The Man Who Makes Million Dollar Watches: Q&A with Patek Philippe President

"We do not make watches just to know the time."

Patek Philippe president Thierry Stern. Photo via Hodinkee.

I recently sat down with Thierry Stern, the president of Swiss watch company Patek Philippe. The Stern family has owned Patek Philippe since 1933, and Thierry was basically raised on the ground floor of the luxury watch company. He’s a fourth-generation member of the business; his great-great-grandfather was the one who bought the company (the Sterns owned a dial-making factory that supplied the dials to Patek for years).

When you make watches that are worn by some of the most prominent, wealthy people in the world (i.e. Paul McCartney, Brad Pitt, Nicolas Sarkozy—you can get one at Govberg Jewelers), you learn a thing or two about luxury. Here’s what Stern has to say about showoffs, how watches are just like cars, and what luxury really is.

Shoppist: Tell me about the history of Patek Philippe.

Thierry Stern: It’s a long history, that’s for sure. For the founders, who started [the company] in 1839, what was important and will always be important is to always follow the same guidelines about the product, about the beauty, about the aesthetic, about the precision. I’m the fourth generation now, so I started at the business 20, 22 years ago, and I learned from my dad and my grandfather.  My grandfather came in 1938 at Patek Philippe, and that was six years after his father bought the business. [My grandfather] was more the aesthetic one, the creative one, the artistic one. My father was more the businessman.

Shoppist: How have you dealt with changing technology—everyone checking the time on their iPhones, and everything moving towards digital technology?

Stern: We do not make watches just to know the time. It is more like a piece of art. And today in this world, where everything is electronic, I think that the real value is not there. When you buy an iPhone or a BlackBerry, you’re going to keep it for a year and then you’re going to buy a new one.  With Patek, the idea was to have something that has lasting value. It is not only about accuracy but about fine art, knowledge and, don’t forget, for men, it’s also the only jewelry that we have. It is for people who enjoy fine mechanisms. Like cars.

Shoppist: How much of what Patek creates is influenced by fashion trends?

Stern: It has influence but it should not only be that. It is very interesting for me always to look [at] how far can I go in terms of fashion because I think that’s important, but I would like to go further, that this watch you’re going to buy will be nice today, in six months, and also in 10 to 20 years from now. It is not our duty to have only fashion watches and I do not also want to be categorized as ‘old -fashioned.’ It’s an in-between.

Shoppist: Who do you feel is the core Patek Philippe client?

Stern: Not too long ago, I would have said that the core of our clients are people over 50 years old, being knowledgeable, who have a good job. Today, though, it is not rare for me to see a young guy who is 25 years old and willing to buy a Patek. So the business today has changed slightly, but you have to keep your older client and also the young one. And this is the difficulty today. I am only producing 53,000 watches a year. So I am not willing to sell to everybody, but I am also not willing to stay exclusive. You also need to have a certain level of lifestyle, where it’s not a show-off lifestyle. The core customer … they are discreet people. They do not need to show off.

Shoppist: You only produce 53,000 watches a year?

Stern: I could easily produce more than that, but not with the same level of quality, and this is what I’m not willing to do. It’s a choice.

Shoppist: What’s coming up for Patek in terms of collections?

Stern: Today in the collection we have about 204 pieces. The idea is also to present every year 20 to 30 new models to go inside this collection. The hardest part is not to create them, but to say , okay, what type of watches should we take out of the collection first? Because if I’m adding 20 to 30 pieces every year, well, soon we’re going to have one thousand watches in the collection. You will see about 20 new pieces this year, and more this year will be more in the men’s side. And we have a second collection coming in October for the anniversary, because this year will be the 175th anniversary of Patek Philippe. [This collection] will be presented in Geneva in October.

Shoppist: How long does it take to craft a Patek watch?

Stern: An example, a simple movement is minimum four years of work before you can present it. A complicated one, we’re talking about six years approximately. And a very complicated one, like a minute repeater or a tourbillon, this is about eight years.

Shoppist: How many watch designs don’t end up making it into the collection?

Stern: Quite a lot. The creation team is a small one and very often we look at a new piece, we do the prototype and everybody’s excited and then a month, two months, you look again to it and say, no. Maybe 40 percent we do not launch, but that’s part of the creative side of it.  You need to create a lot, you need to see them quite often to be sure that what you will do is a lasting design and not a fashion one. The ones that we do not launch, they are not ugly, but they are too, maybe, fashion.

Shoppist: How do you see the luxury business, as it stands today?

Stern: For me, luxury today is very simple. It is about service.  Because, I’m sure you did it, we all did it, something breaks and you go to the store and the guy looks at you and says, ‘You have to buy a new one.’ No! I like my watch or my coffee machine or my TV. Fix it. ‘Oh, well, no, we can’t.’  This is not luxury. The real luxury is when somebody can say, ‘I will fix it.’  Luxury is not about being expensive. It’s really about something that can last.