It is an industry that dates back to the very first sundial, created in 1500 BC as a means of measuring time.
For centuries, man has strived to refine this science, through the invention of clocks that would be made smaller and smaller until they could finally be worn on one’s wrist.
Over time, inventors and designers have contributed to what the watchmaking industry is today, but few can lay claim to being top players that have outlived and outlasted many of their contemporaries, continuously innovating and inventing fascinating creations to tell the time.
Patek Philippe is a company with a 179-year history, and is the last family-owned Genevan luxury watch manufacturer.
Founded in 1839 by Antoni Norbert Patek, Francois Czape and Thomas Moreau, later Patek sought out a new partner, Jean Adrien Philippe, naming the company “Patek, Philippe & Cie”.
Many firsts were to come out of the manufacture, including the first grand complication ladies’ wristwatch in 1916, a dainty platinum watch with a five-minute repeater. Then came the brand’s first chronograph for the wrist in 1923, a split-seconds chronograph based on a small pocket watch movement (No. 124 824) and in 1925 with model 97 975, its first wristwatch with a perpetual calendar.
Following “Black Tuesday”, the start of the global economic crises in 1929, Patek, Philippe & Cie contacted brothers Charles and Jean Stern whose company, “Cadrans Stern Frères”, produced top-echelon dials and ranked among Patek Philippe’s preferred suppliers.
The Stern brothers were so solvent that they not only helped Patek Philippe out but in 1932 also took a stake in the company and wholly acquired it within a year – in 1934, Charles Stern was appointed chairman of the board of directors and for the first time, a single family now owned Patek Philippe.
Nearly 100 years later, the Sterns remain at the helm of the company, establishing over four generations several milestones which extended beyond producing magnificent timepieces – the family philosophy “from one generation to the next” and memorable slogan: “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation” continues to warm hearts to this day.
In 2001, Philippe Stern inaugurated the Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva’s Plainpalais district, a location with an inventory of over 2000 timepieces, automata, and enamel miniatures as well as a library with more than 8000 works dedicated to the measurement of time.
In 2013 the manufacture’s most complicated wristwatch, an intricate ensemble of 686 individual parts, was relaunched as the Ref. 6002 in a “Rare Handcrafts” case of equal complexity with relief engravings as well as cloisonné and champlevé enamel on the dial.
Certainly, Patek Philippe has stood the test of time, maintaining its place as one of the most respected watchmakers, which continues its successes to this day through the leadership of its fourth generation president, Thierry Stern.
Marvels of the watchmaking world
In a time when watchmaking began becoming more industrialised, two young watchmakers, Jules Louis Audemars and Edward Auguste Piguet decided to come together to preserve the tradition of watchmaking.
It was 1875 when the duo joined forces, and just a few years after the Audemars Piguet Manufacture was founded, in 1882, they presented a Grande Complication pocket-watch. A decade later, they made history with the first minute repeater on a wristwatch, paving the way for Audemars Piguet to combine the quest for ever thinner and ever smaller technology with the already high complexity of its chiming mechanisms.
Subsequent milestones include the launch of the smallest minute repeater movement ever produced in 1921, with a diameter of 15.80 mm, followed by the thinnest pocket-watch ever crafted, a mere 1.32 mm, before going on to set a new record for extra-thin technology in 1938, with the extra-thin calibre for a wristwatch, measuring only 1.64 mm thick.
The quest for creating the thinnest came to a pinnacle this year when Audemars Piguet introduced the Royal Oak RD#2, the world’s thinnest Selfwinding Perpetual calendar at just 6.3mm thick.
Though each decade posed a unique challenges, especially the dismal economic situation of the 1930s, Audemars Piguet soldiered on, notably with their work with openworking, which remains a signature craft to the brand to this day.
Up to the present time, Audemars Piguet continues to preserve the ancient savoir-faire that has been handed down across the generations to create exceptional timepieces.
