How Luxury Watchmakers Ensure Their Timepieces Can Be Passed Down For Generations
When I interviewed Patek Philippe's president Thierry Stern last year, he glanced at the very respectable Swiss timepiece on my wrist and remarked, “Take that for servicing in 30 years’ time, and they’ll tell you, ‘Sorry, buy a new watch.’” However, it will always be possible to service, fix or restore a Patek Philippe, claims Stern. “This is the only brand worldwide still able to repair every watch it has produced since the beginning,” he states, an assertion no competitor has refuted.
Four generations of the Stern family have owned and operated Patek since 1932, but the watchmaker’s history goes back much further, to 1839. It is by no means the oldest Swiss watchmaker—Blancpain was established in 1735, Jaquet Droz began work in 1738, and Vacheron Constantin, founded in 1755, is the oldest watchmaker in continuous operation. Nevertheless, Patek possesses history aplenty. At the company’s Geneva headquarters, detailed records are kept of each of the million or so timepieces made over the years since Antoine Norbert de Patek and Jean Adrien Philippe cemented their legendary partnership.
The company’s sense of legacy underpins its advertising slogan: “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.” Patek’s long history offers some reassurance to collectors that their descendants will be able to keep a timepiece purchased from the watchmaker today in fully functional condition, for many decades to come.
Patek services about 50,000 watches per year, nearly as many as the 62,000 new pieces its workshop produces annually. Stern says servicing, repair and restoration aren’t terribly profitable endeavours, but he feels that they are an essential part of a pact between a high-end watchmaker and its customers. That is why, of the 1,600 staff at Patek’s facilities in Geneva, about 100 are devoted to service and restoration, keeping antique and modern watches ticking. Still more maintenance personnel are employed at Patek’s 33 international service centres.
Founded in 2005 by Maximilian Büsser, MB&F is one of the most prominent brands among a group of boundary-pushing independent watchmakers that appeared around the dawn of the 21st century. Contemporaries include Urwerk (founded 1997), Greubel Forsey (2004), FP Journe (1999), Kari Voutilainen (2002), Romain Gauthier (2006) and Laurent Ferrier (2010).
While aficionados marvel at the complexity and creativity of the extremely limited-edition timepieces these small manufactures produce, some collectors balk at buying from new brands. They hesitate to spend a five- or six-figure sum with a relatively youthful watchmaker, worrying that perhaps the manufacture won’t be around 50 or 100 years down the line.
“It is a very valid concern, and I am sure 240 years ago the same thoughts crossed the minds of Abraham-Louis Breguet’s first clients, or 180 years ago, the first clients of Patek Philippe,” Büsser says. “The point is, of course, not to try to compare us to them, but that every great brand started as a creative entrepreneurial story, and the first clients took a leap of faith.”
Büsser assures the potential collector that one of his most important goals today is ensuring MB&F survives long after he shuffles off this mortal coil. “Even though it is my company, I have shrunk my role to that of creative director,” Büsser says. “If ever something were to happen to me, the existing structure, which is incredibly efficient, would only need to find another creative director.”
God forbid, were Büsser to be struck by the proverbial bus tomorrow, his successor “would not only benefit from our existing 18 calibres and concepts, but also the seven others in the pipeline”, he says. The new creative director could then seamlessly carry on Büsser’s work. “Just as Karl Lagerfeld reinterpreted Coco Chanel’s legacy,” Büsser suggests.
As for ensuring that the company’s creations remain in working order for contemporary collectors’ descendants, Büsser highlights two important facts. “First, all our calibres are crafted of steel and brass, and if ever MB&F were not to exist any more, a great mechanic and a great watchmaker could remake any single part of them,” he says. “Second, I have given strict instructions that if for whatever reason the company were to fail at some point in time, its last action would be to put all the diagrams of our calibres online in free access, so that anyone will be able to find them in the centuries to come.”
Whether almost two centuries old or yet to turn 20, an upstanding watchmaker will do whatever it takes to guarantee that your timepiece continues ticking well beyond the day when your own heart ceases to do so.