There is a certain mystique surrounding Patek Philippe that exists even amongst die-hard watch fans, and the mystique is understandable. After all, a business that has been in continuous operation for over 175 years and commands prices of, in certain cases, the high six-figures (and more at auction) must be at the very top of its game, and this notion can be intimidating on several levels. Many of us tend to admire their work from afar, with the knowledge that these watches are largely “unobtanium” simply by virtue of their price and exclusivity. High-end complications, haute horologie, precious metals — these are all hallmarks of Patek Philippe that watch collectors are familiar with.
So how does one break into this world of super high-end watchmaking? What is the price of entry? Where does one begin? These are all legitimate questions that bear addressing, and though the truth is that each one has several possible answers, there is a fairly logical entry point to Patek Philippe that can be appreciated by both the complete newbie and the seasoned collector alike: namely, the Calatrava.
Following the great stock market crash of 1929, fewer customers had the means to purchase Patek’s storied complicated watches, for which the firm was renowned. Jean and Charles Henri Stern, co-owners of a dial manufactory, purchased a controlling interest in the renowned watchmaker in 1932, and in an attempt to revitalize the business, decided to design a product that would appeal to the European appetite for simpler timepieces and come in at a lower price point.
The Stern brothers enlisted the aid of English watch designer David Penney, and in 1932, introduced the Calatrava, a dress watch that embodies simplicity, elegance and grace, and has since become one of the flagship Patek Philippe models as well as the quintessential dress timepiece. Influenced by the German Bauhaus school established by Walter Gropius in 1919, these watches embody that movement’s “less-is-more” philosophy of economy and elegance, and take their name from the Cross of Calatrava, the 12th-century symbol of the Spanish military order of Calatrava and symbol of Patek Philippe.
Despite the introduction of numerous different models over the years, the essence of the Calatrava has remained fairly consistent since the 1930s: a round case with integrated lugs (most often in a precious metal), a simple dial with stick markers (though Arabic, Breguet or Roman numerals have sometimes been used), leaf or sword hands, and the ability to perfectly compliment a suit or formalwear while still managing to fly under the radar. And though the Aquanaut line presents another entry point into Patek for similar money (roughly the $20,000 mark), it’s the Calatrava that has managed to remain a staple in the company’s catalog for over 85 years.
We spoke with Larry Pettinelli, President of Patek Philippe USA about the Calatrava line, why it stands the test of time and how it constitutes the perfect entry point into Patek Philippe:
Interview With Larry Pettinelli, President, Patek Philippe USA
Q: What’s important to communicate to someone who is looking to buy his or her first serious watch? What is it about the Calatrava and about Patek that this person should understand?
A: The first thing is the manufacturing. Why is Patek Philippe Patek Philippe? Why do they hold their value at auction? Why should you be looking at a $20,000 watch at all? When we start that conversation, we need to start talking about the manufacturing process from start to finish, the extraordinary lengths of hand-finishing. It’s a wearable piece of art (that we’re creating) and it’s not a throwaway. And this is a very different type of product than most young people buy. The iPhone is something that you’re going to have to upgrade every year — the technology is moving so quickly that three years down the road, you’ll probably have to give away what you had. But with these watches, this isn’t the case. There’s simple styling and lasting visuals — nothing that’s going to go in and out of fashion.
A Calatrava from the 1940s or 1950s has the same amount of finishing and accuracy levels as the watches we have today; they were made slightly differently, but the principles are exactly the same, and we’re not changing things simply for the sake of doing so. Every Calatrava has the same amount of finish as a magnificent minute repeater; the hand-finishing is the same — there are simply more parts in the minute repeater.
Not everybody needs a $20,000 watch, but if you care about something that maybe you can pass down to your kids, or pass along to somebody else, you have the opportunity to get one of the finest products in the category. When I bought my first Patek, I wanted the understanding that I could own the best of something, which is a rare feeling for a young man. I can’t buy a Monet painting or the top-of-the-line Ferrari, but I can have one of the best watches in the world.
