From Joe DiMaggio to Albert Einstein, Princess Diana to Victoria Beckham, watchmaker Patek Philippe has long been a celebrity favorite. But the Swiss brand’s reputation has taken an unexpected turn in recent years.
“Since Patek Phillipe has always has been one of the most prestigious watch brands, it stood to reason that it would be the one that everyone was talking about,” he said via video call.
“Hip-hop has a long and storied history of shouting out brands that artists like, going back to ‘My Adidas’ by Run-DMC, and it just so happened that watches caught fire.
Rapper Future sports a Patek Philippe watch at the UNCF Mayor’s Masked Ball in 2016. Credit: Paras Griffin/WireImage/Getty Images
“Rappers are smart,” he added. “They know what status means and they know what exclusivity means. You might expect rappers to talk about Richard Mille, because that’s a young, flashy, ‘new money’ watch brand — and rappers love that one too — but I love that they love the old-money watch brands.
“By positioning themselves as Patek customers, rappers are positioning themselves in the lineage of elites going all the way back to the 19th century. That’s power.”
The brand’s place in pop culture is a far cry from its 1990s “Generations” ads, which featured predominantly White parents and their children bonding over treasured horological heirlooms. The memorable campaign helped establish the famous catchphrase, “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.”
As a brand that promotes history and heritage as markers of quality, becoming a status symbol for the Instagram generation might have sat uncomfortably with the 182-year-old company. But, Marino said, the watchmaker has not visibly repositioned its brand — nor need it worry about becoming too popular: “In a lot of ways, the young audience — the hip-hop audience — has found Patek maybe rather than the other way around.
“This brand has been a symbol of luxury since 1839, so I don’t think there’s any danger of them being seen as a flash in the pan,” he said, adding: “Twenty-seventeen was a lifetime ago in hip-hop, and people are still talking about these watches.”
A watch from the Nautilus range, which contains some of Patek Philippe’s most sought after models, on display at 2019 Baselworld luxury watch and jewelry fair in Basel, Switzerland. Credit: Stefan Wermuth/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Indeed, according to Sharon Chan, director of watches at Bonhams auction house in Hong Kong, Patek Philippe’s place in the zeitgeist is “a very positive sign” for its future.
“Five to eight years ago, Patek Philippe watches were mostly bought by older clients,” she said over the phone. “But recently, it’s all the younger generation — the second or third generation (down) from the first collector clients we had.
“Their collecting style and the types (of watches they’re interested in) are quite different. In the past, experienced collectors looked for the most complicated versions of products. Nowadays, they tend to go for simpler functions — something simple-looking or made from different materials. Whereas in the past 80% of our Patek Philippe watches we sold were (made from) precious metals, now, most customers are requesting the stainless-steel ones.”
“Rarely, do (the watches) really just go down to the next generation,” she added. “But it is a brand that connects the generations together.”
More money, fewer complications
A Patek Philippe watch formerly owned by Andy Warhol on display at a Christie’s auction house in June 2021. Credit: Cindy Ord/Getty Images
An undated photograph offers a glimpse into Patek Philippe’s factory in Geneva. Credit: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
But its most exclusive range has proven to be one of its least complicated: the Nautilus.
Designed to resemble a ship’s porthole, Nautilus watches cost upwards of $30,000 each, with prices on the secondary market often significantly higher. Following popular ranges like 1932’s Calatrava, the collection launched in 1976 and has been worn not only by royalty and rappers, but business moguls, athletes and Hollywood stars.
Then, last year, the company offered an unexpected response to the demand: it discontinued the 5711.
In the aforementioned Times article, company president Thierry Stern, whose family has run the watchmakers since 1932, suggested that Patek Philippe did not want to be seen as a one-model brand. “We make about 140 different models at Patek Philippe, and the basic Ref. 5711 in steel is just one of them,” he was quoted as saying. “We have many other models that are more complicated and arguably more beautiful.”
Aura of exclusivity
Waiting lists and soaring resale prices clearly bolster the brand’s aura of exclusivity. But the scarcity may be a genuine matter of supply and demand. While Rolex is thought to produce in the region of a million timepieces a year, Patek Philippe’s annual output may be as little as 50,000, Chan said.
Actor Kevin Hart, seen wearing a Patek Philippe Celestial watch at the German premiere of “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” in 2017. Credit: Brian Dowling/WireImage/Getty Images
“Everyone thinks (waiting lists are) a marketing strategy, but because the demand has increased in such short time, they really cannot meet it. Over the past two years, my watch circles are seeing 10 times the normal requests for the Nautilus or the Aquanaut,” she said, referring to another popular range launched in 1997.
“That’s just my little circle, so can you imagine, all around the world, how many people are trying to get one or two or three for themselves?”
If the watchmaker were to ramp up production, it might come at the cost of quality, which could itself threaten the brand, added Hodinkee’s Marino.
“What any elite watchmaker will tell you is that they produce as many as they can to maintain the level of quality that their customers expect,” he said. “Now, could Patek produce a ton more watches and put their name on it? They could. But then it wouldn’t be Patek anymore. The limited nature and the craftsmanship is what you’re paying for to begin with.”