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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Pop-Up Pick: shop vintage Rolex, Omega and Patek Philippe watches at ...Toronto Life, September 18th
If you're the type of guy who likes to invest in his watch collection, Garrison Bespoke's two-day event may be the perfect opportunity to score a rare vintage timepiece. While sipping on Remy Martin cocktails, shoppers can browse over fifty sleek...Read more
100 Ultra-Valuable, Incredibly Rare Patek Philippe Wristwatches To Auction In ...Forbes, September 18th
Patek Philippe celebrates its 175th anniversary in 2014 and the brand already kicked off the year at Baselworld with interesting models such as the Annual Calendar Chronograph (Reference 5960/1A) and the Nautilus Travel Time Chronograph (Reference ...Read more
Can Apple Watch Win Over Swiss Luxury Giants?MediaPost Communications, September 17th
But in the developing world, curiosity is rising fast: Online interest in these watches soared 23% in China, 22% in India, and 20% in Saudi Arabia. (Rolex is by far the most search-for brand, it says, followed by Omega, Cartier, Tag Heuer and Patek...Read more
Exclusive Christie's Patek Philippe 175 Auction PreviewBloomberg, September 16th
Patek Philippe 175 is the second thematic auction Christie's has hosted in as many years. And like 2013's Rolex Daytona "Lesson One" sale, we anticipate world records being set, millions being spent on unique watches, and an atmosphere as close to a...Read more
5 reasons Apple Watch won't scare Swiss watch industryUpstart, September 10th
The UpTake: The Apple Watch may be functionally superior to other watches when it comes to communications and fitness tracking. But if you think Swiss watch industry execs at Patek Philippe, Rolex or Omega are going to lose sleep over this gadget, then ...Read more
Patek Philippe: discreet luxury brand with cult followingFinancial Times, September 5th
Patek Philippe is a brand that comes “close to a religion” for watch collectors, according to John Reardon, co-chief executive of Christie's watch department. At auction, the brand's rarer pieces regularly break the $1m barrier. And although only a few...Read more
My Grail Watches: The Patek Philippe 1518 Steel and Rolex's Only Vintage ...Forbes, August 30th
“What is your grail watch?” This is a question I was recently posed. Despite spending the last several years in close proximity to fine watches, I could not cite one watch alone. Simply, there're just too many out there: Watches I've seen, watches I've...Read more
Patek Philippe Supercomplication Expected to Fetch $16.5 Million at Sotheby's ...Robb Report, August 29th
Perhaps the most significant timepiece ever created, the Henry Graves Supercomplication will cross the block on November 11 at Sotheby's Important Watches sale in Geneva. Conceived and built by Patek Philippe for the New York banker Henry Graves, the ...Read more