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.


With Gilbert Albert, a new era began at Patek Philippe. The design director was as controversial as he was brilliant.

Patek Philippe’s reinvention of ... jewellery”. The ellipsis may be mine, added for dramatic effect, but this is the headline that greeted readers of the French cultural review “Connaissance des Arts” in 1961. There was much excitement about the latest developments at the venerable Geneva house of Patek Philippe, and in particular the vision of one young man, an enfant terrible of precious metals and gemstones called Gilbert Albert, whose work was characterised by the unexpected juxtaposition of different materials and textures. How could they appoint this Albert as design director at Patek Philippe? Young people of talent and rebellious creativity are far from unknown. What made Gilbert Albert unique was that he was hired in 1955 straight out of l’Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Geneva to work for Patek Philippe – by Henri Stern, who was not yet president, but was already shaping Patek in his own image. It helped that Henri Stern himself had trained at the École des Arts et Métiers, and part of him remained the artist that he had trained to be, and perhaps in his new designer he saw a flickering reflection of himself as a young man. 

As the article in Connaissance des Arts reported, the appointment of Albert as design director was controversial. The influential magazine wrote: “For a firm whose current creations at any given time are worth a small fortune, it was a tremendous gamble to commit itself to such a revolutionary policy.”

However, scepticism was soon dispelled when Patek Philippe creations started winning awards, a great many awards. The Prix de la Ville de Geneve of 1959 saw Albert receive a special mention from the jury for Patek’s “Coquille” lady’s watch decorated with beryls, tourmalines and diamonds and the startling asymmetric “Losange Curviligne”, a curvilinear rhomboid watch that became known by the deceptively prosaic designation “Ref. 3424”.


The following year Albert became the only designer to win in both watch and jewellery categories, in the latter with an abstract gold necklace with coral, pearls, sapphires, as well as baguette and pear-shaped diamonds. He also carried off the New York Diamonds-International Award an unprecedented three years in succession.

The only way to describe his rise is meteoric, an especially apposite adjective, as he is reported to have been the first designer to use meteorite on a watch dial. His designs grew in confidence and the transformative magic of his imagination even brought new life to that most staid of personal portable timepieces: the pocket watch. One of his 1961 entries into the Prix de la Ville de Genève was a startling pocket watch of striated design in textured yellow gold, the multiple facets of which recall a rough-hewn Mesolithic hand axe. A similar, if slightly softer, reimagination of the pocket watch is to be found in the Ricochet collection, References 788 and 789, slim pebble-like pieces, with a hammered or engraved finish, made in small numbers during the 1960s.


However, the masterpieces of his time leading the design department at Patek Philippe were “montres à secret” for women. Tiny Patek Philippe timepieces were concealed in large abstract pendants fashioned from a delicate coral-like tracery of fronds of white and yellow gold, one of which, when discreetly pressed, revealed a watch little bigger than an aspirin. This was suspended around the wearer’s neck on a gloriously asymmetrical textured chain that gave the impression of a strand of undersea plant-life, transmogrified into gold by the Midas-like magic in the designer’s fingers.

The most famous of these chef d’oeuvres of the applied arts concealed the time beneath a large baroque pearl and was worn by Princess Grace of Monaco. A similar watch is proudly shown in a Patek Philippe advertisement in which the only wording is “Creations 1962”, allowing the selection of mesmerising and daring designs to speak for themselves.

Increasingly drawn towards jewellery design, 1962 was also the year in which Albert set up his own studio and began to work under his own name, preaching his gospel that jewellery “must be an artistic creation in just the same way as a painting or a piece of sculpture.”

Some years ago, I asked Philippe Stern about Gilbert Albert. “He was a real artist, and very confident in himself,” came the response, “[he] definitely thought that he was the best one.” Of course, Philippe was far too discreet to add that when you find yourself named design director of Patek Philippe, such self-belief is perhaps not unfounded.

One of the rarest ladies’models by Patek Philippe: Ref. 3270 from 1959.
Caused a sensation in 1959: the “Losange Curviligne”, (Ref. 3424).
Like a piece of nature: rare pocket watch from
the “Ricochet” collection (Ref. 788/1).

Beyer Chronometrie