Demand for Patek Philippe timepieces is so high that there is a wait list of 200 years, jokes president Thierry Stern.

Only one watch brand in the world can command a staggering, record- breaking $11 million price tag at auction and that is Patek Philippe.

Just last month, a rare Patek Philippe 1518 model in stainless steel that was made in 1943 sold at just over $11 million at the fourth Geneva watch auction held by Phillips in Association with Bacs & Russo, the watch department of the Phillips auction house — more than triple the initial presale estimate.

Demand for Patek Philippe watches is so high — not only at auctions but also on the retail floor — that the wait list is 200 years, jokes Thierry Stern, president of Patek Philippe, who was in town early this month to officiate the grand reopening of Patek Philippe’s Marina Bay Sands boutique following a 2½-month refurbishment.

Stern is disarmingly — and surprisingly — funny, his witty repartee drawing laughter from around the room during the halfhour exclusive interview with Options. The real waiting time for Patek Philippe’s grand complication watches, according to Stern’s aide, is 18 to 24 months. The brand produces just under 60,000 watches a year, and Stern is in no hurry to augment this figure, given the state of the global economy.

As it is, Patek Philippe’s manufacture — Geneva’s oldest and last family-owned independent watch manufacture — is still playing catch-up and trying to fulfil back orders from previous years.

This is commonly regarded as a happy problem within the Swiss watch industry, and the demand in good years more than makes up for the tepid times, which is why most heads of luxury watch brands often appear unfazed by economic slowdowns.

“The demand is way above what we can produce, so even when business is slow, it’s still very good,” assures Stern, the fourth generation of the family that has been the custodian of the Patek Philippe brand since 1932.

That said, the company did revise its revenue targets mid-year. “We knew we had to be quite vigilant, so compared with what we thought should happen, I would say it’s hitting the right target for now, but I have to wait till end-December [after the Christmas sales],” Stern says.

Like Hermés’ elusive Birkin, it is not easy to get one’s hands on certain Patek Philippe models, even if one can well afford the Rolls-Royce of timepieces. It is this rarity that enhances the appeal for watch collectors, and Patek Philippe has mastered the art of calibrating its production quantity to fuel and feed the demand so that its watches are coveted by the most consummate of connoisseurs the world over.

Customers are profiled before they are allowed to buy certain models to ensure that they are genuine collectors and not someone looking to make a quick buck on the resale market after acquiring a sought-after Patek Philippe piece. There is an “application process” for the rarer models at Cortina Watch boutiques, acknowledges Jeremy Lim, chief operating officer of Cortina, Patek Philippe’s retail partner in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.

Adds Stern: “It’s a tricky situation because I do not want to sell the watch to the wrong person — who will resell it right away to someone who wants it and is willing to pay a premium to get it. It’s my duty to protect the real clients who are waiting.”

One of this year’s hotly anticipated models, for instance, is the World Time Chronograph Ref 5930, which is so scarce that even Lim has not laid eyes on it.

“The demand was big on that one,” Stern says. “I don’t want to wear one because demand is so high; it’s not fair [to the collectors] if I have one.” The much-vaunted piece combines Patek Philippe’s patented World Time mechanism with a proprietary self-winding chronograph movement housed in a white-gold case with a beautiful royal-blue, hand-guilloched sunburst dial.

Patek Philippe also this year finally delivered its Calatrava Pilot Travel Time watch, which was first unveiled a few years ago. The model has proved so successful that Stern says he may have “made a mistake” on its quantity. “I just wanted to produce a tiny amount and maybe I should have increased a bit… Maybe I will do it, I don’t know… An increase at Patek is not a lot — maybe 10 more people will be happy.”

Reflecting on the performance of this year’s collection, Stern says: “Maybe I have to improve the ladies’ line. This is in progress and we are preparing something quite strong. The number of pieces for ladies today is not enough, as demand has changed.”

The target, he adds, is to increase the number of ladies’ models to 40%, up from the current 36%. It hit 40% when the Twenty-4 came onto the scene in 1999, drawing the ladies with its stylish and sophisticated silhouette of a curved rectangular case.

