Patek Philippe is known for many things. There is its oft-quoted ‘Generations’ campaign that has run uninterrupted since 1996, about how you never actually own a Patek Philippe. (You’ve probably already completed that sentence in your head.) The brand’s icons themselves, from the Nautilus to the Calatrava, need no introduction. Technical expertise also comes to mind – among other things, the manufacture is famous for its minute repeaters.
What’s often overlooked but no less impressive is Patek Philippe’s know-how in métiers d’art. Watches showcasing artistic crafts tend to fly under the radar as they’re produced in very limited quantities, but deserve a closer look here, as they offer a glimpse into Patek Philippe’s capabilities.
The Calatrava Ref. 5089G-059 “Roped Alpinists” depicts a scene of mountain climbers ascending a slope created using wood marquetry. This is akin to producing a custom jigsaw puzzle – wood veneers are cut into specific shapes that are then assembled.
It sounds straightforward, but the simple description belies the complexity behind the technique. For a start, each piece of the “puzzle” must be perfectly cut and shaped for all of them to fit seamlessly. Overlaps will raise the surface of the final work, while spaces will expose the gold dial base, and neither is acceptable. Doing so on such a small scale is obviously a challenge. Conceptualisation demands skills too; the final work requires 262 pieces of cut veneers from 27 different species of wood, each with its own colour, texture and grain.
Remove to Create
In Ref. 992/124G “The Galleon” pocket watch, a galleon sails against a stylised backdrop of a nautical chart. This image dominates the watch’s entire case back, and was created using two seemingly disparate techniques. The first is obvious: Engraving. Here, the artisan is limited to just shallower low relief engraving, as the white gold case is only 9.15mm thick.
To accentuate the perception of depth, however, Patek Philippe also oxidised the case. Like most other examples of white gold, Ref. 992/124G’s case is finished with a thin coating of rhodium for a brilliant silver surface. Oxidising selective sections of the case back will, however, darken them and create a shading effect for the illusion of depth. This aside, the blackened surfaces also imply shadows for greater realism.
The final example here is a table clock, Ref. 20058M “Cubist Fantasy”, named after the early 20th century art movement.
The clock’s case comprises several plates that are enamelled separately using the cloisonné technique. Gold wire just 0.15mm by 0.6mm across is first used to create compartments on the surfaces of the plates, before these “cells” are filled with enamel and fired. To achieve the subtleties in contrast and shading, the enamellist used 51 transparent enamel colours in all, with each plate requiring nine firings at 840°C. This must be perfectly done, lest the cells trap dust or their enamel surfaces crack, which renders the entire piece worthless. Enamelling work extends to the dial: the indices are black enamel, while the dial’s centre is flinqué enamel consisting of translucent enamel over a guilloche base.
Métiers d’art timepieces will always be a limited offering from any brand. As Patek Philippe has shown, however, this is still an important aspect of watchmaking; beyond design and technical know-how, or research and development capabilities, there is art. It’s an integral facet to the jewel that’s watchmaking, and it’s perfectly polished at Patek Philippe.