Watchmaking seldom gets more classical than at Patek Philippe, the 180-year-old manufacture that is the epitome of luxury haute horlogerie. Currently one of the very few family-owned watch firms in the world, people look to it like an institution, a guardian of horological values and tradition. But this doesn't mean that Patek Philippe makes one-note creations only.
The truth can be no further. Its president Thierry Stern, a fourth generation member of the Stern family who's owned the brand since 1932, believes that being traditional doesn't mean just doing things the old way. As a matter of fact, Patek Philippe has always been full of surprises—we just don't realise it. Stern cites watches such as the Nautilus, the Aquanaut and even the Twenty-4 as Patek Philippe's dalliances with creativity, indeed, audacity. And the truth is, Patek Philippe is a master of surprises. Has been, and always will be.
In this interview with Esquire Singapore's Wild & Free issue, he considers the importance of family values, good partnerships, passing the torch, and delivering a decent curveball (or two).
ESQ: Patek Philippe has maintained very long relationships with many family owned retailers around the world. Would you say that you prefer to deal with family businesses as compared to groups?
Thierry Stern: You have to be open to all businesses, it all depends if I agree with the rules that we’re willing to have, how we’re going to sell the watches. But to be frank, yes I prefer to deal with family owned business, I think it’s normal as a family owned business. It’s a different type of relationship. Groups have been here since the 80s, they have been increasing, voila deal with it. Some are very good, of course they have to answer to shareholders and so they’re a little more aggressive, it’s normal. They also have some great stores and great people. But I do not like dealing with people who don’t follow our rules.
ESQ: Why is that so important?
TS: Because our customers will not accept it. They believe in Patek Philippe as passionate people running the company. So our partners also have to be passionate. We have been proving to the world that we can be very good, do very good business, keeping this type of relationship. You don’t always need to push, push, push. It’s long term. That’s maybe the biggest difference between family-owned and groups. For groups the vision is five years. For families, five years is nothing.
ESQ: So it’s right to say you value the unquantifiable like trust over the quantifiable like revenue?
TS: Totally. Trust is very important. I remember my dad was very sad when we started to use contracts. His time, business was just shaking hands and it was done. Today you have to sign contracts, and that’s a little sad, but that’s life. For us we cherish the relationship more than just making money. I do not believe in that. Money is there, money will come if you have a good product, so don’t worry about that. Worry more about the close relationships of trust. That will make the difference.
ESQ: With family businesses come legacy, and it can be a double edged sword. For Patek Philippe, legacy and patrimony is a big topic. Do you feel the burden of legacy on your shoulders?
TS: Of course. That’s also very important. I’ve been talking about this with my sons already. I said: “listen, I made my choice when I was young, so the pressure now on my shoulders, I chose to have it.” You can never be prepared for everything, it’s something you learn by growing, but I accepted it because I really wanted to do it. I told my kids, they have to choose their own destiny. If they’re willing to take over, fine, I will be here to help. But if they’re not, I’m not going to force them.
ESQ: Wouldn’t that be such a shame though?
TS: I’ve seen this, especially in Asia, where there is no choice but to take over. You cannot kill the life of your kids [sic] by giving them no choice. Then what happens? They will be unhappy and the business will not be doing as well because of this. I’d rather see my kids working as whatever as long as they enjoy it. Between my kids and Patek Philippe, it’s very easy. The kids come first definitely.
ESQ: Then what would your plans for Patek Philippe be?
TS: I can always find somebody to handle it. There are lots of fantastic people, CEOs that you can hire who will take over Patek Philippe for maybe one generation, and then we find again someone to take over. It’s not a big deal. I don’t want to see someone running Patek Philippe with a sad face because it will not work. You need passion.
ESQ: In 2015 when you launched the Calatrava Pilot’s Alarm, there were some mixed reactions. Do you think it’s harder to launch new watches nowadays?
TS: No, it’s always been the same. It was the same with Twenty-4, everybody said we were crazy. The Aquanaut was also like this, and now the Pilot. But if I do it, means I believe in it, and it will work. So when people said, “Oh I don’t know…” I know that six months later they will call me back asking for the pieces. You need to take risks, but calculated risks. I will not launch only the Pilot collection. It’s within the Calatrava line, just 20 pieces, if you like it great, if you don’t like it fine. I’m not pushing anybody.
ESQ: Do you think people have fully come around to that model now?
TS: Yes totally.
ESQ: The 5212A was also something quite different. Were you trying to get a younger audience as some people think?
TS: Not at all. If you look at this watch it could look like it’s 50 years old. And it’s not, which is why I like it. You know, the commercial team was a little bit afraid of it, they asked me if I’m sure and I said yes, let’s launch it. And it’s working. People appreciate this type of watches but it’s not all you should do. I always say we have a wide selection and this is one of them. But I’m really willing to have all the collection constantly evolving. That’s what I like to do, I’ve been taught like this since I was young. That also is quite interesting for us, and ideas, there are always plenty.