Patek Philippe president Thierry Stern speaks about the extraordinary pieces at the Patek Philippe Watch Art Grand Exhibition and why consistency is key in maintaining the brand’s legacy

SINGAPORE (Nov 25): Sixty-eight thousand visitors over 16 days. Such was the impressive turnout for the fifth — and largest — Patek Philippe Watch Art Grand Exhibition ever held in the world; unsurprising, given that Singapore has long been a mature market with a significant number of savvy watch connoisseurs.

“The history and relationship between Patek Philippe and Singapore is long and storied, and we had wanted to bring the Genevan manufacture here to Singapore,” says Thierry Stern, president of Patek Philippe.

Stern: In terms of credibility, in terms of know-how, these pieces are very important for the Singapore market

This, however, was the first time the Singapore public was given such a unique opportunity to delve deeper into the history of the last independent, family-owned Genevan watch manufacture, and discover the fine art of watchmaking first-hand.

The main goal of the exhibition, says Stern, was to educate people and give collectors an opportunity to indulge their passion for watchmaking while providing a platform for newcomers to stoke theirs. To this end, there were even 26 sessions of clockmaking workshops held over the two weekends.

Sitting down to chat with Options on opening day, Stern says: “It’s not a commercial thing; we don’t need those pieces to do business, to be frank, and they don’t represent that much in terms of business. But in terms of credibility, in terms of know-how, these pieces are very important for [the Singapore] market, which is very knowledgeable.”

The Singapore exhibition, held from end-September, followed the first in Dubai in 2012, Munich a year later, London in 2015 and New York in 2017.

Two years of planning culminated in an extraordinary showcase of over 400 exceptional timepieces, further accompanied by a selection of 120 historical timekeeping instruments from the Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva, curated mainly by Stern’s father Philippe (whom the former succeeded as president of the company in 2010) as well as Dr Peter Friess, curator of the Patek Philippe Museum.

And grand was the exhibition indeed. The Marina Bay Sands Theatre was transformed into a watch lover’s wonderland spanning 1,800 sq m, with 10 themed rooms each designed to display the incomparable savoir faire and remarkable artistry of each timepiece, and show visitors just why every timepiece bearing the Patek Philippe seal is so greatly revered — and so highly coveted.

The theatre had to be reconfigured, with over 1,000 seats removed to make room for a creative concept that took visitors on a journey of discovery through the world of Patek Philippe, from a historical screening in the Cinema to the Current Collection Room, where present-day models sat proudly in an interior inspired by the Patek Philippe salons on Rue du Rhône in Geneva.

The Napoleon Room further spirited visitors away to those salons via a fantastic motion-picture panoramic view of Lake Geneva, within which limited editions created specially for the Southeast Asian market were displayed.

The exhibition provided a multitude of highlights, the most awe-inspiring of which were to be found in the Museum Room, where breathtaking masterpieces flown in directly from the Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva were on display.

The Museum Room, where breathtaking masterpieces flown in directly from the Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva were on display

There were dome table clocks, pocket watches and some of the most treasured timepieces the 180-year-old Swiss watchmaker has ever produced. This was the first time that such a large number of these rare timepieces had left their home on Lake Geneva, regarded as one of the world’s foremost horological museums, for an overseas exhibition.  

The Museum Room had two segments: The Antique Collection, which traces the early days of watchmaking in Europe with some of the earliest portable watches, including a drum watch crafted in Nuremberg, Germany in 1548, enamelled pocket watches and musical automata, and the Patek Philippe Collection, which highlights some of the more venerated examples of horological mastery from the company’s founding year in 1839 to the present.

The selection included the pocket watch that founder Antoine Norbert de Patek himself obtained in 1842 for his 30th birthday, the first Swiss-made wristwatch, the first documented wristwatch with a perpetual calendar, as well as some of the most famous super complications, such as the Calibre 89 (known as the world’s most complicated portable mechanical watch for over 25 years) and the Star ­Calibre 2000, with 21 complications.

It was a true display of magnificence in many regards. Among the prized antiquities in the Museum Room was a fob watch presented to Queen Victoria in 1851, as well as the first Swiss wristwatch ever made, which was created for Countess Koscowicz of Hungary in 1868.

