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Interview with Patek Philippe CEO Thierry Stern on Rare Handcrafts 2024

Thierry Stern Patek Philippe CEO

For true watch connoisseurs, owning a timepiece from Patek Philippe is a privilege. For some, however, an extra level of exclusivity or uniqueness is required. Specifically what Patek call their Rare Handcrafts, which recently went on display in their Bond Street Salon for the Rare Handcrafts 2024 exhibition. Among them were 27 dome and small dome clocks, three table clocks, 10 pocket watches and 43 wristwatches, embracing subjects from nature to urban skylines, classicism to modernity, the zodiac and Art Nouveau. While at the event, Oracle Time was afforded the opportunity to discuss the Rare Handcrafts with CEO Thierry Stern.

First, a note on the watches themselves. The common thread is that they have been endowed with dials – and for the clocks, cases – decorated with one of the “rare handcrafts”. These include a number of enamelling techniques such as cloisonné, champlevé and other forms, as well as hand painting, hand-engraving and guilloché, gem-setting and marquetry, or a combination of these arts. They are truly exquisite works, especially when viewed in person.

Patek Philippe Rare Handcrafts Artisan

Patek Philippe Rare Handcrafts Artisan showcasing techniques at the Rare Handcrafts Exhibition

One might wonder if the various works, especially those which address specific themes, might be commissioned, but they are entirely conceived, says Stern, “by Patek. None of them are commissioned. In the past we have had requests to do a piece with the face of the baby or whatever. I don’t say that we never did it – we did sometimes – but all the collection that you see this and every year, they’re all done by us with our own ideas.”

“Mostly I’m in charge for the handcraft so there’s myself and I’m working with the person who is in charge of the division, but I would say normally that’s me. I’m working with the enameller, with engraver and they can also propose ideas. We are working together. I have some ideas but if you have some, please propose also to me and I will choose and then I can change or whatever, but I always tell them, ‘You are the artist. I know that you do like birds, I know that you like whatever, so I see proposing something, it’s not only about me.”

Patek Philippe Rare Handcrafts 2024 Train Clock
Patek Philippe Rare Handcrafts 2024 Train Clock

Patek Philippe Rare Handcrafts dome clock featuring cloisonné streamliner train (2024)

Inspiration can come from anywhere. “I have the chance to travel so very often. To be frank, those pieces that you will see are ideas that I had in my mind because I’ve travelled to Germany or China, or I went to a museum and I saw beautiful paintings or a vintage car and then I do stuff like this, and I love it.”

Stern says he does the same for the regular collection but “that’s the task of the family at Patek. The family was always at the head of the creation – always – and I don’t see why I should give it to somebody else. It’s the best job!”

Patek Philippe Rare Handcrafts Marquetry
Patek Philippe Rare Handcrafts Enamel

Patek Philippe’s Rare Handcrafts include artisanal techniques such as marquetry and various methods of enamelling

While the majority of Rare Handcrafts creation is undertaken in-house, Patek Philippe also employs outside artisans. “We have a bit more than 20 people in house and we also have external people because it’s very important to have a mix. Why? Simply because some of them like to work at home. They need the quiet. This is something I totally understand.”

“Some of them like to work from 6 o’clock in the morning till the 10:00 or 11:00 because the light is better or because there’s no noise. At Patek you will always have people around you and some [of the artisans] don’t like that. So, we always have been mixing both of them.”

Stern also cites an advantage, however, in proximity to the in-house craftspeople. “It’s interesting for me because that’s where I can develop new techniques that I would like to keep for me. For example, in enamelling can I improve the quality of it? We have a few secrets that we keep for us that I’m happy to transmit to outside people, but not all of them!”

Patek Philippe World Traveller Rare Handcrafts 1415

Patek Philippe World Traveller Rare Handcrafts ref. 1415 (1953), image credit: Sothebys

Patek Philippe has been presenting such timepieces throughout its history, as noted by examples from the 19th century displaying in its museum in Geneva. Stern notes that the size of pocket watches provided a larger canvas for rare handcrafts, though among the most recognisable of Patek Philippe’s decorated dials are the World Traveller wristwatches such as Ref 1415 of 1953, with maps fashioned in cloisonné enamel.

A technique that involves creating outlines with fine wire, which are then filled with the coloured enamels before baking, cloisonné creates many of the most detailed and coveted images. Says Stern, “You have to imagine that sometimes we are using more than 10 to 15 metres of wire on one dome clock. When you have to bend it that precisely – imagine making a building and you have like 20 buildings around the dome clock and every building has 50 windows. All the windows are also perfectly done. In terms of skill, to use those wires and to bend them perfectly? That’s another story, a different discipline.”

Stern does not limit himself to a personal favourite when discussing the various crafts. “It’s difficult because I typically choose all of them – I like them all very much. But if I look at this collection it’s difficult for me to say. We all have different tastes.”

