Interview: Patek Philippe President Thierry Stern

Watch Journal caught up with Patek Philippe President Thierry Stern at the brand’s Art of Watches Grand Exhibition in New York City. Read on to discover what keeps the brand head as excited about the future of watchmaking as he has ever been.

Interview by Jonathan Bues

Out of all these watches at the exhibition—over 450 total—do you have a favorite?

It’s always difficult you know, it’s like asking which one is your favorite kid. They all have beautiful history. And I’m not only talking about the museum pieces—even the new ones,—it’s always a pleasure and you have to select one. To be frank, I would say the new World Time Minute Repeater, because I was so happy to be able to launch it here for this exhibition. It’s quite unique, because normally I keep it for the Basel fair. But for the States, I really wanted to do something very nice. And the fact that I could manage to get it for this event, with these beautiful dials, I think it’s really a nice piece. The sound is nice, the design is cool, too.

When did you have the idea to make a watch like that, because it’s really… I mean, I know it’s five years in development, was it five years from initial idea to do it?

It was a bit less for I would say one reason—we had the complication for the time zone already, and for the minute repeater also. So we had to put them together—that was of course very difficult, but we didn’t start from scratch, so I would say altogether it took us three years to build the mix between those two complications.

The Patek Philippe Ref. 5531R.

How important was the American collector to Patek historically, and how important will it be in years to come?

Well, it was always very important, you know. We started a business in 1850, ’51, and since then we have been really…the story was always ongoing. And I have seen the most beautiful pieces in the States. Myself, as you know, I was also trained here at our agency. My father also, my grandfather also. So I would say it’s very important not only for the business, but also from the family point of view. It’s, I would say, a stage of your life where you have to do it. In the Stern family, if you’re willing to take over Patek Philippe, you have to work in the States. And that means we do something for me. And so it’s not only something about business—it’s important for Patek, but it’s also personally. It’s something that is quite important. And yeah, as I said, it’s nice to go in the steps of my dad and my grandfather to fight in New York, because for a little Swiss guy like me, it’s not that easy. And the market itself, it’s a huge market. We have about a hundred retailers here. It’s the biggest market we have. So it’s very important to do something exceptional here. I mean for me, it’s one of the keys to the success of Patek.

This exhibition has been rumored to have a very large price tag—some have said eight figures—is there any truth to that?

A bit less, to be frank. But it’s not even … for me, of course it’s important, you have to control the budget when you do something like that. But the key was to make something at the level of what our customer expected of us. Yes, you have a lot of people involved, you have to spend a lot of money for the decoration, for the renting, but it’s nothing compared to the whole years I would say we have been building Patek Philippe in the States. You know, what you do here with an expensive budget, it has to be long term. So when you calculate that, you have to see not only for the next two years, you have to see it for the next ten years. So when you look at it this way, it’s not that expensive, no. And you know, when you’re Patek Philippe, I guess you have to do it right. As simple as that. It’s not my fault‚—you’re expensive in the States.

The Patek Philippe Ref. 5531R.

So among the exhibition pieces that we’ve seen, you have a steel Pilot Calatrava, is this a watch that was always in the works, even when you released the first one?

Nope. At the time, I decided to do it in white gold, with the time zone, and that was it. And when I started to think about this exhibition, I really wanted to do something exceptional, but also affordable. When I say affordable, we all agree that it’s still expensive. But I mean, if you look at the Patek Philippe brand, I really wanted to have something that the passionate people who like to have a Patek Philippe but who are not able to pay a big amount for a minute repeater, would have the chance also to have something nice. And that’s where my idea came for the pilot watch. I said well you know, people enjoy it, I knew they enjoyed the Aquanaut, and I decided to do it because I wanted to have a watch that was easy to wear, affordable, and also in quantity. Because you know, you don’t only want to have five pieces for the whole United States. So this was the main idea for this one. But I really… I created this idea not even a year ago.

Now, I’ve heard that these pieces will be allocated in a very strict way so that they’re only for collectors of American citizenship. Why is this important?

Not for collectors, it will only be for the American market. But not only for the collectors. It has to be a split that is fair for everybody. So the task for our own agency here in New York would be first to dispatch to all the retailers. And then the retailers will have the task to allocate them. But I really hope that they will also allocate those pieces to somebody who is not a very big collector. It has to be also for someone who as I just said, who is young, who is going to start with Patek Philippe; we should also give him the chance to wear such a piece.

The Patek Philippe Ref. 5522A.

That brings me to my next question, which is: Why is it so important for this exhibition to be open to the public? To people who might just see the ad in Grand Central and walk in, who perhaps can’t even afford to buy a Patek Philippe?

Well for two reasons, the first one is  more just for myself, is to say I’m happy to share it. And the second one is that we also have to educate people. That’s our duty. And I grew up in this business with the will of sharing this passion with a lot of people. Doesn’t matter if you cannot afford a Patek Philippe—I think it’s nice to educate people just that you can really understand the hard work that goes behind it. People enjoy that, you know, and in today in this world where we only have electronic stuff, I think it’s pretty nice to share that with people. So you never know, somebody who cannot afford it today, maybe in two years he will have a fantastic business, and one day will say well, I have the money, I remember it was a Patek Philippe exhibition, I enjoyed it, and I would like now to have one of those watches. So this is very important. That’s why I’m willing to open it to everybody.