Q: To your mind, what is it about the Calatrava that makes it timeless? What is the essence of the line — does it begin with the Bauhaus school?
A: It’s form follows function. It’s got to be something that you can look at for 30 or 40 years and Bauhaus is certainly the fundamentals, but I think whether you’re looking at the hands or the markers, there is a simplicity (to them) — it’s not about creating very eccentric pieces. This is about something that is timeless. Stick markers, dauphine or sword hands, those are the essence of the Calatrava. Now, you can dress it up a little bit by making a little fancier lug, or doing something with a step bezel, but it’s a very subtle change. At one point when I first started (with Patek Philippe) we had probably five or six Calatravas with the hobnail bezel. We made one with the date and one without a date, we made one with an automatic sweep second hand…they all looked exactly the same. We had five or six different models but they there was only this very subtle difference in the design. And we sold them all! People were drawn to the simplicity.
Q: If you go back to a Patek catalog and look at a piece from say, the 1930s or 1940s, maybe a pilot-style Calatrava with Arabic numerals, it’s still recognizable as a Calatrava. So there must be something about the design language in general — it really isn’t just one particular type of hands or markers, but rather the entire package.
A: It’s not a coincidence, because many times over the years when we have the R&D people design these watches, they’ll go back to your own museum and they’ll take a look at some of the older pieces and say, “Ok, well, we haven’t seen that in a while. We like that — let’s introduce it into the new piece.” So there are a lot of historical aesthetics that you’ll see, and that’s not an accident.
“There are a lot of historical aesthetics that you’ll see, and that’s not an accident.”
Q: Some upgrades obviously have to be made periodically in order to keep the Calatrava relevant for the next generation. So how do you go about upgrading the watch while maintaining its essence for your customers, especially in regard to size?
A: The watches tend to ebb and flow regarding size. Back in the 1950s, we were making some watches that were 40mm, 50mm. And if you’ve ever been to our museum and you look back at some of the 50s watches, that was a large-size watch era. And then when you get back down into the 60s and 70s, they got really tiny and really thin. Right now I think we’re at 38 to 40mm, and that seems to be a good balancing point.
It’s hard to update the (case) size also because the proportions change. You sometimes can’t just enlarge everything — it just doesn’t look the same, it doesn’t look right. So Thierry Stern is very conscious about doing it in the right way. Not going overboard. You know we don’t go to the extremes — I mean, that’s just not our brand.
Mr. Philippe Stern, when we made the annual calendar, the 5035, the original — he challenged them, he said, “No, no, that’s too thick, and it’s too big — I want it thinner and I want a smaller.” And those watchmakers had just a ridiculous headache of trying to put that into a smaller case, but they did it. But I think naturally you saw that even the annual calendar grew back to a normal 38mm size case because it made it so much easier to create the wheels, and the manufacturing, and the repair, which is also important.
“It’s hard to update the (case) size also because the proportions change. You sometimes can’t just enlarge everything — it just doesn’t look the same, it doesn’t look right.”
Q: With Patek, as opposed to with many other watch brands, a steel watch is often significantly more rare and valuable. Is there a conscious decision to produce most of the Calatravas in precious metals because of their functionality as dress watches?
A: The overriding factor is that we can make 60,000 movements per year, period. We’ve been stuck on 60,000 for about three or four years now, and that’s more or less to do with the fact that you need more watchmakers in order to make more watches. In our case because we need more hand-finishing, we’re stuck at 60,000, so the Sterns have made a conscious business decision to not make more than about 25 or 26 percent steel product.
When it comes down to it, you look at the Nautilus line and the Aquanaut line, we’ve got a lot of steel in that line, which you need to have. So when you look at the other movements you go, okay, well, we’re going to put that in precious metals.
