Exploring the Patek Philippe Museum

There are few names in the world of watchmaking that bear quite the same prestige as Patek Philippe. The Swiss luxury watch company, founded in 1839, stands as one of the oldest watch manufacturers in the world and has produced some of the most complex mechanical watches ever made. Patek Philippe creations have graced the wrists of the most notable figures of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries; Queen Victoria, Leo Tolstoy, Marie Curie, Queen Elizabeth II, Pablo Picasso, Nelson Mandela, and John F. Kennedy have all reportedly sported the sophisticated timepieces.

The company’s roots are humble ones. It began as Patek, Czapek & Cie, formed by a Polish watchmaker named Antoni Patek and his Czech-born Polish partner, Franciszek Czapek. The partners split in 1845, after which Czapek began his own venture; Patek, however, joined forces with French watchmaker Adrien Philippe, inventor of the keyless winding mechanism.

The company name officially became Patek, Philippe & Cie in 1851, a banner year for the company. At the Great Exhibition in London that year, Queen Victoria admired the world’s first keyless watches. She and Prince Albert each acquired one of these new watches, hers a beautiful pendant with a lapis blue enamel backing that featured a bouquet of rose-cut diamond set roses. This began a long trend of Patek Philippe timepieces being embraced by the royal family and aristocracy.

At this same exhibition, Richard Rippon Dent, stepson of renowned horologist Edward John Dent, acquired approximately thirty watches. Later that year, Tiffany of New York became the first American company to sell the luxury watches.

Now, nestled in the Plainpalais area of Geneva, Switzerland, an old art deco structure has been entirely restored and transformed into a museum that serves as a “temple to watchmaking.” The Patek Philippe Museum takes it visitors through five centuries of watchmaking history as well as the brand’s own proud 180 years of design and manufacturing.

Honorary president Philippe Stern has himself been a watch collector for forty years—of watches with rare handcrafts, watches with complicated movements, and more. When it came to the curation of the museum, he and the organization created two important collections: an antique collection dating back to the 16th century and the Patek Philippe collection, beginning in 1839.

The collection of antique pieces includes, among many beautiful curiosities, the earliest watch ever made; the Patek Philippe collection, on the other hand, features one of the most complicated timepieces ever made. The latter, called the Calibre 89, is a Patek Philippe piece created in 1989 in commemoration of the company’s 150th anniversary. It features an astounding 33 complications, 24 hands, and boasts a grand total of 1,728 components, which includes a thermometer and a star chart.

A trip to the museum is a considerable journey through the history of this important craft, one that helped to shape the modern world and impacted every conceivable form of industry. “Temple to watchmaking” indeed; here you will find pocket watches (one beautiful piece dating back to 1841 features the Coat of Arms of Count Henri Soltyk painted on enamel and engraved; another features an extraordinary Renaissance-style engraving and dates back to 1846–47); pendant watches with guilloché work, diamond paving, and champlevé enamel; decorative boxes that incorporate timepieces; dome table clocks; and mid-century wristwatches.

Founded in 2001, the museum also totes itself as a “treasure trove of inspiration for the future,” and it’s interesting to view these five centuries of analogue timekeeping, so steeped in the ornamental and decorative arts, in the context of our streamlined digital world. Will we one day approach our smart watches with a designer’s eye turned to the ornate, beautiful stylings of yesteryear? This remains to be seen. But lovers of antiques, luxury brands, and history will find a little bit of everything in the Patek Philippe Museum, a must-visit during any sojourn in Geneva. True connoisseurs will also be delighted by the presence of a library dedicated to all things horology.

The museum is open Tuesday–Saturday.

Images via Patek Philippe