The pinnacle of (fine) watchmaking: Patek Philippe
The famous watchmaker from Geneva is an obvious candidate, isn’t it?
In general, one might think of Patek Philippe as an obvious entry to a hypothetical list of the best as far as watchmaking is concerned. The brand enjoys a stellar reputation and an at times almost religious following. Still, the eclecticum took a very close view and found that – while the reputation is certainly well deserved – it pays out to differentiate! The devil, as always, is in the details…
Welcome to another instalment of our ‘Pinnacle of Watchmaking’ series!
(Patek Philippe Ref. 5170G hand wound chronograph with pulsation scale)
Patek Philippe (PP) is generally considered as one, if not THE, synonym of fine watchmaking: the firm has a long tradition of excellence and – like Breguet– many famous public figures amongst its clients – and there is an impressive amount of watchmaking substance to backup this claim. Still, if you produce about 62.000 watches per year it is nearly impossible that all of them would be qualified to represent the best watchmaking could offer today (even if you take out all the watches with quartz movements which account for around ¼ of PP’s annual production, and maybe all non-complicated watches).
(A Patek Philippe wristwatch that belonged to Josip Broz Tito, former Marshal of Yugoslavia)
So where does Patek Philippe fit into the hierarchy of fine watchmaking today, and is the brand still rightfully seen as being at the very apex of the best? The is no clear-cut conclusion to this question; and answering needs a considerably differentiated view and requires quite some background knowledge about (fine) watchmaking today.
(Patek Philippe milestones from the foundation in 1839 until after WWII)
We’d like to start our reflections with the observation that not all modern Patek Philippe watches are created equal: A major part of their current production is industrialised, on a high level, but still dominated by machine-executed work, with the ‘staple’ automatic movements, the micro-rotor Cal. 240 and the central rotor Cal. 315/324 families, essentially in production (but frequently improved) since 1977 and 1984, respectively.
(Patek Philippe’s basic automatic movements, Cal. 240 (right) and Cal. 324 (here the S C version))
The devil is, as all too often, in the details, and wherever you are looking closely, at their hands, indexes, dials, cases or movements, you will learn something. The succus should not offense anybody, but it would be obvious that high volume and pinnacle of watchmaking doesn´t fit well together – not even today, not at Patek Philippe (from a general perspective) and clearly not in our book.
Case in point: The (modern) Patek Philippe Chronograph
A lovely complication and quite often underrated when you ask for the best. Only late PP introduced their first (manual wind) in-house chronograph – calibre CH 29-535 PS. Any Patek Philippe chronograph wristwatch before was based on outsourced movements (so called ébauches) made by famous chronograph specialists such as Victorin Piguet or Nouvelle Lemania.
A treasured reference was and still is the Ref. 5070 (introduced in 1998) which is equipped with a Cal. CH 27-70 movement that is actually built on a ‘Nouvelle Lemania’ 2310 base and reworked “in depth” by PP. Handmade anglage, Cotes De Genève and a “hidden” column wheel with a polished cap (a PP eccentricity and also dedicated to the Poinçon de Genève, more on this further down) … everything you would like to see from a brand with the kind of reputation PP enjoys. The fact that the watch never was considered a benchmark when it comes to “pusher feel” (a central aspect for seasoned chronograph collectors) was not a big issue for most as it represented something different: a reference from another era – loved by many and only available to a few. Even at PP, it was (only!) a small team of highly educated and trained people which had been able to work on those, which naturally limited the production. Facing demand that way exceeds production capacities is a nice problem to have, but … at the beginning of the 21st century – to say the least – it was time for something new as well.
(Patek Philippe’s legendary Cal. CH 27-70 in a Ref. 5070)
In 2009 the calibre CH 29-535 PS was introduced, a successor reflecting technical advancements and also matching the production requirements of today. A well-conceived in-house movement, with several fine features and one major objective – “le confort” (ease of use). We won´t go in all the details (that would warrant a separate article), but the modern movement can be produced more easily and in higher volumes. Good news (more customers to please) or bad news (less exclusivity, more modern concept), this certainly is a question of personal taste or preferences.
(Patek Philippe’ modern Cal. CH 29-535 PS chronograph)
As far as the eclecticum is concerned, we think it lacks some “soul & (olde worlde) charm” (i.e. the classic constructional layout of the predecessor or its slow 18,000 A/h escapement evoking memories of the golden times of watchmaking) as it appears kind of “cold” to us. Also, the price increase is steep, while at the same time we are sure that its production requires less (highly skilled) manual work. A more complicated movement like a chronograph with perpetual calendar or even a split-seconds chronograph, representing also the “modern way of fine watchmaking at PP” does not compensate for the streamlined construction, particularly when we talk about our view on the pinnacle of watchmaking. From a commercial perspective it´s easy to understand why PP decided to go that way and nothing is wrong with a company doing (very successful) business. Of course, it´s not only the movement …
(Ref. 5204 Split-Seconds Chronograph Perpetual Calendar)
(Dial detail Ref. 5950)
… and still there are exceptions – easily matching our expectations.
