They say the best friendships are the ones forged in the fires of adversity. Through six decades that have included hardships and uncertainty, the patriarchs of iconic watchmaker Patek Philippe and homegrown retailer Cortina Watch have shown that a business relationship can grow into a friendship and become almost familial. Anthony Lim, founder of Cortina, first met Henri Stern and his son, Philippe, 63 years ago in Singapore. Stern, the son of Charles Stern — who in 1932 acquired the company with his brother Jean — had been travelling abroad extensively to grow the brand. A humble watch salesman then, Lim struck up a lasting friendship with Stern despite the cultural differences.
“Two families, three generations of friendship; it is a bond that we truly cherish,” says Lim. More importantly, their bond of friendship would be further strengthened in the crucible of one of the industry’s most challenging eras — the quartz crisis in 1969 The quartz crisis refers to the economic upheavals caused by the introduction of quartz watches in the 1970s and 1980s, which nearly replaced traditional mechanical watches. It caused a significant decline in the Swiss watchmaking industry, which remained focused on traditional mechanical watches.
Cortina, established in 1972, found itself in the thick of the crisis. At the time, the two family-owned companies were still trying to figure out how to navigate it. While some brands pivoted to quartz watches, the Sterns kept their course, deepening their investment and production of mechanical calibres, keeping fidelity to the art of fine watchmaking and paving the way for beloved and exquisite mechanical calibres such as the Calibre 89. Meanwhile, in the Far East, Lim too had doubled down on heritage Swiss watchmaking. He deepened his company’s partnership with brands that emphasised mechanical calibres, mixing business with familial friendship to finally become the first official dealer for Patek Philippe in Southeast Asia in 1978.
Even as other brands explored alternative strategies (to mixed results), the close relationship between Stern and Lim enabled them to keep faith in not just a future for fine Swiss watchmaking, but also in each other. Throughout the 1980s, it was this resolve that Lim saw them through times of increased rental pressure and growing business cost, which eventually became a period of strategic growth. The relationship between both parties continued into the 21st century as the seeds sown by the patriarchs began to bear fruit. Lim’s eldest son, Raymond, pioneered the shop- in-shop concept in up-and-coming malls around Singapore, laying the groundwork for standalone Patek Philippe boutiques in the years to come.
In 2008, Thierry, Philippe’s son, and Jeremy, Lim’s youngest son, further built on their foundations of trust and respect to bring the idea of a Patek Philippe boutique at the Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands to life. It took faith to embark on such a significant step, as the world had been hit hard by the global economic crisis of 2008. Yet, like their fathers had before them, they forged a brotherly bond and lifelong friendship that helped them weather economic upheaval.
This relationship enabled Cortina to continue to expand Patek Philippe’s footprint across Asia, culminating in six boutiques today: two in Singapore, and one each in Hong Kong, Taipei, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta. When the opportunity presented itself in 2016, the two also embarked on the expansion of Patek Philippe’s ION Orchard presence by almost four times the original size, making it the largest Patek Philippe boutique in Southeast Asia. Today, this boutique is Singapore’s answer to the famed Geneva salon with its private rooms and VIP lounges.
It is no surprise that both families have been able to grow from strength to strength, through generations and crises, having shared common values that have contributed to an enduring business relationship and friendship. Passed on from father to son, the treasures ultimately lie not so much in the me- chanical timepieces birthed in Switzerland, but in a legacy that transcends time.