“And this watch is worth 5.12million Swiss francs,” says Louise, the Patek Philippe Museum’s formidable tour guide.
She’s talking about the brand’s Calibre 89 gold pocket watch, which comes with 33 complications (any function that goes beyond telling the time in hours, minutes and seconds), including a mechanism that tells you when Easter falls every year (useful!) and sets a record for being the world’s most complicated portable mechanical timepiece.
That price tag (about £3.4million) is not a sum to be sniffed at in a recession, or ever, for that matter, but once you’ve donned a natty white anti-static jacket, walked around the Patek Philippe factory and witnessed the superhuman levels of accuracy and innovation involved in creating each part of every watch the Swiss marque produces, you can almost begin to understand how they arrived at that figure.
Housed within a nondescript cube of concrete in a Geneva suburb, the factory is one of the few all-in-one setups in the horological world.
“Patek do all their own case-making, polishing and gem-setting,” says watch expert and Esquire columnist James Gurney. “They’re known for making watches at the very top level and for their exceptional small series [limited run] and unique pieces”.
One watch blog simply calls the company “the most exceptional watch brand on the planet”.
All well and good, but what really sets a Patek Philippe apart? Around 50,000 watches — 38,000 mechanical pieces and 12,000 quartz ladies’ pieces — are produced annually by Patek Philippe’s 1,600 component manufacturers, designers, polishers, machine operators, administrators and watchmakers.
Every part, from the minuscule nodular pinions at the centre of each wheel to the microscopic screws holding everything together, must be polished and finished by hand; no mean feat when many of the surfaces aren’t visible to the naked eye.
Between 40 and 60 manufacturing stages from cutting to polishing are needed to create a single wheel (there can be over 20 in a mechanical watch), and the components of even the marque’s simplest self-winding pieces take a minimum of 1,200 operations to complete.
Patek’s Sky Moon Tourbillon Grand Complication for instance, takes between two and three years to make and will cost you a cool £875,000. Tick tock. But for that, you do at least get decent aftercare.
In the upper regions of the factory — across the hall from the Grand Complications workshops, which look like the set of a Lindt advert — are the repair workshops. Patek Philippe recommend sending watches in for a service every three to five years.
Owning one of these timepieces (or any high quality watch) is not dissimilar to owning a supercar.
At the rear of the workshops nestles Patek Philippe’s aftersales watchmaker, who repairs the brand’s antique watches, many of which return after decades of neglect. Capable of making components from the actual materials used by Patek’s past watchmakers (antique drawers full of parts dating back to the 1830s line the walls) he carves each bit using tungsten tools and a hand-operated lathe.
He can tell mechanical accuracy to within two microns (thinner than a hair) and fashion perfect pinions using only an eyeglass.
“I spend a lot of time concentrating very hard in this job,” he says, “so I go home and chop wood at the end of the day to help me relax”.
There’s no doubting the perfectionism built into each Patek Philippe wristwatch; the real question is, which should you be wearing?
Happily, not all Patek watches are priced in the millions — a simple Calatrava will set you back a little over £14k — and our pick of the newest creations is the beautifully simple rose gold 5396 Annual Calendar.
A mechanical watch (also in white gold) featuring day, date and month apertures alongside moon phases and an elegant brown sunburst dial, it’s a real investment piece. The price is not pocket money, but it is quite a reduction on 3.4million quid. Start saving.
Words by Teo Van Den Broeke
(Main image: Patek Philippe Men’s Annual Calendar Ref. 5396R in rose gold with silver opaline dial and alligator leather strap, £34,700)