Patek Philippe Touring an intense Manufacture.

— Behind the gold and diamonds, the frenzied desires of aficionados and its formidable reputation, Patek Philippe is an organisation dedicated to incredible high-quality watch production.

Patek Philippe Manufacture in Plan-les-Ouates (Geneva, Switzerland)

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Viewed from the outside, things look pretty straightforward. Between its sky-high auction value, its concern for quality, its mastery of horological complications and its considerable independence, Patek Philippe is quite simply the most prestigious watch brand of them all. Fair enough, one might well debate the truth and particularly the scope of this statement, since grandeur may reveal itself in a number of different ways within the watch industry. But to cut to the chase, let’s say it’s one of the top three most prestigious brands. This view is steadily becoming firmly established in people’s minds as an obvious fact, at the risk of making them somewhat blasé… Until the day one actually sets foot in the Manufacture located in Plan-les-Ouates on the outskirts of Geneva. Anyone seriously interested in watchmaking is naturally keen to take a closer look at the production facilities of the major brands that open their doors to visitors. And one might even be tempted to think that one such factory tour is very much like another. While it is true that the processes, the sequences of events and the general pattern of such visits are similar, everything in fact lies in the details and the ways of doing things are definitely never identical. That is why discovering Patek Philippe’s production is a unique experience that proves to be a genuinely head-turning, eye-popping treat.

Patek Philippe sertissage

Patek Philippe performs the gemsetting operations on its watch cases in-house, whatever their scope and complexity. © David Chokron /WorldTempus

It is simply impossible to describe this tour in detail. The profusion of objects and operations prevents any coherent narrative summary, so we will have to stick to a conceptual summary. Patek Philippe has attained a degree of production autonomy that is virtually unique; a level of development quality that places it in a league of its own; and meticulous craftsmanship that while perhaps not unequalled definitely stands out by its sheer breadth and depth. No other brand produces such a variety and quantity of Grande Complication watches; no other brand at this level of prestige has so many tools and machines. Patek Phillippe blanks, cuts, burnishes and polishes its wheels, pinions, plates, bridges, springs, levers… and even its screws! Is independence an end in itself? Only if it serves to guarantee execution on a par with its demanding standards that would otherwise be unattainable.

Patek Philippe polissage

Last in a long series of polishes applied to a Nautilus bracelet © David Chokron /WorldTempus


In response to my astonished reaction to his explanations, my guide kept saying: “sure, obviously”. To which I repeatedly replied: “there’s definitely nothing obvious about it”. What he considered as standard practice in fact denoted exceptional concern for details and complexity. Among a number of examples, Patek Philippe uses only a single spark erosion machine, serving to cut out parts that are too thin to be machined by a milling-cutter that cuts into the material. In a comparably sized factory, especially one producing so many Grande Complication models, one would expect to find around five of them. Patek Philippe has in fact taken the quality of its machining to such a high level that it can produce even the most detailed parts using tools that others would consider too unwieldy. The same goes for profile turning: Patek Philippe uses exclusively computer numerically controlled profile-turning machines. The size of its series, meaning the maximum number of identical parts, is so small that standard cam-type profile-turning machines (which are heavy, reliable, stable and widely appreciated) are simply not suitable – offering eloquent proof that the diversity of its production attains heights rarely seen elsewhere.

Patek Philippe ressort

This tiny spring has been machined and not cut using spark-erosion technology: a true technical feat. © David Chokron /WorldTempus

However, even more distinctly than the manufacturing and assembly operations relating to the movement, cases are the true gems in Patek Philippe’s production crown. And this is not due to the army of polishers, although they naturally play an important role. Nor is it because of the number of operations involved in shaping the cases, creating all manner of barely noticeable design elements. Once again, the core of the matter lies in the uncompromisingly rigorous approach implemented across the board. Which other brand can claim to such a large and fully occupied gemsetting workshop? Or to such a variety of precious dial-making methods ranging from grand feu enamelling to miniature enamelling along with guilloché motifs and pantographic reproduction? The brand applies the full force of its considerable expertise and resources to all stages in production. Witness the technical department that comprises no less than 110 people, including those involved in prototyping. New models are developed in six years, compared with the industry norm of around three. Talk about perfectionists!

Patek Philippe boitiers Nautilus

A Nautilus case displays two sections: one side is finely finished, while the other appears in its rough stamped state. © David Chokron /WorldTempus

Grâce à cette machine, Patek polit la denture de ses roues, une opération sous-traitée quasi-systématiquement.

Thanks to this machine, Patek Philippe is able to polishing the teeth of its wheels, an peration almost systematically outsourced by other watch manufacturers. © David Chokron /WorldTempus