Ten Minutes with Larry Pettinelli

Larry Pettinelli, President of the Henri Stern Watch Agency (Patek Philippe USA).

Can you tell us how you became involved in the watch industry?

In 1986 I came out of college and was working for an investment bank when the crash hit. A friend of the family had a small headhunting firm and had placed a few people with then-President Werner Sonn. I was looking to make a change, and she said ‘I know they’ve been looking for a salesperson for the past few years and haven’t been able to find the right person, would you want to interview?’ After I got the job, I shadowed Werner for three years on the road. He taught me how to travel, he taught me how to deal with the clients, and he taught me about the brand. I really owe so much to him.

Do you remember your first watch?

Everybody probably has a story like this in the industry, but I had one of those silly cat clocks where the tail wagged on the wall, and I took that apart trying to figure out how to put it back together. I think I was twelve. At eighteen I got a pen set and a little watch. I guess that’s to get you ready for the business world. And then my dad gave me a number of timepieces from his father. They were pocket watches with some really nice engraved silver cases. Again, nothing super complicated, but he had a couple old Walthams and a couple of old strap watches from the fifties and sixties, and I was thrilled to get them because they were from my grandfather and my dad.

What is the one watch you would never part with?

The 150th anniversary piece that I have, the 3960, was my first Patek, and it has really special meaning to me because I had been working at Patek for two or three years before I actually got the watch. And back then nobody got watches to wear around—the feeling was when you could afford to buy one you’d appreciate it that much more. So I traveled for two or three years without a Patek, and it was so nice to actually have one on my wrist.

What was your most memorable experience with a timepiece?

One of the pieces that made the most impact on me was a watch owned by Charles Woehrle, a WWII veteran who was shot down over France and ended up in a prison camp. He wrote to Patek Philippe asking to buy a watch and offered an IOU to be paid upon his return to the States. Never expecting to see the watch, one day it showed up at the prison camp. It was stolen in the 1970’s, and Mr. Woehrle’s niece called me and said, “I’d like to replace my uncle’s watch. I’m not looking for anything extraordinary, but I’d like to get him something from that time period.” So I reached out to a couple people who handled vintage watches and contacted Patek Philippe President Thierry Stern in Geneva and said, “Look this is a very nice story, let’s try to get him the watch back. Do you mind if we just give him the watch?” We purchased the watch back and we gave it to Mr. Woehrle, closing the circle.

If you didn’t work for a watch company, which industry would you like to work in and for which brand?

I love what I do, but I’ve always thought of the renewable energy field or any effort to make the world a little better somehow. I don’t have a company in mind, but I know there are some firms that make desalinization plants, so that these poor villages can take sea water and turn it into fresh water. Maybe in my next life that’s what I would do.

What is the biggest challenge facing the watch industry today?

I think it’s the instability around the world in the markets. I think that’s a huge vulnerability for watchmakers in general. At Patek we don’t make that many pieces so we’re not as vulnerable. But companies have to plan; they have to plan materials and marketing, etc., when you don’t know in six months where the market’s going to be. That becomes more difficult.

Who is currently the most influential person in watches?

It’s people like Thierry Stern, who’s always innovating with new materials and concepts.  It is the customer because they’re asking for different things. It’s these really tiny “microbreweries” of watches that make one or two small movements but are really innovative and keeping this vision of pushing the envelope alive. It’s the press—the press has really picked up the luxury watch world in the past eight or ten years. There’s so much more interest, between vintage and new, so many more people are talking about watches.

If your brand did not exist, which watch would you wear?

Wow that’s a tough one because the watches I wear all have special meaning surrounding them. And the fact that Patek is a family-owned business, I think I’d have to find another family-owned brand. I’d have to like the look and like the movement inside, but it’s about the experience that I attach to the watch more than the watch itself. I want good quality of course, but I also want to know why did I buy the watch? Is it because my daughter was born? That’s more important to me than which brand.

What can we expect from the upcoming Patek Philippe Grand Exhibition in New York?

It’s going to be of a larger scale than anything we’ve ever done in the US before. We’re going to have 450 pieces. We’re excited to be in this position just to be having this amazing show, but they’re actually giving us more watches than they’ve ever let out of the museum. Mr. Stern has been really supportive. We want to create an experience for watch connoisseurs and make sure that they are wowed, which is not easy to do. We felt like we had to do it somewhere in the Midtown area to get maximum foot traffic but also to optimize the press.  And then Cipriani, you know, is one of the foremost New York City event spaces.

Illustration: Diana Dzhabieva