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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Recent News: Patek Philippe Watches
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Watchmakers are cracking down on bootleg smartwatch facesEngadget, November 24th
With that said, some of these watch faces are still relatively easy to find. I quickly spotted a Moto 360 replica of Patek Philippe's Grandmaster Chime, an ultra-rare watch whose real version costs a whopping $2.6 million. It's doubtful that watch...Read more
Patek Philippe Chiming Jump Hour Ref 5275P (175th Anniversary)Perpetuelle.com (blog), November 19th
By now you are all no doubt familiar with the Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime 5175R, a $2.2 million masterpiece made in celebration of Patek's 175th anniversary (if not, here you go…). But there was another piece among the anniversary collection that...Read more
Cursed £15m Watch Claims New Victim as Qatari Billionaire Owner Dies Two ...International Business Times UK, November 16th
The Henry Graves timepiece made by Swiss watchmaker Patek Philippe is photographed during a press preview by Sotheby's auction house on November 5, 2014 in Geneva. A gold watch billed as the most expensive -- and most complicated -- in the world ...Read more
World's 'most complicated' Patek Philippe gold watch sells for record $24.4 ...CNN, November 12th
(CNN) -- The most "complicated" handmade watch in the world has been sold at auction for an historic $24.4 million. The Henry Graves Supercomplication timepiece, made by the luxury watchmaker Patek Philippe in 1933 for the prominent banker Henry ...Read more
$24000000 Patek Philippe Supercomplication Pocket Watch Beats Its Own ...Forbes, November 12th
In Geneva, Switzerland, on November 11, 2014, the hammer fell, signaling the end of a highly anticipated Sotheby's event that would once again return the famous and completely unique Patek Philippe Supercomplication pocket watch to the auction block...Read more
Patek Philippe Celebrates 175th Anniversary in StyleNew York Times, November 5th
Held at Patek Philippe's manufacturing facility in Plan-les-Ouates, a suburb of Geneva, the festivities were highlighted by the unveiling of six new wristwatches. The showpiece was a double-face reversible watch called the Grandmaster Chime. Sheathed...Read more
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