What persuaded the craftsmen of Geneva to start making portable time pieces? Strangely enough, it was religion and the reformation – in 1541the influential theologian, Jean Calvin, implemented reforms that banned the wearing of jewels in the city. This forced the goldsmiths and other jewellers to apply their skills to a craft that was just getting started – watchmaking. By the end of the century, Genevan watches had established an excellent reputation for high quality, and 1601 the Watchmakers’ Guild of Geneva was formed – the first of its kind anywhere in the world. The rest, as they say, is history.
The Swiss industry was therefore well established when, on May 1st 1839 Antoni Patek, together with another Polish immigrant, the gifted Warsaw watchmaker Franciszek Czapek, started making pocket watches in the city.
The company’s first pocket watches were produced to individual orders. With only half a dozen workers the small business of Patek, Czapek & Co produced about two hundred watches a year. Primarily the young’s firm artistic production reflected themes from Polish history and culture, such as portraits of revolutionary heroes, 10th and 12th centuries’ legends, and the cult of the Polish The Black Madonna of Częstochowa.
Disagreements between Patek and Czapek obliged the latter to withdraw and in 1845 his place was filled by 30 year old Frenchman Adrien Philippe, who in 1842 had invented the key-less winding mechanism.
Things really started to take off in 1851 when the new company, Patek Philippe started supplying its watches to Queen Victoria and her consort, Prince Albert – this immediately attracted attention of all the major courts of Europe. Customers included Pope Pius IX, Pope Leo XIII, Christian IX and Princess Louise of Denmark , Victor Emmanuel III of Italy and Hussein Kamel, Sultan of Egypt from 1914 to 1918).
Since this surge in popularity Patek Philippe timepieces have recorded high closing prices in auctions worldwide. In 1999 one of their watches sold for $1,000,000, becoming the most expensive time piece ever produced. They beat their own record in 2008 when one of their tourbillon watches sold in Hong Kong for $1,400,000. Then in 2010 they once again topped their own record for the most expensive wristwatch in history at an auction in Geneva, achieving a staggering $5,500,000!
The company was acquired by the Stern family in the early 20th century and it was he who founded the Patek Philippe Museum in 2001. Located in an entirely restored Art Deco building in Geneva’s Plainpalais district it houses a collection that spans over four centuries of watchmaking.
Nearly 1500 wristwatches and pocket watches as well as rare musical automata and enameled portrait miniatures are exhibited in a former factory building. This is divided into two sections. The first is an extraordinary array of Genevese, Swiss and European watches and enamels dating from the 16th to the early 19th century, including a great number of masterpieces that have left their mark on the history of horology.
The second half of the collection is an evocative showcase of watches designed and created by Patek Philippe since its foundation in 1839 up to the present day, testifying to more than 160 years of creativity in the production of pocket watches and wristwatches.
So, when next in Geneva take some time out to watch the clock – lots of them!