Watchmaking is a living art, which is all too easy to forget given that a certain breed of watch collector focuses obsessively on supply and demand. There is an obvious reason for this. To some, the only watches worth buying are those with built-in demand because the companies making these watches cannot keep up with the market. Consequently, such watches typically become worth more than their weight in gold, even if they are cased in steel. They are lusted after by people who do not have the faintest clue why these objects are so coveted, which indirectly leads to higher prices in the pre-owned market. Clearly this is not a recipe for long-term success, and this brings us back to the living art part.
“It is an exhibition about educating people first rather than something commercial,” said Patek Philippe President Thierry Stern (below) of the Patek Philippe Watch Art Grand Exhibition. “Exhibitions like (this) also allow us to educate the next generation; they might enjoy an Apple watch but they also find mechanical watches appealing and perhaps one day, they might like to own one. I think it is important for them to come and really understand the value and provenance behind those watches.” Stern was speaking with us after the media preview of the exhibition, which also saw many Patek Philippe collectors take exclusive tours.
Patek Philippe is certainly a blue-chip watchmaker that ticks all the right boxes for collectors. A Patek Philippe watch projects and protects wealth, while also functioning as a sign of impeccable taste. Such a watch – whatever it is – is sure to be highly sought-after while being in short supply. Also in short supply are the rare handcrafts that Patek Philippe regularly deploys in some of its high-end pieces such as Ref. 5089 (wood marquetry on time-only Calatravas) and Ref. 5088 (hand-engraving and champlevé enamelling on time-only Calatravas and also Golden Ellipses). These are the sorts of watches that embody the living art of watchmaking, but I’m skipping ahead a few beats.
“This is the biggest Grand Exhibition that we have done in terms of size,” said Stern. “We took two years to prepare because of the real challenge of this market, the whole Southeast Asia region, is that not only do they deserve to have Patek Philippe here but that they’re such good, passionate and knowledgeable clients that they ultimately become our best ambassadors. I’ve seen them touring with their friends and explaining the exhibits better than we do.”
In my own address to our readers at the Patek Philippe Watch Art Grand Exhibition in Singapore, I was at pains to connect the worlds of rare handcrafts and technical virtuosity. These were two separate rooms at the exhibition, with wildly differing aesthetic cues, but they come together in the watches. This is most obvious in pieces such as the Grandmaster Chime but also in less singular offerings such as Ref. 5160 (featuring extensive hand-engraving alongside the perpetual calendar), and Ref. 7000 (a ladies’ model minute repeater with cloisonné enamel dial, pictured below).
“It takes three months to complete a single dial,” said master enameller Anita Porchet. “Six to eight hours a day with breaks in between to rest my eyes. It can take up to a year to finish a seriously complicated dial.”
Those who dropped in at the Watch Art Grand Exhibition on its opening weekend would have been able to converse directly with Porchet, who is a living legend in watchmaking. She is responsible for such iconic works as both Ref. 5531 and Ref. 7000, as well as other notable watches not made by Patek Philippe.
This leads into an interesting fact about Patek Philippe’s CHF20 million extravaganza at the Sands Theatre in Singapore: it was not only Patek Philippe watches or handcrafts on show. Just as the culture of watchmaking is not only about one brand, or indeed one country, the rare handcrafts too do not belong exclusively to any one party. Instead, these arts are part of the human experience, and quite a number of brands have stepped up to protect them and ensure that they will continue to enrich future generations. These brands include Breguet (whose famous founder was Swiss but whose brand was arguably French) and Cartier (a truly multinational watchmaking brand right from the start).
Important historical watches on show – all from the Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva – included a 1796 ship’s chronometer designed by Thomas Mudge, and completed by Pennington, Pendleton and others for the inventor’s son, Mudge II. Other notable watches were a Casper Werner pendant watch (Nuremberg, 1548) that features a movement without hairspring; a Pierre Sebeult pendant watch with fusee and gut string, also without hairspring (France, 1660); and a significant Ferdinand Berthoud repeating pocket watch with double balance and a Hamelin enamel painting (France, 1758).
Perhaps nowhere was it more evident that the Patek Philippe Watch Art Grand Exhibition was more than a commercially driven show than the family days. Of course, the Geneva brand is family-owned and does enjoy talking up its family values; the Generations advertising campaign aligns quite nicely with these values, but there is a softer side to all of this.
Held on two Sundays over the course of the exhibition in Singapore, both days offered families a bit of horological fun, including some assembly of watch parts. This was done with what appeared to be a fun sort of kit, with parts quite a bit bigger than what watchmakers contend with in assembling mechanical watches. It was a lot like an abstract Lego play session, although there were other watchmaking-related arts and crafts to come to grips with.
So what does Stern, who took over the business from his father Philippe, think about family values and the value of a family business?
“I have been talking about (the succession) with my sons already, and it is very important that they understand I made my choice when I was young,” said Stern. “So the pressure I had on my shoulders, I choose to have it. You cannot be prepared, you can only learn by doing it and growing. But it was something I accepted because I really wanted to do it. Yes I would prefer them to take over but if you ask me to choose between my children or Patek, it is an easy question: it is definitely my kids. With Patek, I can find somebody to run it – perhaps a fantastic CEO will take over for a while and then the next generation will one day take the reins again. I don’t really want to see someone outside the family running Patek Philippe but if my son is going to be sad running it, it will not work.”