The Swiss company that became Patek Philippe was founded in 1839. One of the company’s two founding partners, Antoine Norbert de Patek, met French watch maker Adrien Philippe in 1844 during a presentation of Philippe’s pioneering stem-winding system. In 1845, Patek’s partner decided to strike out on his own and in 1851, Patek Philippe & Cie was born.
From the beginning, Patek Philippe made some of the most complicated — and beautiful — watches ever produced. Fastidious records have been kept on every watch the company has made, so that modern-day collectors can request the repair history of any antique or vintage Patek Philippe watch before making a purchase.
Significantly, the company’s first wristwatch was also Switzerland’s first wristwatch. It was made in 1868 and sold to the Countess Koscowicz of Hungary in 1876. Ornate and clunky by contemporary standards, it was wound with a key and resembled a triptych, with the watch framed by two diamond-and-gold encrusted panels on either side. Patek Philippe has been a luxury brand ever since.
By the end of the 19th century, the technical quality of Patek Philippe watches began to be codified. In 1886, the micromechanical engineering and hand finishing of the firm’s wristwatch movements were awarded the prestigious Geneva Seal. Numerous patents followed, including one for a "split-seconds chronograph" in 1902.
Patek Philippe’s first complicated ladies’ wristwatch appeared in 1916. It had a five-minute repeater. In 1922-23, Patek Philippe created the first split-seconds chronograph wristwatch and in 1925 it introduced its first wristwatch with a perpetual calendar.
The 1920s was a vibrant decade for Patek Philippe. Some of its most sought-after antique watches are from this period, including the Officer Gondolo wristwatch from 1920, a perpetual-calendar wristwatch with moon phases in 1925, a repeater in 1926, and a square version of the handsome Gondolo in 1928.
Despite the Great Depression and new owners in 1932, innovation continued through the 1930s. The rectangular Reverso, whose face could be reversed as its name suggests, was produced in 1932, but it took more than a decade for the curiosity to find a buyer. The extra-large, "Staybrite" steel Doctor’s wristwatch arrived in 1937. As for the Calatrava, which is today considered one of the company’s flagship lines, it began in 1932, with new Calatravas added throughout the decade...
In 1941, Patek Philippe began regular production of its perpetual-calendar wristwatches — today these vintage Patek Philippes are highly prized by collectors. By the middle of the decade, a wristwatch named for Duke Ellington appeared. Edward Kennedy Ellington himself purchased one in 1948, though why the legendary jazzman needed a water-resistant wristwatch with a split-second chronograph and a tachometer can only be imagined.
Patek Philippe filed numerous patents for self-winding mechanisms in the mid-1950s (a self-winder from 1955 with a black enamel dial and labeled "Ref. 2526" is especially handsome). Patents were also filed in 1959 and 1962 for time-zone watches. The end of the 1950s saw the introduction of a prototype for a digital wristwatch; the late 1960s heralded the launch of the first model in the popular Ellipse collection ("Ref. 3548").
Concurrently, from the late 1940s until about 1960, Patek Philippe produced a number of wristwatches with cloisonné dials to take advantage of the abundance of enamel painters who were working in Geneva at that time. Subjects included maps (Geneva and its lake, the world, the Americas, Eurasia), sports figures (a tennis player, a polo player), and odes to nature (a rain forest, palm trees).
Another popular Patek Philippe series are the vintage, asymmetrical wristwatches of the 1950s and 1960s. Designed by Gilbert Albert, these post-war timepieces are distinctly Swiss riffs on the Mid-century Modern aesthetic of the day.
Key terms for Antique and Vintage Patek Philippe Wristwatches:
Chronograph: A watch that also records time intervals, like a stopwatch.
Cloisonné: A technique in which filaments of metal (often gold or copper) are soldered to a surface to create compartments that are then filled with ground enamel, fired, and polished.
Complication: A complicated watch is one that displays more than just hours, minutes, and seconds. Complications include an annual calendar and time zones. So-called "grand" complications include watches with moon phases, chronographs and split-seconds chronographs, and sky charts.
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Face Value: How a Patek Philippe Watch Dial Is Made Step-by-StepBloomberg, October 30th
Making a watch dial is a highly specialized craft -- and one that often gets downplayed because watch brands outsource the difficult task. In 2004, Patek Philippe did the most Patek thing imaginable and brought production in-house by purchasing Cadrans ...Read more
Watch Collectors Line Up for $20 Million Patek Henry Graves SupercompilationNew York Observer, October 30th
Next month, the world's most famous watch will be up for auction by Sotheby's, with pre-auction estimates of between $15 and $20 million or more. The watch, the Patek Philippe Henry Graves Supercomplication, was commissioned in 1925 and delivered in ...Read more
Chiming Jump Hour Ref. 5275World Tempus (press release), October 28th
The watch pays tribute to the Ref. 3969 with a jumping digital hour which was launched in 1989 on the occasion of Patek Philippe's 150th anniversary. It also illustrates how much the manufacture's technical prowess and expertise have progressed during...Read more
Meeting The Patek Philippe 5004 At IWJG New YorkForbes, October 22nd
The past two days were captivating for me–not as a kid in a candy store, but as a teen in an international watch and jewelry trade show. Every year, the world's most successful guild for dealers of fine timepieces and exceptional gems, IWJG, hosts...Read more
Gold pocket watch so complex it features the stars above Manhattan is set to ...Daily Mail, October 21st
A watch said to be the 'Holy Grail' of timepieces and one of the most complicated ever made is set to go under the hammer for £10million next month. The Henry Graves Supercomplication timepiece, made by famed watchmaker Patek Philippe, is the most ...Read more
Patek Philippe Firmly In The Future As Well As The Past On Its 175th AnniversaryForbes, October 16th
The timepieces issued in honor of Patek Philippe's previous anniversaries have been nothing short of bombastically historical. Thus, the watch world waited with baited breath to see what the 175-year-old manufacture would present in honor of its...Read more
Patek Philippe Unveils Grandmaster Chime: The World's Most Complicated ...Bloomberg, October 13th
For its 150th anniversary in 1989, Patek released the Calibre 89 pocket watch. At the time it was the most complicated watch ever produced and only four were made. 25 years later the firm has outdone itself yet again with some pretty unusual...Read more
UPDATE [Owner Revealed+Watch For Sale Again]: Brad Pitt Is NOT The New ...Forbes, September 30th
UPDATE: The watch has been acquired by California-based mega-dealer, Bob Maron. Mr. Maron is selling this unique Patek Philippe “JB Champion Observatory” wristwatch for an estimated $4.5 million to $5 million. I believe this is a fair price point, ...Read more