Patek Philippe Rare Handcrafts 2024 Surfer

Patek Philippe Rare Handcrafts ref. 5089G-129 “Morning on a Beach” (2024)

One of the most impressive pieces – the “Morning on a Beach” – involved not enamelling to create the picture but marquetry, a craft using microscopically small pieces of coloured woods which are glued into place. “The Surfer is a cool one that’s something new. For many years I wanted to do [a watch based on] a vintage picture of the first surfer in Hawaii. There was some famous guy with a huge wooden board. I know that America, for example, is a very strong market for Patek and surfing is part of the culture, also Australia. I like surfing too, so I say I believe it works for Patek because it’s something pure – waves, surfing, sport.”

Elsewhere, timepieces featuring automotive details such as the fins of a 1959 Cadillac, another of a Chevrolet of the period, a pool table in detail, a 1930s American locomotive and a blues singer illustrate how classical themes are not the sole topics of the Patek Philippe Rare Handcrafts 2024. “When I started with my dad [Philippe Stern], we were only talking about painting masterpieces. Then I said that can we change a little bit. ‘What do you mean?’ So, I did, for example, the leopard engraved with the sky of Africa behind it made of enamelling. Then I added some engraving around the pocket watch and the chain, matching the pocket watch.

Patek Philippe Rare Handcrafts 2024 Cadillac

Patek Philippe Rare Handcrafts wristwatch featuring Cadillac in cloisonné (2024)

“This my father never did. He looked at it and said, ‘it’s not so bad’, so I continued like this. And then I did the Samurai – this piece was amazing, the engraving was so perfect and then we added all the enamelling inside. It was really a crazy piece that time. So that’s how you started to evolve, step-by-step and today, like you say, I can do the Cadillac – everything is possible as long as you do it with taste.

As the Rare Handcrafts collection ranges from unique pieces to small series of less than 10 examples, demand will always outstrip supply. Patek Philippe curates the clientele as carefully as it curates the exhibitions. The company’s strategy is to have requests presented to them by the authorised retailers on behalf of the customers. Some will see the pieces in person, other via the lavish catalogue. Clients that certain pieces might suit who didn’t make it to an exhibition will learn about them through referral from the dealer, but all will present their requests personally to Thierry Stern.

“I need the name of the final client to be sure that it’s not going to be sold to someone who’s going to sell it after tomorrow. I would like to control also that the person who will receive it is the right person and is also someone who didn’t receive one the previous year. There are so many requests … it wouldn’t be fair that the same client who bought a piece last year receives another one this year.

Patek Philippe Rare Handcrafts 995-137J-001 Leopard

Patek Philippe Rare Handcrafts Leopard Pocket Watch (2023)

“I try to give it to other people so there is balance. This will be done after the exhibition, so at the end of London I will see clients in Geneva. I will have all the requests from London, from the Geneva store as well as the Geneva fair, and from retailers. Then I will see the head of commercial – both of us – we say, OK, now we have to dispatch them around the world.”

As an example, Stern says, “not too long ago we had an amazing pocket watch with a leopard on it, different than the one I described before. It’s very nice and we chose to sell it to a lady because she opened a kind of protection, not a zoo but to protect leopards in South Africa. She wasn’t a Patek customer, but she enjoys so much this piece and then that’s OK: we’re going to sell it to her because I think she deserves it.

Patek Philippe Rare Handrafts 2024 Pocket Watch
Patek Philippe Rare Handrafts 2024 Pocket Watch

Patek Philippe Rare Handcrafts pocket watch featuring impressionist floral painting and guilloché dial (2024)

“Really, that’s how I work. These are not business pieces in one sense. They need to go to somebody who is passionate. I don’t like to say who deserves it as this is too pretentious, but I mean who I believe is right [for the piece].”

Stern is already working on the collection 2027-2028. “Some of them take three to four years to make, so it’s on-going. Of course, I have a list where I say, OK, 2024 will be those pieces, 2025 those ones but they are already in process.” For Patek Philippe devotees, watch enthusiasts and lovers of fine craftsmanship, these exhibitions are not to me missed.

On a final note, if only peripherally related to collector purism, is something which has divided Patek fans. Is it pronounced “pa-deck” – like a place to keep horses – or “pah-tek”, with a hard ‘t’ and emphasis on the second syllable? Says Stern, who admits to having his accent softened by years working in the USA, his own pronunciation somewhere between the two, “I was with clients twice this week, and maybe you start to become a copycat listening to them. But normally? I say ‘Patek’” … with a hard ‘t’ and emphasis on the second syllable.” Mystery solved.

More details at Patek Philippe.

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About the author

Ken Kessler

Ken Kessler is unimpressed by the 21st century and enjoys retro, if costly, boys’ toys, such as cameras, mechanical watches and fountain pens – of late, he is obsessed with Italian red wine. He has written four books on luxury hi-fi equipment and collects chronographs and film noir DVDs.