In 2013, a Christie’s auction stunned the world with a record setting, eye watering sale of a Patek Philippe Grand Complication. The specific watch in question? Stephen S. Palmer Patek Philippe Grand Complication. The hammered price? USD2.25 million for a Patek Philippe Grand Complication pocket watch completed in 1898 and sold in 1900 for CHF6,500. Palmer was a business associate of the legendary Vanderbilt family and a trustee of the lauded Princeton University. The combined provenance of famed watchmaker and distinguished owner was enough to achieve the unheard of stellar price just 4 years ago. But the paramount take away here isn’t that there was a record price set, it’s of the fact that an item just shy of its 120th birthday can persist and endure.
“You never actually own a Patek Philippe, you merely look after it for the next generation.” – Patek Philippe advertising tagline
In a 2015 interview with The Atlantic, Tim Calkins, professor of marketing at Kellogg School of Management offered a hypothetical, “How do you sell a $25,000 watch when people can buy an accurate one for $10?” The answer was obvious, you made the watch in question a generational heirloom – “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.” Then, once you elevate what was once a purely functional device from its raison d’etre of telling time, how do you ensure its longevity? Everything breaks. Therein lies the danger and challenge, when one dares to compare a “mere product” to an emotive heirloom, you become duty bound to back your words come hell or highwater, fail, and all the provenance and prestige is not going to salvage your reputation – a statement of fact reduced to mere advertising bravado.
A Patek Philippe Manufacture within the Plan-Les Ouates Manufacture
We meet Monsieur Franck Pernet, veteran restorer who explains that his department can be considered a manufacture inside a manufacture. His little workshop, walled off in a separate room from the open plan department is at the heart of the enterprise, “We make all the components here by hand because we restore anything made from Patek Philippe since its founding in 1839, there were no machines then.” Indeed, there’s a certain romanticism which comes from the atelier style of watchmaking, one watchmaker who makes the components, assembles and regulates to perfection, here at Patek Philippe’s home in Plan-Les-Ouates, a thoroughly modern facility with machines capable of precision production down to the nanometre, the historical throwback is affectionately contrarian. Unlike After-Sales which handles the current collection, the restoration department headed by Pernet fixes everything else.
It is not hyperbole to say that the restoration department exists as its own manufacture inside the Patek Philippe manufacture – the whole gamut of skills involved in the art of watchmaking exists in the three men working within the department – watchmaker, escapement maker, pivot maker, wheel maker, polisher, restorer, assembler, name it and they have to do it (because nobody else could and if they tried, the learning curve would be ridiculous). There’s a lot of trial and error involved in restoring watches even when there are a movement plans to guide you, the components aren’t exactly a precision science in the 1800s, it was guesswork then and to make things work, it’s still guesswork by trained veterans. Suffice it to say, it’s not hyperbole to call this the heart of Patek Philippe either, the sum total of lore, watchmaking heritage and history all persist in the many small cabinets and unofficial filing system designed by Pernet. If a pinion is broken or a wheel, lost, it is here that the traditional tools for building a new one are found here, adjusted to historically accurate settings that even an individual hand tool warrants a “DO NOT TOUCH” for fear of misaligning tool – watchmaking secrets live here, it’s the veritable watchmaker’s secret “kung-fu” cave – the ancient techniques of all watchmakers before Pernet live on here, it is the single most important repository of original, historically accurate, watchmaking know-how.
“The vibrations between my fingers feel different and the sound changes as I approach the correct micron of thickness, that’s how i know when to stop.” – Franck Pernet on making watch components the old fashioned way
Introducing Patek Philippe’s Franck Pernet: Watchmaking Kung-Fu Master…
You know that inevitable trick in any martial arts flick worth a damn to watch where the titular mentor amazes his protege with a casual catch of a fly with a pair of chopsticks? Well, Franck Pernet is a watchmaking kung-fu master. The man works by ear and not by sight, his job literally involves him grinding and polish bits of metal components into the required thickness and shape and he has to do this by a combination of feel and sound, “The vibrations between my fingers feel different and the sound changes as I approach the correct micron of thickness, that’s how i know when to stop.” As the group of journalists looks on with incredulous expressions, Pernet takes a seat at his bench and proceeds to “catch a fly with his chopsticks”, this is about the only point where reel and reality diverge, a celluloid master catches his fly casually while Pernet starts to focus his powers of concentration into a few millimetres of metal, he begins operating the tool, slowly at first and then becoming up pace before he slows to a stop.
