One’s watch

    3 November 2016

    Why do so many famous people wear Patek Philippe watches? It’s not just a generational thing. Their appeal, it seems, is timeless. Golden oldies Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr both wear Patek Philippe Aquanauts, and so does pop whippersnapper Ed Sheeran, who’s young enough to be their grandson. Pablo Picasso wore a Patek Philippe Moon Phase; Charlie Sheen wears a Patek Philippe Annual Calendar. In happier times, Angelina Jolie bought Brad Pitt a 1952 Patek Philippe platinum chronometer (apparently it set her back $3 million). Brad also owns a Patek Philippe Nautilus, the lucky blighter.

    And it’s not just the world of showbiz. World leaders wear them too. Carla Bruni gave one to Nicolas Sarkozy. Vladimir Putin owns a Patek Philippe Calatrava, and the Dali Lama wears a Patek Philippe Chronograph (of course he didn’t buy it himself, silly — it was a gift from JFK).

    So why do these suave timepieces adorn the wrists of so many superstars? Naturally, price has a lot to do with it — but there are plenty of other pricey watches on the market. No, the best answer I’ve come across comes from John Reardon, International Head of Watches at Christie’s (who should know). In a piece on the Christie’s website (for which I also write occasionally), he lists five key reasons why Patek Philippe watches are so collectable: scarcity, design, investment value, archive and, above all, DNA.

    For A-list celebs, scarcity is a big selling point. After all, what’s the point in being famous and wearing a wristwatch that anyone else can wear? Sure, a Patek Philippe will set you back a bit, but it’s not just about the money. There simply aren’t that many of these watches out there. Since 1845, when Antoine Norbert de Patek teamed up with Jean Adrien Philippe in Geneva, the firm they founded has made less than a million watches. As Reardon says, some luxury brands make that many every year.

    Partly because they’re so scarce, every Patek Philippe watch has its own archival history. Hence, you know what you’re buying really is the real thing. These two factors combine to make these watches a great investment. The numbers bear this out. A Calatrava cost $300 in the 1950s — now it’s worth $20,000. You could buy a Nautilus for less than $3.000 in the 1970s — you’ll pay over $50,000 today. And these are just the prices for standard models. Eric Clapton sold his platinum Patek Philippe at auction for $3.5 million.

    However, none of this would count for anything without the Patek Philippe design, and what Reardon calls the DNA. What’s the difference? Well, the design is what you can see — the face, the case, the hands and dials. The DNA is what you can’t see — what’s hidden inside. Patek Philippe spare no expense making the finest parts for their watches, which is why they’re so expensive. However, the understated design is an even bigger draw. Flash wristwatches are for wannabes. A really classy watch doesn’t shout, it whispers. A classic Patek Philippe says ‘less is more’.

    Funnily enough, Patek Philippe’s relationship with celebrity began with Queen Victoria. She’s probably not the first person you’d associate with these stylish, exclusive watches — but without her, Patek Philippe might never have taken off. In 1851, the year they founded their firm, Antoine Norbert de Patek (a Polish émigré) and Jean Adrien Philippe (an enterprising Frenchman) took a selection of their new watches to the Great Exhibition in London. Devised by Prince Albert, Victoria’s beloved husband, this huge international trade fair in Hyde Park was one of the wonders of the age.

    Victoria and Albert both bought Patek Philippe watches: a gold chronometer for him and an enamel blue watch for her. Victoria’s watch encapsulated the qualities which would soon make Patek Philippe famous. Its floral design was exquisite, but the face was beautifully simple. Its diamond pendant was spectacular, but its new keyless winding system was what really made it special.

    For Antoine Norbert and Jean Adrien, it was priceless PR. Victoria was the most famous woman in the world, and in 1851 she was a glamorous young mum of 32, rather than the dumpy, grumpy widow she became. The crowned heads of Europe all followed her example. The Habsburgs and the Romanovs bought Patek Philippe watches, as did the royal families of Spain and Sweden, plus countless monarchies long since defunct: Italy, Bulgaria, Serbia, Portugal…

    One hundred and sixty five years later, that close connection between Patek Philippe and the British royal family endures. How do we know? Well, last year Patek Philippe staged an exhibition at London’s Saatchi Gallery, and alongside Victoria’s Patek Philippe was one owned by her great great granddaughter. Encrusted with pearls and diamonds, it was a lot more flamboyant and ornate than most Patek Philippe wristwatches. However you could hardly begrudge its owner a bit of bling. She is the Queen of England, after all.