Amongst the many iconic brands of watchmakers in the world of modern horology, some names crop up time and time again. From Rolex to Richard Mille and Audemars Piguet to Panerai, the entire industry is filled with watchmakers vying for their place amongst the top of the heap. Still, one watchmaker has occupied that top spot for the better part of 150 years, Patek Philippe. So, who is Patek Philippe, and why is Patek Philippe the best watchmaker in the world? Let’s dive in and find out.
Founded in 1839 in the Canton of Geneva and Vallée de Joux of Switzerland, Patek Philippe began life as a relatively small watchmaker with founders Antoni Patek and Franciszek Czapek at the helm. Named Patek, Czapek & Cie, the young watchmaker lasted until 1845 before its two founders ran into disagreements and had to shut down their operation and split ways. Franciszek Czapek started Czapek & Cie with another individual, which is still around today, and Antoni Patek started Patek & Cie with Adrien Philippe. This brand would then be renamed Patek, Philippe & Cie 6 years later in 1851 and grow to become the modern Patek Philippe brand we all know and love today.
From its relatively humble start, Patek Philippe has grown into one of the “Holy Trinity” brands alongside Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin, two equally revered watchmakers. This was by no means an easy feat. It took Patek many decades to grow to where we see them today and occupy the position as the best watchmaker in the world. From the early 1900s until the 1950s, Patek Philippe underwent some changes of ownership until the Stern family bought the brand in 1958. While it was one of the best watchmakers in the world leading up to the takeover, the Stern family pushed Patek to innovate and create new timepieces that would elevate the brand far beyond where they had been the decades prior. With inventions like the first split-seconds chronograph, the Gyromax balance, and watches like the Henry Graves Supercomplication under their belt before the Stern family got involved, Patek Philippe was by no means an underachieving brand.
Modern Patek Philippe
When we explore why Patek Philippe is the best watchmaker in the world, the answer lies in the modern version of the brand. In terms of the contemporary context, Patek Philippe as we know it truly came about after the Stern family took it over. Today, modern Patek Philippe exists at the apex of watchmaking, producing the finest watches in the world, without much exception.
Starting with the Nautilus and Aquanaut and moving to the Calatrava, these three separate collections explain the modern Patek Philippe and tell us who they are as a brand, at least in the contemporary scheme of the watch market and industry as a whole. To understand who Patek Philippe is, one much understand the watches they create, why they create them and where their inspiration lies.
Released in 1976, the Nautilus was Patek Philippe’s first attempt at a stainless steel sports watch that broke from their conventional designs, which were once rooted in conservative aesthetics, precious metals, and high-ranking complications like world timers, minute repeaters, and perpetual calendars. Designed by Gerald Genta, the same man that designed the Royal Oak, the Nautilus feature an integrated bracelet, a blue vertically embossed dial, an octagonal bezel, and a porthole-shaped case follow Genta’s maritime theme and porthole inspired sketch from 1974.
Today, the Nautilus exists as the highlight of Patek Philippe watchmaking within the overall market, much to the brand’s dismay. If you need to understand who Patek Philippe is, they have discontinued the modern Nautilus ref. 5711 because it was too popular and took the focus away from their complicated and more traditional timepieces. Patek Philippe is so focused on quality and pure horology that they would sacrifice their profitability in order to devote more resources to their high-end timepieces. That is only something the best in the world can do, and Patek Philippe did it because they know they’re the best. For Patek Philippe, they are not pursuing market dominance; they are pursuing horological domination.
Launched in 1997, the Aquanaut took design inspiration from the Nautilus and was designed with a younger clientele in mind. While Patek traditionally caters to an older demographic, the Aquanaut exists as Patek’s recognition that younger age groups wanted to enjoy Patek Philippe craftsmanship, quality, and engineering in a watch designed for them. This led the Aquanaut to be a stainless steel sports watch on a rubber strap with impressive water resistance and sturdy movements.
Since its debut, the Aquanaut has evolved from the Nautilus’ shadow into one of Patek’s most sought-after watches today. Standing as a symbol of Patek Philippe’s innovation and drive to improve, the Aquanaut tells us that Patek Philippe, while a conservative brand in many respects, are more than willing to step outside of their comfort zone when they see fit.
Outside of their few sports models, the Calatrava collection is perhaps Patek Philippe’s purest design, existing as the vehicle to display their craftsmanship, technical excellence, and design language. In keeping with their traditional values, the Calatrava collection is most likely the timepiece you picture when you think of a Patek Philippe timepiece, a round dress watch that may or may not feature complications.
A massive collection with hundreds of variants, the Calatrava collection has grown to encapsulate so much of what Patek Philippe is and who they are as a fine watchmaker. Precious metals, incredible complications, immaculate gem-setting, mind-boggling attention to detail, and timeless design, the Calatrava wraps everything Patek Philippe stands for into one family of watches that will most likely exist for as long as the brand does.