The brand’s highly sought after 2018 metiers collection of wristwatches, pocket watches and clocks forms a free public exhibition opening in Geneva this morning, QP was one of the first through the door.
by James Buttery
Each year Patek Philippe creates an array of metiers d’art watches, pocket watches and its signature domed table clocks – pieces embellished with what the brand describes as rare handcrafts – that are not often seen outside of private collections, collector events or the closely guarded confines of the brand’s Baselworld pavilion.
That changes this week as Patek stages a public exhibition of the 50 pieces created for its 2018 Rare Handcrafts collection at the Geneva boutique it has owned since 1891.
Thierry and Sandrine Stern were on hand to host a press preview of the exhibition on Monday, which not only showcases the surprising breadth of Patek’s artistic expression through these pieces but offers live demonstrations of fine enamel painting, wood marquetry, engraving and engine turning.
The reason that these pieces are so rarely seen stems from the extraordinary demand for them. The pocket watches and table clocks are unique pieces, whilst a maximum of five pieces will be produced for each of the wristwatch designs. According to the third-generation CEO, there are normally 50-60 requests for each piece and it is left to him to whittle down the applicants and find a home for each piece based on information supplied by each territory outlining their customer history. Many have now learnt to register an interest in the wristwatches rather than the piece uniques – and putting their name down sight unseen – as they stand a better chance of being successful .
As these pieces are snapped up so quickly – a complete reversal of the nadir of the Swiss watch industry in the late 70s and 80s when there might have been 80 such pieces languishing in the boutique – it leaves little time for public display, even Stern himself bemoaned the fact he does not yet own one, despite being one of the discipline’s greatest advocates – and owning the company.
Speaking after the launch Sandrine Stern, Patek Philippe’s Head of Creation, told us: “Now our customers recognise the quality of our craft because of all the communication we do with regards to the difficulty in producing watches like this, the customers are very interested in that. They understand that a watch like that is not just a picture, there’s a story behind its creation.”
If you are a particular fan of Patek then Geneva really is a must-visit destination anyway. Not only is it home to the brand’s peerless museum, which houses all manner of historic horological treats, but its manufacture is located in Plans Les Ouates on the city’s outskirts where, according to Mr Stern’s speech the company produces 17 million individual components each year. If you assume there are 300-400 per watch, on average, that’s around 45,000-55,000 watches – sounds about right.
Once through the airlock security doors of the Rue de Rhone boutique it’s worth exploring the salon itself which must look much like it did when it first opened 167 years ago with its velvet purple drapes a rich counterpoint to the more typically beige landscape of Swiss luxury.
The ‘Salon’, as it is known, is used to house Patek Philippe’s permanent collection. With waiting lists an increasingly common phenomenon in the Patek catalogue many retailers – and especially the brand’s own boutiques – aren’t able to carry every watch that a customer might want to see. In that case the retailer can bring the customer to the Geneva boutique to see the piece and support the sale and, should the customer have purchased enough Patek Philippe watches over the years, they may even find their way up to the fabled 5th floor, a dining room and lounge with a jaw-dropping panoramic view of Lake Geneva.
The recently restored Napoleon room at the rear contains two giant safes at either end, originally presented to Patek Philippe as a gift by jeweller Tiffany. While they are strictly for display purposes now, they still house their original velvet-lined watch trays which, given even the modest proportions of modern day Calatravas, wouldn’t be able to accommodate contemporary watches.
The exhibition itself, which runs from today until Saturday, occupies the 4th floor with a mix of live demonstrations, static showcases and themed panoramas. I always find metiers d’art demonstrations revealing in terms of the level of skill required; all of these artisan handcrafts benefit from countless hours of repetition, but few could be mastered with that alone.
Engine turning, for instance, appears deceptively simple before it becomes apparent that speed and rhythm all play their part in achieving the best results, whilst unfathomable levels of patience and calm must be required to master the incredibly intricate wood marquetry dials on display. It was perhaps disappointing not to witness at least some aspect of the cloisonné enamel process within the live demonstrations given how widely the technique is represented in this year’s collection.
But, according to Mrs Stern, the design process begins with a visual idea rather than the need to produce a specific craft.
She said: “It could be a flower, a landscape or an exhibition that makes us think it would work as a rare handcrafts piece, although we won’t know which technique yet. When we draw the design by hand we start to discover which handcraft would work best, then we will adapt the drawing to that technique and decide who will make the watch.”
The craftspeople it does use are a mix of in-house staff and freelance providers and while Patek is keen to support these handcrafts it doesn’t oversee any company apprenticeship scheme. Stern explains that the brand feels the field is better served through its support as a client, saying: ““For the artisan it’s also very interesting to work for us because they will have their work on a Patek Philippe watch. So we work with [external] as well as [internal] crafts people to find the best to work on our collection. They need to work, they need to improve and they need to share their knowledge, not just with Patek Philippe, it wouldn’t be fair to take all of that knowledge [in-house].”
What is apparent from the exhibition is how broad Patek’s artistic spectrum is. There is not just one ‘house’ style employed to depict the brand but a multitude, from the early Portuguese Azulejos-style dial of a minute repeater tourbillon, depicted using Grand Feu enamel miniature painting (which Patek claims is the first minute repeater tourbillon to feature a Grand Feu dial) to the distinctly 20th Century Gauguin-esque tone of the Galapagos domed table clock achieved with cloisonné enamel.