By redefining watchmaking as art, Patek Philippe knows that it will need to be more than an echo of the past if it is going to secure its future
Article by Christen Fisher
My mother worked as an events planner for a US subsidiary of a Dutch publishing company when I was a child. For many years, she planned elaborate weeklong trips for the corporate elite visiting from Holland. There were black tie parties with strolling white-gloved magicians and full swing orchestras, lavish private cruises around Manhattan, Broadway shows and dinner at impossible-to-get-into restaurants, private tours of the Smithsonian and the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C., all interspersed with myriad catered sales meetings, team-building experiences, and publishing awards banquets. You name it; she planned it. Of course, I never attended. My view was from the wings, the inside of her harried office floating in a sea of airport transfer charts, hotel suite numbers, and A/V equipment rental receipts. But even from my humble vantage point as an impressionable 10 year-old who had never left New Jersey, those weeks were glamorous beyond description.
Once after one such whirlwind week as she was sorting through a mountain of invoices and interoffice memoranda, I asked her if she’d gotten a lot of thank you notes and compliments from co-workers who had been included in the festivities. She stopped sorting and let her oversized bi-focal glasses slide down the nose we shared. “Listen Honey,” she said. “If one night you went around to the house of everyone you knew and left each of them a brick of solid gold, in the morning, your phone would be ringing off the hook with complaints: This is too heavy; I’d rather have coins; Mine is too yellow, too orange; I wanted platinum; Steel is more useful. And on and on. That’s just how people are. I do my job anyway.”
Patek Philippe, the last privately held, family-owned Swiss watchmaking company in the world, has certainly had its share of gold bricks – platinum and steel ones too. Some might say their road has been paved with them, but over the last few years all I’ve heard around the various water coolers of the watch world is complain, complain, complain…
In an industry where it routinely takes years to develop a new product, today’s 24-hour commentary cycle and the market’s insatiable appetite for new releases puts substantial pressure on makers like PP to stay relevant, current, and impossibly fresh. Some would say Patek has been showing signs of cracking. Recall the disastrous release of the 5270G Perpetual Calendar Chronograph in 2013, which spurred a bunch of quickie redesigns just to appease a deafening chorus of critics. Then there was the 2015 Baselworld release of the 5524 Calatrava Pilots Watch, which was immediately branded as highly derivative of other, lesser brands and tone deaf to the current market trend favoring smaller, more understated pieces. Editorials frequently used words like “joke” and “gag.” Though no one questioned Patek’s unparalleled quality, they did speculate heavily about the thought process behind these designs. In other words, everyone wanted to know what the hell Thierry Stern was thinking.
As any artist or working mother can tell you, the trick to outwitting critics, and these days commenters, is to outlast them. As in life, birthdays are a victory. People complain, and Patek does its job anyway. But for Thierry Stern, doing his job is not enough. He was unpretentious and sincere when I chatted briefly with him in July at the press reception for The Art of Watches, Grand Exhibition New York 2017. He spoke warmly of his children, his employees, their families, in short the people who depend on his ability to carry this iconic company into the future. It was clear that responsibility weighs heavily on his mind, but I also detected a spark of ego, and a strong desire to do more than just mark time as the fourth generation president of his family’s company.
For all his palpable humility and down-to-earth charm, Thierry Stern is greedy. He wants to create, achieve, and dazzle not just his inevitable critics, but also those who have never heard of Patek Philippe or his family’s storied past of placing exceptionally crafted time pieces into famous and influential hands like those of Queen Victoria, General George S. Patton, and President John F. Kennedy. In an age when digital technology has rendered watches functionally obsolete, and therefore the long-term future of his family’s company uncertain, Thierry Stern is swinging for the fences, and he’s thinking about legacy.
Enter The Art of Watches. Occupying a custom-built, two-story space of more than 13,000 square feet at Cipriani’s 42nd Street, this 11-day, free public exhibition showcased Patek Philippe’s 178-year history and detailed the incredible artistry of fine Swiss watchmaking. Divided into 10 rooms, the exhibit included a Rare Handcrafts gallery where artisans accompanied by translators demonstrated and explained decorative techniques like marquetry, enameling and engraving, a Museum room featuring timepieces dating back to the 1500s, and a US Historic room with pieces on loan from American icons in music, film, politics, and the military. There were also watchmakers on hand to teach how mechanical watch movements work, and a virtual reality center that allowed visitors to actually step inside them.
Lines of people, many of whom could never afford a Patek Philippe watch, stretched around the block in the worst of the summer heat waiting as long as two hours to gain entry. Patek employees even distributed free water bottles. Inside children ran freely through the space, which included an arts-and-crafts station with watch-themed coloring pages. I visited the exhibit three times and never felt that it was in any way designed to be an advertisement for a brand as so many “experiences” are these days. It seemed instead to be trying to transcend the idea of marketing in favor of the nobler education.
Watchmaking is a craft rooted in functionality. Up until a very short while ago, watchmaking was about producing tools essential to specific endeavors, complications specifically designed for a purpose—diver watches for divers, pulsation scale chronographs for physicians, or split-timers for racers, not to mention the everyman’s need to know the date and time. These functions were necessities and guaranteed an end-market buyer regardless of aesthetics because a watch was not merely an accessory or a status symbol, a collector’s item or a novelty whose value was determined only by market psychology or a buyer’s whim. It was of practical use, and such practicality served as the guiding force behind its design. In other words, form followed function. Now that function is obsolete, form becomes untethered and unprecedentedly subjective.
When an object ceases to have a practical purpose, it either becomes a piece of nostalgia treasured by a shrinking few, or it must evolve into something more. Some people prefer to acquire collections of vintage artifacts or embrace reboot after reboot of past horological triumphs. While following these trends may prove interesting or lucrative to those who trade around in them, the practice is too shortsighted to be a viable strategy for maintaining and ensuring the legacy of an almost 200 year-old company, not to mention an entire industry. Eventually watch design will need to be more than an echo of the past if it is going to have a future.
By reframing Swiss watchmaking as art in the collective mind of the general public instead of the manufacturing of a utilitarian product or the hipster idolatry of a trendy relic, PP seeks to transcend a fickle, shrinking marketplace and secure a legitimate future for itself and for watchmaking. After all, art is inherently valuable. It requires no practical justification for its existence.
Thierry Stern is trying to build a road into the future for his company, his progeny, and all the employees who depend on him. The sense of noblesse oblige about his desire to educate the masses coupled with a selfish pride to forge his own identity within the Patek dynasty and hubris to reinvent the idea of Swiss watchmaking in the mind of the everyman as pure art is a heady beginning. There have been a few false starts, and there are still many mountains to climb, but the NY Exhibition shows Patek Philippe intends to pave the road ahead with good intentions. We will have to wait to see if they can turn them into gold bricks.
Enquiries: PATEK PHILIPPE SA, The Henri Stern Watch Agency, Inc., 45 Rockefeller Plaza, Suite 401, New York, NY 10111 / www.patek.com/
Cipriani 42nd Street, 110 East 42nd Street, New York, New York 10017 / 1.212.499.0599 / www.cipriani.com/