Wednesday, Apr. 01, 2009

Perfect Timing

Esteemed even in the most hallowed halls of Swiss watchmaking, Patek Philippe timepieces have been aspired to and sought after for 170 years. Founded as Patek, Czapek & Cie by Antoine Norbert de Patek in 1839, the company was later rechristened Patek Philippe & Cie after talented French watchmaker Jean-Adrien Philippe joined the firm. Dedication to beauty and innovation led the company to exquisitely enameled timepieces, more than 70 patents and the devotion of some of history's most notable figures—Albert Einstein, Duke Ellington, Marie Curie and countless Popes, monarchs and heads of state who have kept time with a Patek. Queen Victoria selected a gold enameled brooch. Tchaikovsky opted for a Louis XV—style pocket watch. In 1933, engaged in a competition with auto manufacturer James Ward Packard to acquire the world's most complex timepiece, American financier Henry Graves Jr. commissioned a Patek Philippe watch with 24 complications—mechanical functions like a chronograph or a perpetual calendar that are supplemental to a watch's fundamental time-telling operations. In 1999, Graves' watch was purchased at auction for $11 million, setting the record for the most expensive watch ever sold.

It's not only the high price point that renders a Patek Philippe elusive. The company produces just 38,000 timepieces annually. While many models—including the Calatrava, Nautilus and Twenty-4—are relatively easy to find, the wait for the brand's most complex styles, known as grand complications, can be up to five years—and that's after the buyer has submitted to a daunting application, recommendation and approval process. If the ordeal seems a bit much, tell that to the collector who rises at 4 each morning to wind every one of his dozens of Patek Philippe timepieces.