In the world of luxury watches, Patek Philippe looms large. Widely considered to be the masters of complicated and ultra-complicated movements, Patek Philippe has dominated the luxury watchmaking industry since its inception in 1839. The Swiss manufacture is the benchmark not only of design, but of service.
On the occasion of the opening of Patek Philippe’s new office in the Rockefeller Center in New York City, Haute Time publisher Seth Semilof had the chance to sit down with Thierry Stern to discuss the famous brand. Stern, the President of Patek Philippe, told us how they are bringing Geneva-level quality stateside, and the brand’s plans for the future.
Haute Time: Patek Philippe has a history with the Rockefeller Center – this is where your grandfather set up the brand’s first US distribution center many years ago, you’ve had an office here for years, and now this new headquarters. Why is this?
Thierry Stern: We started here in 1936, and I grew up hearing the stories in Geneva. My grandfather liked to tell this story, as did my father – in fact he met my mother here in New York. My grandfather stayed twenty-one years, despite how it was planned when he left Geneva. He intended to leave for just a few months, but came back twenty-one years later; my father left just for practice and came back with a wife. In New York you hear people say anything is possible – for Patek Philippe, it was the same. When we decided it was time to open an office, it was in this building, so it’s nice that today Patek Philippe is coming back. The idea was always to stay in the center of the city, not only because it’s historical, but because it’s fantastic for the client.
HT: But when you think of a having a suit made, you want a tailor from Italy. For watches, it feels natural to want a watchmaker trained in Geneva. Who are the watchmakers here, and what can you tell us about their training?
TS: Our watchmakers are all trained in Geneva, so the training a watchmaker in America or Asia receives is exactly the same as a watchmaker in Geneva. We have a specific school where we train them in Geneva. Then we leave them to work a few years before we invite them back for a second training, for another level. At Patek Philippe, we believe that it takes time to become a master – it is not because you are really good and able to learn very quickly that I will send you every year to Geneva to upgrade you all the time. You need not only to learn but also to have experience. To me, that is the best way to do it. It’s a matter of being patient, and accepting that it takes time. Not all of them will become minute repeater watchmakers, we know that. But we don’t only need that type of watchmaker. Our office at the Rockefeller Center has different facilities, to do different jobs. We have watchmakers who can fix watch movements, and we know that’s what they will do – they are not pretending to go higher. Whereas others here can build and repair a calendar, a chrono.
HT: So will they be able to repair all types of watches here in New York?
TS: Not minute repeaters – those I always ask to bring back to Switzerland, because we have different toolings and I like to check them myself. I personally like to take a look at all the minute repeaters to make sure the problem is fixed, and that our customer gets the best service.
HT: Patek Philippe is renowned for its client service. Is that the reason for the new headquarters here?
TS: Yes, I feel the office should always be open to the customer. It’s important for a brand like Patek Philippe that any customer can come, ask questions, and get answers. It’s not only about ‘Here’s my watch, bye bye! I’ll be back in three months!’ For us it’s more than that. It’s ‘Here’s my watch – what are you going to do with it? Who are the people who are going to fix it?’ In the lobby here we even have a video player showcasing the watchmakers at work fixing watches. And with this new office we will really be able to show people and explain what we do with their watches.
HT: Normally when you have a problem with a watch, you bring it back to the store, they send it to Switzerland, and it comes back to you a few months later. With Patek Philippe, the new headquarters will be able to fix watches directly here in the US. What is the reason for this initiative?
TS: The main concern all over the world is; where are you going to repair the watch? Most people ask for it to be repaired in Geneva, because they are scared about the level of know-how, the level of tooling, and the level of service at distributors outside Switzerland. I believe we have to show them that if you’re coming to New York, the level is exactly the same as in Geneva. Today, with our new office, our customers will be reassured of that.
HT: The Rockefeller Center is one of the most prestigious addresses in NYC. Was that part of the reason for the brand’s return, to connect Patek Philippe with one of the most highend addresses in the United States?
