When Thierry Stern was a kid, he used to sneak into his father’s office in Geneva to admire the pocket watches he kept there. He remembers marveling at the detailed paintings on the enamel pieces, the color of the drawers they laid in and even the way they smelled when he opened them.
"I could see the watches," he recalls with a grin, "but I could not touch them. That I remember very well."
That was Stern’s first taste of what would become a lifetime of involvement with Patek Philippe, the independent watch manufacturer his family has owned for four generations. "What my father passed along to me is really the soul of [the company]," says Stern, who now serves as vice president. "We’re talking about values—something very important that goes from one generation to the other." The watches, too, are designed to be passed down through a family’s history.
As the saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day—and neither is a Patek Philippe timepiece. The most complicated watches can take up to nine years to produce. And because the entire process is done under one roof, every watch goes through a strict process of control checks. The movement, the case, the dial, the hands and everything in between are all "checked, double-checked and triple-checked," he says.
Even if you’re willing to pay the sometimes-hefty price for a Patek Philippe, you may still find your name at the bottom of a waiting list. Stern says it’s like buying a luxury car. "Say you have a beautiful brand, and they are just launching the new models. Everybody’s waiting to have the new model—but we only produce about 38,000 pieces a year. It’s not because we don’t want to sell them; it’s just because we don’t have enough of them." For the rarest of watches (some of which are produced in such low numbers that you can count them on your hands), Patek Philippe requires a screening of potential buyers before handing over the goods. Why so strict? "We don’t want to see people trying to resell it straightaway," he explains. "That’s why we are always asking who you are; do you [already] own a Patek Philippe? Do we know you, or does the retailer know you? If we don’t do that, I think it would destroy the whole market."
Stern travels up to four months a year to keep up with what’s going on in his various worldwide markets. As of late, he’s been spending a lot of time in Asia—Hong Kong, Singapore and China mostly—working to build the brand there. But he wasn’t too busy to land on Naples’ sunny shores in November for an intimate dinner and a showcase of 75 hand-picked timepieces from the extensive, four-story Patek Philippe Museum. The display included its newest collection and 12 historical pieces with ties to the United States (among them, a watch with George Washington’s image in enamel on the back). The gathering, he says, was his way of thanking Yamron Jewelers, his longtime business partner and the only retailer to sell the watches locally. And, too, Stern says, "You always have to be present to show the world who you are and what you know."
The items: Patek Philippe produces handmade, hand-finished, heirloom-quality timepieces.
What makes them special: Even the simplest watches take at least nine months to produce, including at least one month for testing each individual movement. And there’s no limit to the possible combinations—all types of gold, platinum, diamonds and other gems are available for custom designs.
Behind the brand:
Since 1839, Patek Philippe has garnered 70 patents and produced the 13 highest-selling watches in the world, including the ultra-complicated, 18-karat gold pocket watch of banker Henry Graves Jr., which sold for $11 million in 1999.
Who has one: Throughout its 169-year history, the company has added the names of kings, queens, popes, prime ministers, movie stars, presidents and Nobel Prize winners to its extensive owner archives. Albert Einstein, Jack Daniels and Marie Curie are just a few of the well-remembered VIPs to have sported them.
Where to get them: Yamron Jewelers in Waterside Shops, Naples.