“We have been working a lot on the Twenty-4 and it is a very successful watch. Now, we have to find something else. We have to find a better design than the Twenty- 4 and it is very challenging — like having to change the Nautilus for men. [Creating a new design for ladies] may be our next target. We are preparing something quite strong,” Stern says, hinting that he hopes to score another success like the Twenty-4.

Patek Philippe seems to be getting it right with its new editions each year — its only shortcoming is not producing enough pieces. But the shortfall is strategic by design anyway.

Stern attributes the success of this year’s collection to the brand’s ability to listen to its customers: “We have been launching models that people expect. That is very easy to do — you just have to listen to the public.”

And listen Patek Philippe certainly does. The iconic Nautilus — designed by Gérald Genta on a napkin in 1974 — celebrated its 40th anniversary this year with two limited-edition versions that do not veer very far from what traditionalists love of their beloved Nautilus.

The Nautilus Ref 5711/1P 40th Anniversary Limited Edition comes in full platinum — case and bracelet — and is powered by Patek Philippe’s automatic calibre 324 SC. It features commemorative lettering on the dial and is limited to 700 pieces. The second model — Nautilus Chronograph Ref 5976/1G in white gold — is the largest serially produced Patek Philippe wristwatch ever made, measuring 49.25mmin diameter, including the crown.

“I think a lot of people were waiting for a new movement, but I was not keen on creating a new model with a new movement — we have a lot already. And we are only talking about 40 years, not 50 or 100 years,” says Stern, who received his first Nautilus from his father when he was 18. “The platinum model is the one everybody is looking for and it is easier to wear. The other one, I felt, is too big for the wrist, but we did it and people love it, so sometimes we get it wrong. Some people have a smaller wrist, but they like to wear a bigger watch… Maybe it’s a complex,” he adds cheekily.

The choice to retain the spirit of the Nautilus was easy enough, but there is one business decision, however, that has Stern stumped: the fate of the Ellipse collection that was launched in 1968. “We have to look at the whole Patek Philippe collection — what is working, what is not — and have the courage to take it out of the collection. If I look at the [sales] figures of the Ellipse line, it is not a big amount, so it is difficult — logically, I have to take it out, but in terms of prestige, it is part of the Patek Philippe DNA, so I have to keep it.” Any decision so far? “We still don’t know and we have been talking about this for 20 years!”

Another emerging trend Stern notes is for smaller-sized watch cases following the trend of the-bigger-the-better of the past few years. It is about wearability, says Stern. “I’ve tried a very large watch myself for the weekend, but it’s not nice. I believe people enjoy wearing big watches for one or two days, but as a daily watch, they want something more classic, maybe more discreet. Smaller sizes — not 35mm to 36mm, but 38mm to 39mm.”

Stern has also noticed a return to vintage. “I have been following the auctions and it is quite interesting to see a lot of young people buying vintage watches because they are willing to wear them — it’s not about investing in vintage watches.” What else does he anticipate for 2017? “Oh, the end of the world,” he deadpans, and then smiles.

TIMELESS ELEGANCE
The Patek Philippe boutique reopened earlier this month at The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands following a 2½-month refurbishment. Launched in partnership with Cortina Watch, the 152 sq m boutique is elegantly furnished with precious woods, plush leather upholstery, custom-made glass, Baccarat crystals and burnished brass finishing.

The watch gallery showcases Patek Philippe’s horological creations that speak of technical perfection, enduring design and exquisite craftsmanship.

Beyond the watch gallery, the boutique opens up to a delightful area where customers can continue in their journey of discovery into the world of Patek Philippe via a library complete with the watchmaker’s horological and historical literature, and a dedicated exhibition area.

“The new concept is a lot more open and inviting, and this allows us to engage customers more intimately,” says Jeremy Lim, chief operating officer of Cortina, Patek Philippe’s retail partner in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.

A veteran writer and editor, Jamie Nonis also owns a marketing communications consultancy and an online magazine centred on holistic well-being .

This article appeared in the Options of Issue 759 (Dec 19) of The Edge Singapore.