A Peek into Patek Philippe's World

The Swiss watchmaker and inventor of the wristwatch shares the secrets of its award-winning methods

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The Swiss watch is many things: It's a symbol of efficiency and reliability, and a sign of status and taste. Most important, though, it's a small but extremely complicated machine.

The most complex watch ever made was the Patek Philippe Calibre 89, a three-pound, two-sided gold pocket watch built in 1989 to commemorate the company's 150th anniversary. It contained 1,728 moving parts and offered 33 "complications," or functions that go beyond standard time keeping.


  All told, the Calibre 89 could keep time in two time zones plus keep track of the day of the week, the month, year, leap-year status, phases of the moon, movement of the stars, time of sunrise, and the date of Easter, to name just a few. Only four Calibre 89s were made, and they are now worth roughly $6 million each.

Though an impressive demonstration in watchmaking excellence, the Calibre 89 is probably more than anyone would ever need in a portable timepiece. But even though the average Swiss watch has significantly fewer complications, it's still quite a complicated thing to make.

Patek Philippe should know: It has been making wristwatches longer than anyone else. In 1868, the Geneva (Switzerland)-based company invented the wristwatch, which was originally sold exclusively as a feminine accessory. Although the complexity of its hand-made products remains a continued source of pride, Patek Philippe has also harnessed machines and other innovations over the years to streamline the production process.


  Traditionally, watch manufacturers grouped machines and workshops by type of operation. As a result, raw materials often would shuttle back and forth between separate workshops as they made their way through the production stages. Patek Philippe has streamlined this procedure by organizing its workshops by component, so raw materials come in and don't go out until they are a finished product, ready to be put inside a watch.

Though skilled artisans comprise the bulk of watchmaking, the process starts with specialized machines. The first step is a hydra-like device that cuts basic parts out of metal, in a process known as décolletage. (In watchmaking parlance, that means "bar-turning," not to be confused with low necklines in dresses.) The rough components, called "blanks," are then finished by hand. Artisans trim, drill, and even decorate the blanks, refining them into wheels, pinions, plates, arbors, and barrel drums.

Some parts are decorated with circular graining. Others are embellished with so-called Côtes de Genève, or Geneva stripes, which watchmakers apply with a wooden grinding wheel. Both of these processes serve no functional or even cosmetic purpose; they merely increase the aesthetic value of an internal component that most customers will never see. But such seemingly pointless flourishes are required to achieve the Geneva Seal, the highest horological distinction, which was first established in 1886. Patek Philippe is the only watchmaker to be awarded the Geneva Seal for its entire line of production.


  Once all the parts have been made, the rest of the assembly process is entirely manual. The two most basic elements of a watch interior are the base plate and bars, which serve as the foundation for the watch's movements. Depending on the complexity of the watch, the watchmaker affixes four to eight bars onto the surface of the base plate. Each bar supports one major watch movement, serving as a pivot point for the spinning wheels that turn the second, minute, and hour hands.

Simultaneously, a different workshop produces the exterior of the watch. Although the watch's inner workings are the main focus of Patek's Geneva workshops, the watch frames showcase the precision of their product's engineering, so the task of the artisan who crafts them is equally precise. With an antique hand-guided diamond-cutting tool, he or she engraves intricate patterns of crossing or interlaced lines onto the watch's exterior, creating a simple, yet graceful design. (For a look at an even more complicated watch exterior, see BusinessWeek.com, 7/26/06, "Cartier: The Making of a Timeless Timepiece.")

At this point, the fruits of each workshop's labor come together and the watchmakers assemble all the elements, leaving off only the face. This creates what they call a "skeleton watch," one which allows the workers to set the timepiece in motion and look right through it to see that everything is running smoothly.

Satisfied that the new watch is up to Swiss standards, the workers at Patek add the dial, package the watch in a box, and send it off to the world as the latest ambassador of Swiss watchmaking quality.

To see how a Patek Philippe watch is made, click here for the slide show.

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