TS: For me the Rockefeller Center is not necessarily luxury, it is more convenience. People know the place, and it’s easy to get here. That is what’s so important with the office. In my eyes, the target is not to say we are a very luxurious place. For sure, it is very good, and I’m happy about it, but that was not the target. It’s about having the right location, the right type of service, and to maintain a space for the watchmakers. The address – I see it as a tradition in my family, but not as luxury. I don’t like the term ‘luxury’ anymore. I switch on the TV and everything is “luxury, luxury, luxury”. For Patek Philippe, it’s more about service – luxury is, for me, service. I strongly believe that a brand like us – when we say that we can repair and restore every one of our watches, we need to be able to show people it is the truth, and show that we have the facilities that allow us to do it.
HT: Does Patek Philippe have those same facilities and capabilities in countries around the world?
TS: Yes. Most of them are the same, but for sure, New York is the biggest one we have. The States are very important to Patek Philippe – remember, we have been working in this market since the 1850s. This is one of our largest markets for collectors in the world. But the idea is similar everywhere in the world. We want to meet the client, and to educate the client about what we are going to do with their watches. Otherwise it is very confusing for the client to wait – they want their watches to be fixed like a car, in a week. The best way to educate the customer is to be able to meet them, show them there is a lot that goes into fixing watches, and that is why it takes time.
HT: Your top authorized dealers come to New York to train with watchmakers. What led to this practice?
TS: It’s the client that pushed us to want to do this. Today, when a client goes to buy a Patek Philippe, they know everything about the reference; they’ve been on the internet, looked at the magazines. Before they come in, they know exactly what kind of movement it is, what kind of shape. So the salespeople need to be able to give the customer answers to very specific questions and information they can’t read online or find in the magazines. Imagine the customer happens to be an engineer – they will ask about the shape of every spring, the materials. That’s not easy to explain, so to have credibility, to be able to sell to those people, you need to be trained. Because customers do not hesitate to pick up the phone and call all over the country – the world even – just to ask if you have a certain reference and see if you are knowledgeable enough for them to come buy it.
It’s not just about getting the watch, it’s about having the chance to speak with somebody who understands the value of the brand and the passion of the customer. This is key in high-end watches, and most important today you need to be able to explain the difference between a Patek Philippe and a Vacheron, or tell the difference between a Rolex and a Piaget. The clients want to know; Why they should pay this amount for a Patek Philippe? What is the difference between our models compared to the other brands? It’s an advantage to train our dealers, so they can explain why one watch is better and why another watch is weaker. If the other brands are not training their dealers, then they will not be able to sell their brand over a Patek Philippe.
HT: Can you tell us what is next for Patek Philippe in the United States?
TS : In terms of product, you will have to wait for Basel, for sure! For us, the biggest challenge will be how Larry Pettinelli, the President of Patek Philippe USA , and his team will take advantage of such a great space. We have a fantastic place [at the Rockefeller Center], it’s great – but that’s the easy part. If you have the money to invest, that’s the easy part. Now, what are you going to do with it? It’s like having a great car, but do you know how to drive it? Now we will see.
Larry Pettinelli, the President of Patek Philippe USA, gives Haute Time an exclusive look at the new office.
Haute Time: How many watchmakers do you have in this location?
Larry Pettinelli: Currently, we have around 18-20, but the facility has room for about 44. Our goal is not to fill it anytime soon; rather, over time we will have more customers, and the need will increase. Right now we have room to double our team in the Rockefeller Center.
HT: This is a state of the art facility. Can you share any interesting facts about it with our readers?
LP: Since this is a laboratory, we had to go as far as taking out the air conditioning and heating from the building so we could install our own HVAC services. Our system has double the filtration and takes 90% of dust particles out of the air.
HT: There are video cameras throughout. Why is that?
LP: Most customers don’t know what happens when they turn in their watch. We have live cameras throughout the facility so that we can show by video what is going on behind closed doors. For example, we can film a watchmaker playing with the inside of a watch. That video then goes through to our reception area, so we can create a learning environment for the customer.
HT: Can you tell us more about the training the top Patek Philippe retail partners receive?
LP: First they go through an online course, which takes around 28 hours. The second part of the course is to bring them to New York for two days, to train with the watchmakers. The final step is that we bring sixteen people per year on a trip to Geneva, to be trained with our team there.