Why Patek Philippe excels at women’s watches
By Nick Foulkes | 4 minute read
The biggest mistake anyone can make about Patek Philippe is to try and stereotype it. It is a brand that almost seems to defy you to second guess it. There is a reason why it is one of the few, perhaps the only remaining, fine Swiss watchmaking brand to be not just active but relevant in each major horological sector. Very few companies can resist easy success and as a result they often become known for a particular model or type of watch.
But Patek Philippe? It makes decisions that seem puzzling in the short term and make sense only when viewed with hindsight. The choice to cease production of the Ref 5711 Steel Nautilus \(perhaps the single most sought after watch model in the world\) is the most recent and one of the most controversial; but back in 2009 it made another interesting decision that caused a bit of a stir.
That year it announced the launch of a proprietary chronograph calibre – nothing too controversial about that one might think. The caveat was that it would be launched in a watch called the Ladies First Chronograph. Yes, that is right, the brand most revered by male watch collectors for its mastery of horological complications decided to present its in-house column-wheel controlled chronograph calibre the CH 29-535 PS, the movement that would mark the dawn of a new age of chronography for the storied maison, to women and women alone. The Ladies First Chronograph was a cushion-cased diamond-set piece that was more than just a remarkable piece of watchmaking, it was also a very public commitment to its female collectors and to its long tradition of making watches for women.
Patek Philippe was little more than a 19th century start-up when it scored its first major international coup in 1851, acquiring Queen Victoria as a customer. While attending the Great Exhibition, she purchased for herself a Patek Philippe, a dainty pendant watch in blue enamel. Moreover, she started something of a tradition. When Patek Philippe staged its own grand exhibition in 2015 London it displayed a diamond-set Patek Philippe Ref 4975/1G Ellipse with a bracelet made of strands of pearls belonging to Queen Victoria’s great-great granddaughter, HM Queen Elizabeth II.
Such a piece highlights Patek Philippe’s less celebrated history as a jeweller, but then, long before it was a city of watchmakers Geneva was famous for its jewellers; a heritage to which Patek has contributed. For instance, in the 1950s, Henri Stern, grandfather of the current president, hired a young man for the role of what today would be called creative director. A talented jeweller named Gilbert Albert, he soon began winning the Diamonds International Award on a regular basis.
Albert was fond of concealing tiny Patek Philippe watches under precious stones and, given that in 1959 Patek had perfected a miniaturised version of the Gyromax® balance, lucky ladies could combine their love of gems with Patek Philippe’s peerless precision. As the advertisements put it, “only the diamonds, of course, are forever, but you can count on Patek Philippe’s accuracy well into the next century.” And it was not just diamonds; a Patek Philippe concealed under a baroque pearl was worn on a necklace, by Princess Grace of Monaco.
But again, revolutionary though his designs were, Albert was only perpetuating the Patek Philippe tradition of using women’s watches to showcase technical and aesthetic advances. And it is this tradition that produced the first Swiss wristwatch in 1868, when the Hungarian Countess Koscowicz, decided that she would wear a tiny Patek Philippe watch set in a gold bangle.
Today’s Patek Philippe’s women’s watches are the distillation of this unique heritage in feminine watchmaking. When it comes to jewellery pieces the Patek touch is as sure as ever, always chic but discreetly different too: the spiral-setting of diamonds in a round dial mimics the concentric fluttering of a gymnast’s ribbons or the delicately floral patterns traced in diamonds on the dial of a high jewellery tonneau Gondolo.
From the stylish practicality of the Twenty-4 launched in a straight sided version at the end of the last century and now available in a round case too, to the feminine interpretation of such famed grandes complications as the perpetual calendar and minute repeater; the world of women’s watches chez Patek is every bit as rich and nuanced as its masculine counterpart.
And there is one other special favour that Patek has done for its female customers, while it may have caused many men a great deal of anguish by discontinuing the steel Nautilus, the women’s version with its distinctive undulating godron dial remains very much in production.
Now that really cannot be fair…..
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