Patek Philippe: The Ultimate Watchmaker

If there is one brand name in watches that stands above all the rest, it is Patek Philippe. It's the first watch everyone asks to see when they come into our gallery. Nonetheless, many people have the misconception of Patek Philippe as a quirky little firm that cranks out a handful of impossibly expensive watches every year. In fact, Patek Philippe with its 1,600 worldwide employees is a behemoth, the largest watchmaker still independently owned and operated in Geneva. It currently offers 173 different models, 50 different movements (including some quartz), clocks, pocket watches, jewelry, and more. Everything is made in Switzerland. In short, they are far from a bit player in the world of horology. Here's some background.

Founded in 1839 by two technically-minded enthusiasts, the firm that would become Patek Philippe was the first to develop a keyless winding and hand-setting system for pocket watches. This innovative timepiece was introduced five years later where it won a bronze medal at the Industrial Exposition in Paris, the first of many such awards. A patent quickly followed and by 1851 the watch was being exhibited and admired across Europe. In 1868, the first Swiss wristwatch followed, made for a member of the Hungarian royal family. In this, Patek Philippe anticipated the move towards wristwatches over pocket watches that wouldn't occur for another 50 years.

The rest of the 19th century was taken up with further innovations. The precision regulator (1881), the perpetual calendar mechanism for pocket watches (1889), and the double chronograph (1902) were all major developments that stunned the watchmaking world. By the dawn of the 20th century, Patek Philippe was being heralded for its technical wizardry just as new complications continued to pour forth. The chiming pocket watch (1910), the repeating ladies' wristwatch (1916), the split-second chronograph (1923), the perpetual calendar (1923) and the astronomical pocket watch (1927) have all since become horological touchstones.

Just as the Great Depression was settling over the world's economies, changes were afoot at Patek Philippe that would shape the firm that it is today. In 1932, the company was purchased by brothers Charles and Jean Stern, well-known New York jewelers. New models were also introduced during this decade, some (like the Calatrava) having remained in production ever since. In subsequent years, more complications were developed and more awards won. If Rolex is best known for ruggedness and Omega for precision, Patek Philippe stands alone in its remarkable ability to stuff ever more features into one square inch of space. Its calibre 89 pocket watch released in 1989 somehow contains 33 mechanical complications in a housing no bigger than a round matchbox.

So if your taste in wristwatches runs to only the best, Patek Philippe is a good place to start. The firm has 73 authorized locations in the USA, including Leeds on El Paseo here in the desert. Some 19 new models were introduced in 2019 alone, none of which are for the faint of wallet. All the same, few watches hold their value better than Patek Philippe. If you prefer old rather than new, vintage models can often be found at estate jewelry stores, high-end watch auctions, and antique galleries like ours. Repairs can be expensive, however, and all but the simplest cleanings and lubrications require parts available only from Switzerland. Unique among long-time watchmakers, Patek Philippe has kept meticulous records over the years of every watch to leave its premises and you can request (and pay for) an archival history of your timepiece. That plus all the rest makes owning a Patek Phillipe truly a special experience.

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