It should come as no surprise that the fantastical world of mechanical watches is populated by collectors every bit as eclectic as the watchmakers themselves. Serious aficionados have a tendency to become loyalists, gravitating inexorably towards the single brand with which they identify most. There are rough-and-ready Rolex lovers, accuracy-obsessed devotees of Grand Seiko, the speed demons of Zenith — and then there are those who collect Patek Philippe.
On paper, Patek collectors are an incredibly specific bunch. Detractors mistake their demeanor for fusty snobbery — a criticism that is, more often than not, borne of ignorance. A more likely explanation? Those who collect Patek are simply accustomed to the best, and there are compelling reasons why this eponymous watchmaker has held the attention of hardcore collectors for 180 years.
Let’s start with the obvious: provenance. Historically, Patek is responsible for a number of groundbreaking innovations, on both a technical and creative front, that remain relevant in 2018. The Swiss manufacturer created the world’s first perpetual calendar wristwatch in 1925, then helped to legitimise stainless steel with the release of their iconic Nautilus reference in 1976. Yet despite a surfeit of paradigm-shifting achievements, Patek have (more or less) preserved the same reputation for over a century — as a haut de gamme manufacturer.
In an effort to satiate increasingly fickle customers, modern watchmakers appear to rebrand themselves weekly, whereas Patek’s stock-in-trade has always been a resilient, almost slow-food-esque pursuit of excellence. One of the ways in which this manifests is in manufacture: Across the entire range of Patek Philippe, there is an eye-watering amount of handwork behind the creation of every timepiece. From proof of concept to finishing, these are watches that are the epitome of a labour of love, made using traditional techniques (e.g. hand engraving and enamelling) that remain mostly unchanged since the 19th century.
There’s also the less-visible issue of scarcity. Various sources estimate that, since 1839, less than one million Pateks have been manufactured. When compared to other industrial-scale manufacturers, the pace is much slower (yet calculated and intentional). Entry-level pieces take nine months to complete — subjected to rigorous quality control and hand-finishing processes — while some of the more complicated watches necessitate up to two years of work. For a sense of just how tightly Patek controls its production quotas, Rolex manufactures a comparative 900,000 watches per year. It’s revelatory data for collectors, those in search of rare and unique timepieces which have not saturated the marketplace.
All this would be trite if Pateks weren’t much to look at, but the fact is they’re most notorious amongst collectors for their elegant and balanced designs. The overall effect of a Patek timepiece, whether on or off the wrist, is unrivalled. “The little tells that distinguish a Patek Philippe can often go unnoticed, yet they all add up to something that looks and feels perfect on the wrist,” says John Reardon, Christie’s International Head of Watches. Perennial designs like the ref. 5738R Golden Ellipse may appear simple in execution, but are painstakingly attuned in both shape and proportion to deliver maximum pleasure to the naked eye. They are evocations of Patek’s wider creative philosophy: watchmaking with timeless, multigenerational appeal.
Dealers in the vintage and modern marketplaces tend to agree that Patek represents the best return on investment for serious collectors. Despite fierce competition in recent years, the Swiss watchmaker continues to maintain high resale values across the board and ignite record-breaking bidding wars at auction — a certain steel-only ref. 1518 sold by Phillips for US$11 million comes to mind. Pieces like the enamel-dialled ref. 5131 — demonstrative of technical expertise in métiers d’art — have doubled in value since going on the secondary market, and these developments are made all the more exciting by Patek’s internal habit of releasing and then quickly discontinuing watches. It’s one of the reasons why vintage models like the ref. 96 Calatrava, which cost US$300 in the mid-19th century, now fetch prices in excess of $20,000.
Although collectors recognise the cultural significance of Patek Philippe wristwatches, the company itself has gone to great lengths to cultivate this reputation. Since 1839, they have maintained meticulous internal archives — allowing owners to trace the dates on which their watch was originally made and sold. This service (what Patek calls an “extract”) is available on all purchases that have been in circulation for at least five years. Previous owners’ names are omitted in the interest of privacy, but the Patek archives offer enough circumstantial detail to significantly enhance the likelihood of identifying a vintage find’s ultimate provenance. Given their popularity amongst statesmen, royalty and other high-status individuals, these extracts elevate vintage Pateks from expensive (albeit superlative) exemplars of mechanical timekeeping to historical artefacts.