The attraction of bespoke, handmade and other forms of artisanal crafts lies in the fact that during civilisation’s pre-industrial age, everything handmade was a literal piece unique. Everything was similar but there was never two alike and therein lies the difficulty of restoration – there are rough plans and guidelines but when dealing with a couple of hundred components, each of them with varying degrees of thickness, smoothness and shape, the trickle down consequences of these different tolerances are immense. Restoration is a literal retracing of steps of the original watchmaker and it’s usually after a century or more has passed.
Technologically speaking, you can trace the modern rendition of the lathe back to the Egyptians but the bow and motor (your arm being the “motor”) setup is still pretty much precise to 1300 BC even if the materials used in the tools used today are significantly more advanced than what the ancient craftsmen used. Yet, the skills required by the artisan are as old as the invention of the technique itself – by ear, by hand and now, aided by magnification instruments like a loupe. “It takes an average of 10 years to learn the technique, more to get really good with it. I’ve been here for over 25 years and back then there were at least two generations. Today, there’s only one,” as if for dramatic effect, he motions to the two young young watchmakers at the other two benches, his trainees.
Thankfully, uninterrupted corporate operations at Patek Philippe have meant that generation after generation of components of period precise components have been produced in excess and carefully squirreled away in antique cabinets, some almost as old as the maison. Meanwhile, movement plates and blanks dating back centuries are updated with contemporary (relatively speaking – given that most finishing was practical rather than decorative ) high horology techniques. A carnet de santé or record is kept by Pernet in a decidedly low tech way and anything which has no specs saved from the period is made from scratch, this usually happens in 5 to 10% of the cases; that said, every watch ever made by Patek Philippe has an equivalent reference in their archives with trackable serial numbers on movements and cases for a complete record totalling over 6 million parts or 150 years worth of materials.
It comes as a surprise given Patek Philippe’s grand history that Restoration Department is a relatively new concept founded just over 20 years ago. Back in the day, it was merely a part of a greater centre for watch repair but then as people started to discover old Patek Philippes locked away in the family safe, the number of requests for “repair” spiked, necessitating the creation of a separate Patek Philippe restoration department. Even then, Pernet explains that the workshop is sub-divided into two areas of responsibility – the most veteran watchmakers (like himself) work on everything from 1839 to 1970 and the other from 1971 up to the present. It’s a straightforward process:
- Examination and investigation
- Assessment of what components can be kept
- What components require replacement
- Costs of the labour and components involved
- Receive a customer’s “go ahead” instruction
- Rebuilding of the gears
- Polishing of the components
- Balance/wheel hairspring adjustment and fine tuning
- External dial, case, crown polishing and restoration
- Quality control of the complete watch on par with current production Patek Philippe watches
Given the collecting and auction environment today, many watch fans prefer to leave some evidence as to the provenance and maturity of the watch; some others prefer a new timepiece. Whatever the preference, Patek Philippe restoration department follows guidelines of keeping as many components as possible in order to leave the watch as original and historic as it should be.
That said, during the early days of restoration before the slavish adherence to history became in vogue, it was standard to completely refinish and re-polish a watch; today’s watch lover would balk at a repainted dial or a newly chamfered bridge, preferring a pocket watch/wristwatch as historically authentic as possible. That said, due to wear and tear, the pinion is almost always the first thing to go but thanks to impeccable record keeping, it’s possible to redesign and reproduce everything. One can visit Patek Philippe’s Home in Plan-Les-Ouates but without visiting the manufacture inside the manufacture, one would never understand and experience the heart and history of the brand.
Also published on Medium.