Another brand with an illustrious history, Jaeger-LeCoultre was founded in 1833, on the borders of the Swiss Jura by Antoine LeCoultre, who invented the Millionometre in 1844, the first instrument capable of measuring the micron to refine the manufacture of watch parts.
in 1903, Antoine’s grandson, Jacques-David LeCoultre, took up the challenge of developing ultra-thin watches, a challenge set for Swiss watchmakers by Parisian watchmaker Edmond Jaeger.
The Atmos pendulum was invented in 1928 by Jean-Léon Reutter and developed by the LeCoultre & Cie Manufacture, and in 1929, the Duoplan movement was miniaturised to create the Caliber 101 – a smaller, manually wound caliber whose 98 components barely weigh one gram.
Following this were many successes, notably in 2013 when the technical feat which is the Master Grand Traditional Gyrotourbillon 3 Jubilee, a bridgeless version of the Gyrotourbillon whose chronograph has an instant digital counter was introduced. This year the Grand Maison launched the Jaeger-LeCoultre Polaris collection, inspired by the iconic Memovox Polaris watch from 1968.
One hundred and eighty different expert skills are brought together under one roof at Jaeger-LeCoultre, with every different stage required for the creation of a timepiece being conducted within the Grande Maison.
Another notable brand, Montblanc, began its watchmaking tradition 160 years ago, when in 1858 Charles-Yvan Robert founded a watch workshop in the Saint-Imier valley.
From as early as the 1880s, the manufacturer had already gained ecognition for its precise time measuring timekeepers – in 1909, they started to develop chronographs and received accolades for its precise chronometry, becoming a leading specialist in the fabrication of professional watches and stopwatches, producing movements equipped with chronograph functions, such as the iconic calibre 19.09, featuring the patented V-Chrono shaped bridge.
The Montblanc timepieces of today continue the journey of 160 years of Minerva legacy, focusing on three unique fine watchmaking explorations – the Spirit of Mountain Exploration based on the saga of military watches (Montblanc 1858), the Spirit of Classical Fine Watchmaking based on classical pocket and wristwatches (Montblanc Star Legacy Collection) and the Spirit of Racing based on the unique exploration of timekeepers and stopwatches (Montblanc TimeWalker Collection) – that all link the past and the present through design, style and technical innovation.
While its history in watchmaking may be a bit shorter than others, through the years Bvlgari has proven they have the staying power to outlast their competitors.
It is a brand best known for its exquisite jewellery, which were popular among clientele like Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn and Princess Grace of Monaco. Bvlgari’s history goes back to 1844, but it was 1918 when they created what is believed to be its first jewellery watch.
Those very first watches, mostly made in the 1920s were produced in large numbers in the Art Deco style, focusing on precious settings.
These works of art were to be followed by what is now the brand’s most iconic women’s watch, the Serpenti.
Introduced in the 1940s, it was during this time that the brand revealed a jewellery making technique that has solidified this watch (and others’) identity – the Tubogas goldsmith technique.
Watchmakers making history
When the topic of luxury watches comes up, the brands that fall under the “holy trinity” of watches are usually part of the conversation – those that have earned the honour of being in this very exclusive group are Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin.
Founded in 1755 in Geneva by independent watchmaker Jean-Marc Vacheron, the company is credited for creating the first complication in 1770, and nine years later he designed the first engine-turned dials.
The company has produced some of the most expensive wristwatches in the world.
Said to be the oldest registered watchmaking brand in the world, Blancpain opened its workshop in 1735, on the upper floor of founder Jehan-Jaques Blancpain’s house in Villeret, Switzerland.
Notable pieces to come out of the workshops that followed include the Fifty Fathoms diving watch, first launched in 1953, produced at the request of the French navy. While the brand went through periods of inactivity, it was revived in 1983.
Breguet was founded in 1775, and is credited with having invented pieces owned by Marie Antoinette and Napolean Bonaparte.
Today, it is privately owned by the Brown Family, and continues to produce watches.
The “test of time” is a true meaning of how great a brand is. The heritage and staying power of these brands are an inspiration to all.