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Why you can't just buy a Patek Philippe: the unique attraction of the world's most covetable watch brand

Seven out of the ten most expensive watches sold at auction were made by Patek Philippe – including the $31m Grandmaster Chime. Robin Swithinbank looks into the unique allure of the most collectable watch brand in the world

Why can't I buy a Patek Philippe Nautilus?

Last September, I was in Singapore for Patek Philippe’s Grand Art Watch Exhibition, a sort of travelling circus for the horological of mind and the deep of pocket. At its biannual paean to itself, the Genevan watch house announced some 1,500-odd watches with a Singapore twist, a collection of short-batch pieces for the local market.

Initially, I wasn’t quite sure why 1,500, until I spoke with one of the region’s most powerful retailers, who told me that he and his watch-selling peers were bringing 1,500 of their most gilded customers to the event. There was, it turned out, one watch for each of them. To buy, of course – theirs was the privilege of opportunity, not of free gear.

In high-end Swiss watchmaking, there isn’t another player that can click its fingers and command an audience of 1,500 top-paying clients, expecting them not only to show up but to cough up. Rolex you might say, but it’s a different beast. Given entry into the Patek owners club will set you back £15,000 minimum, the Singapore event was like an Elton John fundraiser for an entire region of watch collectors.

Only six weeks later, the power of Patek flexed again. At the Only Watch auction in Geneva – a wonderful enterprise raising money for research into Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy – a one-off steel Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime wristwatch with 20 complications went under the hammer for $31m.

That made it comfortably the most expensive watch in the world, its auction price sailing past the previous high watermark set by Paul Newman’s own Rolex Daytona sold in 2017 for $17.75m.

Pateks have become so in-demand that you can’t even wait for one, even in basic steel

Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime Only Watch auction

And then in late November, I was in Dubai for Dubai Watch Week where I chaired a panel debating watch waiting lists, which for many Patek models are now longer than a Soviet leader’s conference speech. One of my panellists was Mohammed Seddiqi, chief commercial officer of the Middle East’s largest watch retailer, Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons.

He admitted to the gathered throng that some of his customers simply won’t get prized pieces such as Patek’s steel Nautilus, because they don’t spend enough money in his stores even to make it onto the waiting list in the first place. One customer, he said, had been waiting two years for his, but as he hasn’t bought anything else in the mean time, in all likelihood he’ll be waiting forever. (Sorry, fella.)

Pateks have become so in-demand that you can’t even wait for one, even the basic steel models, such as they are. To give you an indication of how crazed the market for the Nautilus now is, sales of pre-owned models have gone nuttier still. If you head to a pre-owned outlet like WatchBox or WatchFinder, who will at least have pieces, you can expect to pay almost three times list price. At the time of writing, WatchFinder has a three-year-old Ref 5711/1A, a simple steel time-and-date Nautilus, on for £64,750. List is £23,440.

In high-end watches, our tastes have concentrated around Patek, alongside Rolex and a supporting cast that includes Richard Mille and Hublot

How can this be? The surge in Patek prices and unavailability has happened in astonishingly quick time. Granted, the now rather tired ‘watchmaker’s watchmaker’ moniker attributed to Patek has existed since before I can remember, but even so, 15 years ago when I first edited a watch mag, Patek wasn’t anything like the currency it is now.

To wit, I can think of four explanations, although I’ve no doubt there will be more.

First, is us: the gormless consumer herd. In recent years, and despite our quest for individualism (a flawed notion), we have all converged on the same brands and the same ideas. Not necessarily one brand or one idea, but we are clustering, like monkeys around the world’s last bunch of bananas.

Think of sneakers. Nike: dominant. Adidas and Puma? There, but seriously. Cars. Everyone drives a VW. Music? The radio now only plays Ed Sheeran and that girl who needs to calm down. Social media has created peer supergroups that make the 1990s pressure to try booze and fags look pedestrian. What do you mean you don’t like Beats? *Likes Beats*

Patek Philippe Ref 1518

Just as businesses have become concentrated, with groups buying up brands (see LVMH’s recent $16.2bn Tiffany purchase), so too our tastes have narrowed. In high-end watches, they’ve concentrated around Patek, alongside Rolex and a supporting cast that includes Richard Mille and Hublot, and at a granular level around pieces such as Nautilus and Rolex’s Daytona.

Next, supply. Fifteen years ago, I interviewed Thierry Stern, the current Patek Philippe president and his father Philippe, who was then in charge. They told me they made 30,000 watches a year.

During a visit to Patek’s Geneva HQ in December, Thierry told me that figure is now 62,000. Even though Patek has doubled production since the mid-2000s, it still makes far fewer watches than it could sell, hence the waiting lists. Mr Stern also told me Patek is sold in 74 countries. The distribution won’t be even, but that’s only 840 watches per country, a tiny number all told.

There is no doubt that the greatest contributing factor to the success of Patek Philippe is just how bloody good its watches are

Patek is quite happy with the imbalance of supply against demand. During our recent conversation, Mr Stern said he won’t be upping production of the Nautilus and has no ambitions to grow the company by more than a few per cent a year. He even went so far as to say he’d reduce it if he felt the market required it.

If those sound like the last words of a brand boss about to be marched out of the building, remember Patek is owned by the Stern family and has no shareholders to keep happy. “This is the beauty of Patek Philippe,” he said, a broad smile across his face.

Then there’s the clever marketing, which even as ubiquitous as it is can’t be ignored. Patek’s advertising is everywhere (and has propped up magazines I’ve edited in the past), and every time it communicates the simple and yet immensely powerful message that, unlike you, the Patek you buy today will last forever.

It’s one of the smartest campaigns ever created and the steroid-injection that has energised Patek’s business continuously since it was introduced almost 25 years ago. In fact, I’d go further and argue that over that time the moral behind its campaign has ignited an entire industry, bestowing value and meaning on a product that might otherwise have become a superfluous anachronism long ago.

Patek Philippe Henry Graves

But as the late Lee Iacocca, the man who launched Ford’s Mustang and revived Chrysler in the 1980s, once said: “When the product is right, you don’t have to be a great marketer.” There is no doubt that the greatest contributing factor to the success of Patek Philippe is just how bloody good its watches are. Break it down to design, movement creation, finishing, innovation, whatever – and Patek will routinely score among the very best, even allowing for the bias that rightly affects all judgements in this space.

By some contrived but sourceless consensus, a Nautilus might be ‘the watch’ to have at the moment, but it’s also a magnificent piece of design (first penned by the great Gérald Genta in the 1970s) that just seems to get better with age. Patek’s movements are clever, reliable, accurate, exquisitely finished and, even accounting for the eye of the beholder, always Scarlett Johansson pretty.

A number of years back, Patek got so fed up with the mediocre standards of all recognised independent Swiss guarantors of quality that it created its own, the Patek Philippe Seal. Arrogant? Without doubt. But part of being good is knowing you’re good. It’s for these reasons that Pateks are as expensive and elusive as they are. They explain why strapping one to your wrist has become a universal calling card for tastemakers, sybarites and the uber-wealthy.

Want one? If you’re lucky, you can join the queue.

For more on Patek Philippe, see patek.com

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