P- 012 split-seconds monopusher chronograph perpetual calendar.

The story continues next year with an exhibition of Patek Philippe’s finest, including the 175th collection, at London’s Saatchi Gallery in May. Good news is that it’s free and open to the public. A real education awaits.

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About the Author:

Jay wrote about luxury asset trends for Borro Private Finance