According to historical accounts, Patek Philippe had invented the crown winding system in the 1840s and the industry-changing innovation was presented at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, where the Queen had stopped by Patek Philippe’s booth and purchased the piece. Thereafter, every royal in Europe had to have a Patek Philippe watch, including the countess from Hungary.

Rare handcrafts and remarkable artistry

The Rare Handcrafts Room, meanwhile, provided visitors with an even rarer opportunity to view some of the most exquisite and elaborate rare handcraft techniques such as engraving, enamelling, wood marquetry and hand guilloche that so lavishly adorn many a fine Patek Philippe timepiece to this day.

But it was not just the watches on display; several of Patek Philippe’s artisans from its manufacture were brought to Singapore to give the public a chance to watch them as they worked, demonstrating the skills and artistry of their various fine crafts.  

“Marquetry is beautiful,” says Stern. “I’m always amazed at the number of parts you can use to make one little pocket watch. We’re talking 200 to 300 little parts sometimes, each real coloured wood, not painted. The technique is unbelievable.”

According to Stern, marquetry was the last handcrafted skill that was brought into the Patek Philippe manufacture. “Why? Because it’s beautiful and it lasts. Many brands have tried to bring in handcrafted miniature pieces of different types of material, but they don’t last. At Patek, I cannot afford that. Everything we do should be able to last for 100 to 200 years. And this is why we have to be very selective in the type of handcrafts we use,” he explains.

Has the vault therefore closed on the possibility of the esteemed watchmaker’s experimenting with new materials? “There are many brands using carbons and so on, but I’m not into using new material for gimmicks,” Stern asserts. “We are already working with the noblest materials: gold, platinum and also steel.”

The company is, however, looking into the use of new materials for the movement — only if it improves the accuracy of the watch. “I’m not willing to use new materials for the case, for example,” Stern says.

Singapore tribute

There was, of course, a tribute to the host city, in the form of the Singapore and Southeast Asia Room, designed to pay homage to the country’s bicentennial celebrations and the rich historic, cultural and artistic legacy of its regional neighbours.

The Singapore and Southeast Asia Room, designed to pay homage to the country’s bicentennial celebrations and the rich historic, cultural and artistic legacy of its regional neighbours

But rather than just an obligatory nod, the watchmaker really went to town (and beyond) to procure a collection of extraordinary exhibits, several of which were on loan from museums and private collectors around the world.

Singapore’s role as a hub of trade between the Far East and Western nations was exemplified in a Genevan pocket watch depicting the port of Canton in miniature painting on enamel, which was commissioned for the Chinese market around 1830.

Singapore’s role as a hub of trade between the Far East and Western nations was exemplified in a Genevan pocket watch depicting the port of Canton in miniature painting on enamel

There were also two pocket watches that once belonged to King Rama V of Siam (now Thailand), but the pièce de résistance in this room was the dome table clock featuring the Esplanade, crafted in 2015 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Singapore’s independence.

During the exhibition, the watchmaker also unveiled a new Minute Repeater Tourbillon Singapore 2019 Special Edition featuring — for the first time — an open architecture that allows the hammers and gongs of the strikework to be observed on the dial side.

One of two pocket watches that once belonged to King Rama V of Siam (now Thailand)

Limiting production and declining market share

According to Stern, every Patek Philippe watch goes through about 800 people in the meticulous production process, and collections are planned about three years in advance.   

And consistency, rather than trends, is always a bigger priority. “I try to be consistent and think about filling a gap in the collection. I have to surprise my client. If I follow trends, I will never surprise you,” he says. “Eighty per cent of the new models we create because they are already part of a collection. The [remaining] 20%, I have to surprise you.”

Production is controlled at 62,000 pieces, distributed to 72 countries, and Stern intends to maintain these figures.

“If I open a new store or have a new retail partner, I cannot supply [more] watches, so it will be a ridiculous situation for both of us. We are now working more on our actual markets; we are talking about 72 countries. That’s already quite a lot,” he points out.

Patek Philippe is not present in India, for example. “God knows how big this market is. But the reality is, we don’t have enough products. We are definitely losing market share every year. But on the [flip] side, we are getting more demand. Patek Philippe produces just a few watches; we are not Rolex, we are not Omega, we cannot increase [production] just like that. But I think that’s what people also like about Patek,” says Stern.

The 68,000 visitors to the exhibition in the city state would probably agree.  

Jamie Nonis is a lifestyle journalist with an appreciation for all things beautiful