On a recent sunny afternoon, a large crowd gathered at the new Patek Philippe boutique at Suria KLCC in Kuala Lumpur in anticipation of the arrival of Thierry Stern, the head of one of the oldest independent family-owned watch brands in the world. Stern had travelled thousands of miles to celebrate the official launch of the resplendent boutique. Tucked away in the corner of its warm interiors bedecked in wood, marble and glass was a private VIP lounge, where the man of the hour waited in anticipation for the day’s main event to commence.
Despite being slightly jetlagged, Stern was in a jovial mood, especially when it came to the topic of his family-owned company and his thoughts on this year’s edition of the world’s biggest watch and jewellery tradeshow, Baselworld. “There were about 1,300 exhibitors this year, which included some brands that I’ve never even heard of. There have been talks that there will be fewer exhibitors at next year’s Baselworld, but whether that’s a sign that things are not going well... I’m not sure. However, even if there are less people, the ones that count will still be there.”
As for his thoughts on the current state of the haute horlogerie industry, which has taken a slight downturn in recent years, Stern said that he was not at all worried. “The industry fluctuates all the time. This is very normal and every business is like this. This brings to mind a conversation I had with my father and he told me that he’d also seen similar things happen throughout his career. Perhaps, the main concern comes from members of the younger generation who, after witnessing many years of growth and success, are surprised when things are no longer doing so well. This is because they don’t have the experience.”
The President of Patek Philippe also theorised that the reason why certain watch manufactures are now struggling to keep with the times could be attributed to overproduction resulting from anticipating the growth of a single market. “It takes about two years, from the decisionmaking process to producing a new model and delivering it to the customer. For me, it’s very dangerous to make any rash decisions at this point in time, especially when things are going well, because other factors might come into play at any moment. For instance, there was a time when some watch brands decided to set their sights on China, which was doing very well. But once the country was no longer booming, the demand for these luxury watches was no longer there. As a result, most of these brands ended up with a lot of stock that wasn’t moving.”
As for why Patek Philippe wasn’t as affected by the slump, Stern believed it all has to do with the fact that the manufacture only produces 58,000 pieces per year, although he admitted that this might increase by one to three per cent depending on the model that’s being released. For Stern, the ability to remain relevant during times of uncertainty also has to do with the brand’s perceived value by collectors, who are able to truly understand what Patek Philippe is all about. “Even during a crisis, I think that the finest products will always remain... and those who remain loyal to Patek Philippe do so because they have faith in what we are able to offer to them.”
To this, Stern also added innovation as a key element in tackling any challenges head on. “It’s important to be creative when there’s a sudden crisis, because you can only reboot the business by presenting a new idea, which is something that I learned many years ago. And even when we’re doing well, we must always prepare for the future.” Asked to elaborate on future plans for Patek Philippe, Stern brought up the construction of a new building on its manufacturing site in Plan-les-Ouates, an ambitious self-funded project that will, reportedly, cost over half a billion Swiss francs.
According to Stern, one the main purposes of this immense project was to bring everyone involved in the creation of its marvellous timekeeping creations under one roof, which will, in turn, improve the safety and efficiency of the manufacture. “We initially considered building just a main facility and adding an additional structure later on, but this would have been too costly. Plus, the vibrations caused by the constant construction would have also been very disruptive for our watchmakers, who are very sensitive to these things.”
After much deliberation, it was finally decided that the best approach would be to demolish two of the existing buildings on the manufacture site to make way for a large main facility, which will also house extra space that can be reserved for future plans, including a school for watchmakers as well as an in-house research department. “While this doesn’t mean we will stop working with other third-party labs that are well equipped with the latest technology, having my own facility is better in terms of keeping certain things a little more discreet.”
Stern also pointed out that the construction of the new manufacture not only posed as an investment to the people behind Patek Philippe but will also help in improving the level of after-sales service for discerning clients. “Whenever we launch a new model, complication or movement, we also need to have trained people who know how to repair it. Currently, Patek Philippe remains the only one in this industry able to repair and restore every watch that we have released.”
Of course, such an impressive accomplishment will require a significant number of watch parts, tools, machinery, people as well as space. “The people working on watches that are over a hundred years old are not the same as those working on our other models. Because of this, we wanted to create a school that will teach them how to restore these older watch models. I feel it’s our duty to teach these dying craftsmanship skills to the younger generation. While I cannot expect them to remain with the manufacture after they acquire these skills, I do hope they will remain with us. Should they decide to move on, at least the technical knowhow will continue to live on, and that’s how I believe things should be done.”
THE CREAM OF THE CROP
A quick look at are some of the highlights from Patek Philippe’s stunning collection for 2017.
AQUANAUT REF 5168G
First introduced in 2007, this latest Aquanaut model is also the very first men’s wristwatch in this contemporary casual range to be introduced in 18K white gold. Housed within its super-sleek case is the manufacture Calibre 324 SC, a self-winding mechanical movement that measures only 3.3mm in height and comes complete with a heavy central rotor in 21K gold.