Patek Philippe remains a model for a well-run family dynasty
As the last familyowned Geneva-based watch manufacturer, Patek Philippe appears a shining model of a well-run dynasty.
Ladies Calatrava Travel Time Ref. 7134G 18K white gold case with
diamonds, alligator strap, and Calibre 215 PS FUS 24H manual winding movement, Twenty-4 Ref. 9748/1.GR. 18K white gold earrings with diamonds, and Aquanaut Luce Pure White Ref. 275.2/1.G 18K white gold ring with diamonds, Patek Philippe.
Ladies Automatic Nautilus Ref. 7018/1A stainless steel case with diamonds, matching bracelet, and Calibre 324 S C. automatic movement, Patek Philippe. Top, pants and boots, Gucci
“What gives Patek watches their character? The Stern family. We have been in charge of the brand and the creation of our products for 81 years.
In our watches, you will find our family’s DNA.”
Baselworld 2009: News had just come in that Philippe Stern, president and third-generation owner of Patek Philippe, would be stepping down after 20 years at the helm. His son Thierry, who had been increasingly involved, would be taking over.
As Thierry fielded questions about stepping into the new role, he challenged this reporter to pose the same questions pertaining to management and business strategies to his father, whose interview appointment came next. “His answers will be 99 per cent similar. We have an almost telepathic understanding,” he said. He was right.
Four years on, as Philippe assumes the more consultative role of an honorary president, Thierry manages the day-to-day affairs of the business – and the father-son bond remains strong. “It is a good relationship; a normal relationship between a son and his father. He lives in Geneva too so we see each other quite often,” says Thierry.
On the business end, both men still personally inspect the quality of the brand’s minute repeaters before they get shipped to their new owners. They also sit together on the executive board and act as co-guardians of the Patek Philippe Seal, which was introduced in 2009 to replace the commonly used Geneva Seal as a quality hallmark for all of the brand’s own mechanical movements.
“The Patek Seal represents the ways and values of my family and the business. It puts a stamp on what we say and do, and our values of quality and honesty,” explains Thierry. “In many ways, the Seal also reflects our independence. It shows that we have total control over our creations, and that we are answerable only to ourselves and our customers.”
And total control, in essence, is what being a family-run enterprise means to the owners of Patek Philippe. The brand has been owned by the Stern family since 1932 and Thierry is adamant about keeping it that way.
“We are not a group of shareholders who are just in it for the business. I guess we are seen as a benchmark of ownership within
the watch industry. Our customers know that there is only one family behind the company, and we are fully committed to protecting the legacy of the brand,” he says.
Indeed, it’s as if the Sterns are a real-life embodiment of their company’s oft-quoted tagline: “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.” Thierry still fondly remembers the time when he was six, and his father showed him his collection of antique pocket watches with intricate hand-painted enamel dials. “Something clicked and I knew that creating watches was my life’s calling,” he reminisces.
Some might find it astounding that anyone could be sure of his calling at such a tender age. But as history proves, Thierry did fulfil his ambition – and not with the kind of constant nudging from his father one would imagine. “He was careful not to over-indulge me. He brought me into the business slowly and made sure I was always aware of my decisions,” he says.
The serene father-son working relationship seems almost too good to be true, and Thierry does nothing to dispel the notion. “We don’t really disagree with each other a lot. Not at this level. After having worked together for over 20 years, we understand each other very well,” he says.
Sandrine Stern, creative director and wife of brand president Thierry Stern Patek Philippe factory in Plan-les-Ouates, Geneva
“As a family business, we have the freedom to raise our quality without having to worry about answering to shareholders who wonder why we are investing more money in the production process.”
And when they do disagree? Thierry maintains it’s about seeing the same issue from a different point of view, and that they both always aim for the same outcome. He adds that when they differ on anything, it usually has to do with watch design or communication strategies.
“Sometimes he lets me win, and sometimes I let him win,” he jokes. Getting serious, he continues: “He is mindful of our older customers while it’s the same for me with younger customers. Now, we generally agree that we need to speak to both groups, and we often take the middle route.”
Also on board as part of the Stern leadership team is Sandrine, Thierry’s wife of 12 years and the brand’s creative director. Leading a team of 10, which includes designers and artisans, Sandrine oversees the design of all of Patek’s watches.
The Ref. 7130 World Time watch for women on this issue’s cover, for instance, stems from a 2011 version that she designed, one that she remains most proud of. “It’s the first Patek women’s complication that I designed and it’s a huge challenge to bring out the femininity against the watch’s strong technicality,” says Sandrine.
Other notable creations this year include the new Nautilus and Calatrava watches for women, on which Thierry compliments Sandrine for her “instinctively feminine approach”. These are evinced in ladylike accents such as wavy-line embellishments on the Nautilus’ dial, and the Calatrava’s soft colours.
“My design approach is the Stern’s approach,” she said in a previous interview with this magazine. “Thierry and I don’t necessarily feed off each other at work. Our responsibilities are pretty different. I understand the brand well myself, and know what works and what doesn’t. There’s a complementary aspect to our roles. We also disagree sometimes, but that’s only normal.”
Recalling the early days of working with Sandrine, Thierry admits there were teething problems – just like when he started with the company – but nothing that cannot be resolved with proper training and time.
“I can design a nice ladies’ watch but it would never be 100 per cent feminine. Sandrine just has that feminine touch. She has reached a great level of competence, for sure,” says Thierry. He adds that he wouldn’t make her Patek’s creative director if she was not up to the task. “If not, the staff will talk, or they will get jealous.”
When quizzed on the challenges of being a husbandand-wife team, he admits to the arrangement having its fair share of ups and downs. “The worst thing about us working together? That would be when we mix work with personal arguments. I imagine that to be quite common for couples who work together. The best thing, however, is that we have an easy understanding. We don’t need to talk too much to get the idea across,” he says. “At the end of the day, it is good to know that I have someone that I fully trust working alongside me.” HAIR DENNIS SEAH/MOSCHE GRAND HYATT MAKEUP GRANIEL LOH MODEL KATE S/ MANNEQUIN
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Ref. 275.6/1AGR 18K white gold ring with diamonds, Patek Philippe. Dress, Hermes
Philippe and Thierry Stern