200 years after the birth of Patek Philippe co-founder Antoni Patek, Rob Corder looks back at the dramatic start to the watchmaker’s life, and its effect on the company we see today.
200 years ago – June 12, 1812, to be precise (although the date is contested) – Antoni Norbert Patek was born in the small Eastern European village of Piaski; an inauspicious region of southeast Poland.
In 1812 the future of the village, which today has a population of about 2,620, was far from certain. The 1795 partition of Poland made the village part of Hasburg’s Austria. It was then briefly under the authority of the Duchy of Warsaw, a Polish state created by Napoleon I in 1807, before being handed over to Russia in 1815.
Fighting for survival within this turbulent period of history were the parents of Patek, Joachim and Anna Patek de Brawdzik.
Patek’s early years were dominated by conflict, as Russian oppression stifled any attempts by the Polish people to create their own state. The most violent clashes between indigenous Poles and their Russian masters came in late 1830 when revolutionaries in Warsaw fought for their independence.
Patek had joined the revolutionaries two years earlier, when he was just 16 years old, and was recognised for his gallantry during the uprisings, during which he was reportedly wounded on more than one occasion.
Another young soldier of similar age to Patek was Franciszek Czapek. The naturalised Pole, of Czech birth, was also fighting the Russians as part of the Polish uprising.
There are no reports that Patek and Czapek ever met in Poland, but their paths seemed destined to cross at some stage as they both fled their homeland when the uprising was crushed by Tsarist forces.
Patek escaped first to Paris, and then to Geneva, where he is known to have met Czapek. It was also in Geneva, in 1832, that Patek first began using the name Antoine Nobert de Patek – the recognised founder of the now world-famous famous watch house Patek Philippe.
Czapek also escaped to Geneva, and also took on a French derivative of his name, becoming François Czapek.
The year in which Patek and Czapek met is uncertain, but it was around the mid-1830s in Geneva. Patek at the time was scratching a living as a wine merchant, and it is likely that this occupation led him to become friends with the Moreau family, which is credited with introducing Patek to the world of fine watches.
Czapek was also a friend of the Moreau family, and had already created a watch company with them, called Czapek & Moreau, in the mid-1830s; likely to be about the time that he first met Patek.
In 1939, the two budding entrepreneurs joined forces to create a brand new watch company named Patek, Czapek & Co. It is likely that Patek used the skills learnt during his wine trading days to buy mechanisms and cases from several sources, while Czapek used his specialist knowledge to build, finish and test the watch company’s output of about 200 timepieces per year.
Pocket watches from the time remain in the hands of collectors and museums, and display the craftsmanship and passion for Polish history encapsulated in the earliest models. For example, the Coat of Arms of Princess Zubów is a stunning gold quarter-repeating hunting-case key-winding pendant watch that was reportedly sold on April 21, 1840, to the Russian Princess Zubów.
Patek, Czapek & Co. was liquidated in 1845, with Czapek going on to form his own company Czapek & Co. which continued to trade up until 1869.
The catalyst for the Geneva company’s liquidation in 1845 may have been a chance meeting a year earlier at the 1844 World Fair (Universal Exhibition) in Paris, where Patek met a rising star of the French horological community, Adrien Philippe. In 1942, Philippe had invented the first pendant crown winder that did away with the need to wind and set a watch using a key. The innovation won a gold medal at the World Fair and was patented the following year.
Following the departure of Czapek, Patek courted Philippe and persuaded him to join the Geneva business as technical director. The pair formally created their own company as a partnership on January 1, 1851, when Patek Philippe & Co was born.
The plan was simple: fuse the artisanal, luxury craftsmanship of Patek, Czapek & Co., with the technical innovation of Philippe’s keyless winding and setting system. It was immediately successful.
In 1851, at the World Exhibition in London, Queen Victoria was presented with an open-face, keyless winding fob-watch with matching brooch. As a result, the company was officially endorsed by the royal court, an appointment that led to commissions for Patek Philippe among royalty and aristocracy across Europe including the kings of Italy and Denmark.
In the second half of the 19th century, a battle developed between watchmakers to create increasingly complicated mechanisms, which were often launched at World Fairs. The watches and complications of Abraham-Louis Breguet and Ami Lecoultre-Piguet were particularly prominent during the period. Patek Philippe secured several important patents at the time, including a precision regulator, minute repeater and a perpetual calendar mechanism for pocket watches.
In the 20th century wealthy clients often drove innovation. In their search for the ultimate status symbol, they not only demanded spectacular design, they also wanted new functionality. The Patek Philippe Museum recalls the commissions of a group of New York financiers and industrialists. One asked for a pocket watch capable of playing a musical lullaby instead of a simple chime. Not to be outdone, another asked for a world record-breaking number of complications.
Patek Philippe began work in 1928, studying astronomy, mathematics and precision mechanics to eventually create timepieces with more than 30 complications, including, in 1925, the world’s first instantaneous changing perpetual calendar wristwatch with indication for leap years. Audemars Piguet produced the first wristwatches with the perpetual calendar and moon phases in 1924.
The best-known of the watches created for the New York businessmen of the era was the Supercomplication, sold to banking chief Henry Graves in 1933. The double-faced watch, which was later auctioned for a record US$11 million (£6.9m) in 1999, has 24 complications including a celestial map of the stars as they appear in the skies over New York.
Micro-engineering of complications remained at the heart of Patek Philippe into its more recent history including, in 1989, the 150th anniversary for the company. To mark the milestone, Patek Philippe created the Calibre 89 movement, which delivers 39 complications using 1,728 moving parts, including following the moving date of Easter and marking leap years for 100 years – no mean feat when February 29th is left out of the leap year once in every century.
A further historic value that Patek Philippe holds dear is its focus on working with only the most professional retailers. The practice dates back to 1854, when the Geneva firm first signed Tiffany & Co in New York as an official customer.
Today, the company has about 600 points of sale in more than 70 countries. Each is hand-picked and must comply with most stringent standards for customer service, horological expertise and showroom atmosphere that are demanded by the watch house. Only partners that meet these standards are allowed to sell Patek Philippe watches and advise the brand’s valuable clientele.
This brand integrity and history has been guarded by the same family of owners since 1932, when Patek Philippe was bought by Charles and Jean Stern, two brothers who ran a company creating fine dials in Geneva. The Stern family has owned the company ever since, with the company presidency officially being handed down from the third to the fourth generation in 2009 when Thierry Stern became president and his father Philippe Stern, became honorary president.
This article was taken from the March 2012 issue of WatchPro magazine. To read a digital version of this issue online click here.