A Grand Time: The Role Exhibitions Played In Patek Philippe's Glittering History
Although the company name of Patek, Philippe & Cie wasn’t registered until 1851, the two founders of the storied watchmaker in fact first came together in 1844. It was thanks to a fortuitous encounter at that year’s Products of Industry Exhibition in Paris that one of the most legendary partnerships in the history of horology was born.
French watchmaking prodigy Jean Adrien Philippe had been awarded a prize at the exhibition for the invention of a system that allowed pocket watches to be wound with an integrated stem, rather than an independent key. This remarkable, patented innovation—the basis for the stemwinding system that remains standard in most watches made to this day—brought Philippe to the attention of a Geneva-based, Polish-born entrepreneur named Antoine Norbert de Patek.
The former soldier, who’d been a decorated officer in the Polish cavalry, operated a business under the moniker of Patek & Cie, producing around 200 timepieces per year. But he was unhappy with his technical partner, watchmaker François Czapek, whom he found unreliable and unimaginative. In Jean Adrien Philippe, Patek felt he’d found a more conscientious, inventive collaborator. He swiftly split with Czapek, convinced Philippe to move to Geneva, and together, the duo set about taking the company to new heights.
The year the business name was officially changed to Patek, Philippe & Cie, the watchmaker took part in another exhibition, which would prove pivotal to its future fortunes. At the 1851 Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in London, where curiosities and inventions from across the world were showcased to an awestruck Victorian public, Patek Philippe proved the highlight of the Swiss concession, wowing attendees with its stunning timepieces. These included chiming minute repeaters, touch watches for the visually impaired, watches featuring date functions, and the smallest watch ever made, with a movement of just 3/10 of an inch.
The exhibition fell under the patronage of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who were so taken by Philippe’s exquisite creations that they each acquired a timepiece—Victoria purchasing a pendant watch, Alfred a pocket watch: a yellow-gold hunter-cased chronometer with a repeater mechanism.
This royal seal of approval spawned interest from Britain and the continent’s privileged elite, and Patek Philippe quickly became a roaring success among the aristocratic and affluent of the old world. Following their example, newly-rich Americans of the Gilded Age began to hunger for haute horology, and by 1925, the States had become Patek Philippe’s biggest market.
Boom And Bust
With the 1929 stock market crash and ensuing Great Depression, however, the company fell upon hard times. It was rescued from ruin when the family behind dial maker Stern Frères, a longtime supplier to Patek, formed a consortium to purchase, restructure and resuscitate the business. Since its acquisition by Charles Henri and Jean Stern in 1932, Patek Philippe has been stewarded by the Stern clan–today, the fourth generation of the family is at the helm, 49-year-old Thierry Stern having assumed the mantle of president in 2009.
On September 28, Stern officially opened the expansive Patek Philippe Watch Art Grand Exhibition in Singapore. Previously staged in Dubai, Munich, London and New York, the exhibition showcases an array of stunning pieces charting Patek’s rich 19th-century history—including Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s aforementioned watches, and the very first Swiss wristwatch, crafted in 1868 for a Hungarian countess—alongside myriad 20th century classics and contemporary creations. An unmissable highlight is the Calibre 89, the most complicated portable watch ever created at the time of its debut in 1989, boasting an incredible 33 complications.
A collection of limited edition timepieces has been created in celebration of the exhibition. These include: a new rose-gold cased grand complication Minute Repeater Tourbillon (Ref. 5303); a World Time Minute Repeater (Ref. 5531) with a cloisonné enamel dial rendering a map of Singapore; a World Time Chronograph (Ref. 5930) with black-red dial; and stainless steel Aquanauts with red highlights inspired by the Singapore flag, for men and women (Ref. 5167A and 5067A respectively).
The exhibition and its complementary special editions serve as ample proof that Thierry Stern remains true to his father Philippe’s philosophies of producing “a small series of the best watches in the world in terms of technical performance and aesthetic presentation,” and Patek’s continued dedication to concentrating on “the luxury handmade watch that has been the heart of our success” ever since the company’s foundation, 168 years ago.
See also: Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) Will Rebrand As Watches & Wonders Geneva In 2020
This article was originally published in Hong Kong Tatler