Patek Philippe is one of only two remaining independent family-owned watchmakers. Are you guiding your children toward a career at Patek?

No, not really. You should not push your children too early, you know. I’m guiding them with my wife to be well-educated, that they’re finishing school, and then they will have to make their own choices. I never thought about making children just to take over Patek Philippe. Never. They will have to make their own choices, as I did myself. And if they’re willing to do something else, fine. I’m just hoping that they will do it correctly and in the best way that they could. My task is only to give them a good education. After that, they will have to make their own choices. Because if you’re willing to run Patek Philippe, you have to do it with passion, and not by obligation.

Caseback of the Patek Philippe Ref. 5522A.

What are you doing to attract the next generation of watch collectors?

Well, you have to do it by events like this. I think that’s very important, then you also have to propose a product that they like. So that’s why you have a very wide collection of very different kinds of watches of Patek. And that’s very important, you have to listen to the retailers who will give you advice, you have to listen to your own customer when you have an event, and that’s a difficult task for me always to create a piece that will seduce not only the American market, or not only the Swiss market, it has to be for the whole world. This is maybe the biggest task that you have to do. And for the younger generation, well, you’re maybe going to create an Aquanaut? That’s a thing that they will love. The Nautilus also for example, and then the communication is also important, you have to work with different media, different ways, and I think that’s the only way to try to get those people. They don’t want to see you wearing Patek Philippe and say oh, it’s only for my grandfather. And that’s why I like to create sometimes pieces like the pilot watch, or something like that.

What do you think is the biggest challenge right now facing the watch industry?

For me, I would say, two challenges: first one is to stay independent, so that means that I have to be profitable, I have to create a good product, but that’s something we know how to do, and maybe the second one is I have to work with retailers, and the danger today is that there are a lot of big groups buying a lot of retailers. So you have really to be able to work with all of them. You don’t want to depend on one group that has eighty percent of all the retailers—this could be a danger. So those are the two risks. But they are not that big, you know, if you know what you are doing, if you are very careful, and if you have good vision, it should be fine.

Thierry Stern

Increasingly we’re seeing more and more brands, especially the ones that are owned by the big groups, selling their watches online. Will there ever be a day when you can buy a Patek Philippe online do you think?

No, because for me I think the internet is very important to educate people. But when it comes to buy, are you really willing to buy everything when you’re on your sofa with your computer? It’s all a bit sad at one point. When you buy a Patek Philippe, it has to be something with pleasure. I expect you to come, to have a good time, to have a coffee, try different watches, and this is really the key because it’s important to understand what you’re going to buy. On the internet, it’s not the same. You will see a picture, but are you really willing just to buy a piece without trying it? I do not believe it, you know. And as I said, it has to be a good moment. Otherwise, we are all going to stay at home, and I think it’s all a bit sad, you know.

I just have one more question. Can you show me which watch you’re wearing and tell me a little about it?

Well this is for me a very nice watch, because it’s a combination between the knowledge of the past, and the aesthetic of the younger generation, if I may say so. When I say that it’s because it’s a great dial, it’s a very aggressive case in one sense, and this piece is a minute repeater, it’s a perpetual calendar, and a chronograph. It’s the second most complicated piece that we have in the collection, we have about 800—to be precise, 801 parts inside. It’s a very difficult piece to realize, you need to be very talented, it’s a platinum case, and that’s even more difficult because platinum minute repeaters are very complicated. We are talking about a material with thirty percent more density [than gold]. So we have to imagine how the sound is going to get out. And this is all the skill and the knowledge that we have. And we can do a beautiful sound with a minute repeater even in platinum, and that’s why I’m wearing it.

And to be frank, it’s not mine, it’s a test watch. It’s a long test, let’s say it that way, because I have a hard time giving it back, but it’s also important for me to try these pieces, and see if they’re really strong. Because we have a lot of tests at Patek Philippe. Do not believe that Patek Philippe is a fragile watch. Not at all. With all the tests we do, I mean those watches are meant to be worn. But I really wanted to try it myself because I’m very rough, I have no fear to try it, because you have to understand we are talking about a watch with nearly a million-dollar price. So a lot of people have to test them. And when I saw one day a watchmaker wearing it as a test, and he was just doing a little work, and he took off the watch, and I said what are you doing? Oh, I don’t want to hurt the watch. I said, it is a test watch, so if you are doing that, it’s not going to work. And that’s where I said okay, I’m going to put it on myself, and I’m going to test it myself. And I’m smashing it, and I’m doing everything with it, just to be sure that yes, this watch is strong, and it is. Believe me.

The Patek Philippe Ref 5208 Grand Complication on the wrist of Thierry Stern.