The other real factor in this equation is that whether you put it in a steel case or a gold case, it’s not going to affect the price that dramatically, because the reality is when you look at the breakdown of those products coming in through customs, the bulk of the money is in the movement. So yes, we could put it in steel, and maybe it would shave it down in a couple thousand dollars. But the amount of the case metal is not really shaping the bulk of the price.
The majority (of the value) is really coming from the finishing and the movement and the time and effort and accuracy in that movement. So in the world of Patek Philippe, steel is really sought after because of the rarity, not so much because it brings the price points down. Now, you may you may see something going forward down the line in our effort to kind of revitalize the Calatrava. You may see another steel piece again.
Q: Does the vintage market exert any influence upon current Patek watchmaking — not necessarily in terms of trends, but perhaps indicating what has staying power?
A: Yes, for sure. For example, there are some of these asymmetrical watches from the 60s that were really kind of fun and funky, and we tried to reintroduce those back in the early 2000s. And you know, they’re very, very niche — you either love them or you don’t like them. So to build a line that we continually sell year after year with asymmetrical is probably not going to happen. But like I said, we have had some really good success, and when you look at the museum pieces you’ll say oh yeah, this one is influenced by this, and this one is influenced by this. And there are always people looking for those, for better or worse.
Q: This concept that the same technology goes into a Calatrava movement as does a more complicated movement, and that the customer is getting the same attention to detail — can you expound upon that a bit?
A: I wish we could take everybody to our workshops. There are 2,000 or so employees over there, you get to really see how many hands actually touch each watch…even though it’s (something) the size of a quarter, it’s extraordinary, and then you really do get an appreciation for just what it’s all about.
Each watch takes at least a minimum of one year to make. When you add up all the hand-finishing, it takes a minimum of a year for the simplest watch. Maybe you don’t appreciate that until you see it, but you’ve got people who literally are cutting out the parts — again, we’re talking about a complete manufacture, vertical integration. So you’ve got big machines that we cut out the initial case with, the initial part with, and then it goes through the food chain and gets hand-finished, hand-finished hand-finished until it becomes something that works within that movement.
The watches from the 50s, 60s, they’re hand-finished for that particular movement, which is why they give it a separate movement number. The case is separately done for that fitting, and they give it a separate case number. And beyond the production capacity, every watch we ever made from the beginning in 1839 is documented in our archives. So if we need to go back and find out, OK, which movement is within which watch, what part was made by whom, and how do we make that part again? Well, a lot of schematics still exists from some of those early watches, and they will go back into a 19th-century watch, and sometimes they’ll remake a part.
Many brands after 25 years, they’ll say, ‘You know what, we don’t have that part manufacturer anymore. We don’t have anybody with the capacity to do it. So I’m sorry.’ But we will repair everything that we’ve ever made. And that is a huge difference across the industry. And I think when you’re spending this kind of money, it’s a nice comfort to know that we’re not going to walk away from the watch if your grandkids own it. We’re still going to repair it.
Sometimes the service delays are fairly significant because we only have maybe three people who repair any particular movement, but we will repair it, and like I said, if we need to send it over to Geneva and remake parts for it, we’ll do that, too. So it’s kind of exciting and fun when you go over there and meet the one or two people that are actually doing the work. They’re called “pivotors,” and what they do is remake parts for the vintage pieces that come in, and these guys are just extraordinary.
We’ve only had one or two pivotors forever, so we’ve got to keep training these guys, but this one pivoter, I think if you look at his entire stack of work that he’s done from the moment he became a watchmaker till now — he’s maybe 55 or 56 years old — it’s not thousands of watches. It’s like, you know, it’s a small stack of watches. They spend eight months, 10 months a year to redo an old pocket watch, and in 30 years, maybe they did 30 watches, maybe a few more. But it’s not thousands of them. So those people are irreplaceable, one hundred percent.
I think this speaks to what you’re getting, what you’re paying for and how much staying power our watches have. You’ve seen our advertising: “You never actually own a Patek Philippe — you just take care of it for the next generation.” Well, you can’t have that advertising campaign and then not take care of it.