World of Patek Philippe

Nicholas Foulkes digs into the history of the world's most important watch brand.

NICHOLAS FOULKES The British historian, book author and journalist is considered the most profound connoisseur of Patek Philippe. For beyond, he comments on specific epochs and phenomena.


Whether enamel dials or dome clocks: Patek Philippe owes its outstanding reputation in part to a belief in skilled artistry.

At the Rare Handcrafts exhibition in the Salons at Patek Philippe on the Rue du Rhône in Geneva, it is not just the quality that delights the visitor – after all, quality is what one expects from Patek Philippe. What is really impressive is the incredible range of works on display. They show how much emphasis Patek Philippe puts on the embellishment and beautification of timepieces already regarded as the highest expressions of horological endeavour. Patek Philippe does not sell these pieces as soon as they are ready, though that would be easy. Instead, it waits until a collection is ready, which is then exhibited – much as the latest works of a celebrated artist go on display at a gallery.

Most collectors today grew up under the era of Philippe Stern. His sound judgement, and gift for making the right decisions years, sometimes decades before anybody else, have placed Patek Philippe where it is today. Philippe Stern’s achievements – such as the introduction of the Nautilus during his first year as company president, the reintroduction of the minute repeater wristwatch, and of course the complicated pocket watches Calibre 89 and Star Calibre – are well known. It is thanks to his vision that the Patek Philippe brand has become a synecdoche for complicated watchmaking.

Now, those of us who can cast our minds back to the days of Philippe’s father Henri Stern, have seen in his grandson,Thierry, a reawakening of Patek Philippe’s artistic side. Amidst the stormy seas of changing fashions followed by the quartz crisis, Patek Philippe was the lifeboat that gave refuge to the precious artisanal decorative skills for which Geneva was famous long before it became a centre for watchmaking. It was Henri Stern who, at recommendation of the great enameller Carlo Poluzzi, employed a young Suzanne Rohr to carry out miniature enamel painting on pocket watches. Examples of her work now command immense prices at auction and the attention of visitors to the Patek Philippe Museum. But, at the time, such a move could have been considered commercially counter-intuitive.


Today, of course, the importance of enamel work in all its forms – grisaille, miniature enamel painting, cloisonné, champlevé, flinqué, and plique-à-jour – is well understood, nowhere better than at Patek. One of the of the key indicators of that understanding is the soaring popularity of the world-time watches with enamel dials – often bearing maps, or a single bold splash of colour, as in the refined shade of plum chosen for the Ref 5330G-010 limited edition created for Japan.

Patek Philippe is motivated by watchmaking excellence rather than commercial expedience. And as it is operated and owned by a family steeped in generations of watchmaking culture, it takes the long view. This is why, for instance, it continued to make its famous dome clocks, even though for a while they had fallen from fashion. Thierry Stern once told me that even though he had around 90 unsold at the factory, he continued to produce them in order to continue to develop the tradition and the skills, so sure was he was that the pendulum of taste would return once more.


Patek Philippe Taschenuhr
Dial made from 800 pieces of veneer: the pocket
watch ‘Portrait of a Samurai’.
Patek Philippe Pendulett
A highlight of the Rare Handcrafts exhibition: the
dome clock with cranes.
Patek Philippe Weltzeituhr Violet
Limited edition: the plum-coloured world time
clock with an enamel dial.


The passage of time has proved him right. The unsold dome clocks are long gone. Today the closest most of us get to them is in collectors’ private rooms – or by attending one of Patek Philippe’s Rare Handcrafts exhibitions at the Salons in the Rue du Rhône. There this year we can admire dome clocks with, say, a cloisonne enamel tiger crouching in bamboo jungle, or gambolling grisaille putti that might have been painted by a Baroque master. Particularly appealing was a pale dome clock decorated with cranes, that could well have come from one of Whistler’s ‘Japonisme’- period paintings.

And it is this year’s Watch Art in Tokyo that showed what is arguably the ultimate demonstration of aesthetic sophistication at Patek Philippe: the 995/131G-001, more descriptively known as ‘Portrait of a Samurai’. It is a pocket watch decorated with what appears to be a miniature enamel painting of a samurai warrior. The skilled hands of the artist have captured the proud nobility of this ancient Japanese warrior class. Except, of course, it isn’t a miniature enamel painting. Looking closely, it becomes apparent that this is, in fact, a masterpiece of wood marquetry comprising 800 pieces of veneer, 200 inlays, in 53 different types of wood.

Truly worthy of the term ‘masterpiece’, it is an object of such beauty and skill that it confounds the distinction between the applied and the fine arts. Like all great art it makes us stop, think, and challenge received wisdom. Such is the power of aesthetics chez Patek Philippe.

Beyer Chronometrie