However, those are tokens of the past: If we stay with chronographs an all-time favourite of ours is the Ref. 5950 (introduced in 2010) a split-seconds monopusher chronograph:
(A watch which deserves more than a passing admiration: the Ref. 5950A Rattrapante)
Yes, it´s kind of “old-school” but it shows just so many to die for details if you look closely.
In the official instructions you find sentences like:
- “Haute horlogerie at its very finest”
- “The pinnacle of artisanship”
- “A paragon of style”
Phrases like those certainly sound like buzz words like we get them too often from the desks of most watch brands’ marketing departments. But in the context of Patek Philippe? Well, they are not exactly known for being boastful, aren’t they?
When we look at the evolution of the Patek Philippe chronograph (in general) it perfectly illustrates its uninterrupted, consistent quality of watchmaking the company has practiced throughout its history, something hardly any of its rivals can match.
Like many other historical watch brands, also Patek Philippe started with pocket watch chronographs. Quite early on the brand embraced wristwatches and began production of wristwatch chronographs in the 1920s (based on outsourced calibres), with the first one being sold in 1925. Only four years later they showed their first split-seconds chronograph, followed by some (almost) legendary references like Ref. 130, Ref. 533, Ref. 1463 (first waterproof chronograph), to mention only a few.
So, nothing to proof when it comes to history.
(Source of inspiration: a Rattrapante chronograph from 1929, fitted with a movement based upon a Victorin Piguet ébauche)
Still, there are the bold statements above that we must deal with…
If we look at the Ref. 5950 above we notice that the case is thinner than that of many simple three-hand watches even, and this is only possible because of the thinnest column-wheel split-seconds chronograph calibre ever made – 27 mm diameter and only 5.25 mm height. Only recently Bulgari introduced the Cal. BVL 318 with its 3.3mm height, but it is much simpler as it features no rattrapante.
Also, there are fine technical delicacies like e.g. patented teething geometries for the chronograph wheels, but to be honest the most important aspects about chronographs for us are reliability, crispness and smoothness of the pushers as well as constructional beauty (e.g. the layout in general and in detail; including difficult to describe and certainly subjective character and charm). The first is hard to proof without owning the watch for a longer period, the second is something the eclecticum team however had the pleasure to try several times, while the third is a clear home run as far as we are concerned: have you ever had the chance to appreciate the movement in real, and if so, did you use a loupe (trust us on this: whether at 2.5x, 5x or even 10x magnification – you won’t be disappointed at all!) to examine it in detail?
(An astoundingly beautiful split-second movement: the Patek Philippe Cal. CHR 27-525PS)
The clothes make the watch… as well!
The finest watches, no matter how sophisticated the movement might be constructed, are always incomplete until ‘finished’. While that seems like obvious to us, since even if the movement works accurately and reliable when correctly engineered, yet there is still something missing – in the absence of a more precise word we summarise it as ‘soul & charm’. Without a sophisticated finish even the most advanced and refined complications lack something. The level of finish is the factor that truly makes the difference (at least for the experienced connoisseur) when it comes to judging the perfection of a watch. In the case of the Ref. 5950 each movement is adorned in an artisanal fashion through a great number of manual steps, one by one, in the manufacture’s haute horlogerie ateliers. The pieces we have seen so far from these ateliers at Patek Philippe reliably (almost) blew us away, and we would go as far as considering them as (some of) the finest what we have seen so far in watchmaking. There is one sad notion though as we hinted already further above: such elaborate elite movements cannot be compared with most of the movements from the current PP collection.
(Design inspirations for the Patek Philippe 5370P Split-Seconds Chronograph)
So far we mainly considered details of the movement, but when it comes to outstanding details we should talk about the case, the dial, the hands and the numerals as well. The dial of Ref. 5950 looks almost white on the pictures but seen in the metal (at best at natural light) we’d say silvery (or opaline) describes it much better.
(Ref. 5950A in Patek Phlippe’s official press image)
Depending on the lightning situation it is understated, sophisticated … and for sure a real beauty. How could one describe the colour/finish of the hands and the indices? Grey, black, blue … matt or shiny? They mystically evade a precise description, there is so much variability in these hands! Or look at the numerals, are they sitting flat on the dial? Look closer: for example, the tip of the number ‘6’ (and likewise the ‘2’) doesn´t touch the dial. It is “curved” in all three dimensions and a piece of art for its own. You can hardly see it on (official) pictures: this is a sophistication reserved for discovery only by the most passionate connoisseurs …
Some live pictures (taken by small-luxury-world) may be helpful for those who never had the chance to handle this piece. Hopefully!