From Joe DiMaggio to Albert Einstein, Princess Diana to Victoria Beckham, watchmaker Patek Philippe has long been a celebrity favorite. But the reputation of the Swiss brand has taken an unexpected turn in recent years.
“Since Patek Phillipe has always been one of the most prestigious watch brands, it was only fitting that it would be the one everyone was talking about,” he said via video call.
“Hip-hop has a long and storied history of screaming the brands artists love, dating back to Run-DMC’s ‘My Adidas’, and the watches just happened to catch fire.
Rapper Future wears a Patek Philippe watch to the UNCF Mayor’s Masquerade Ball in 2016. Credit: For Griffin/WireImage/Getty Images
“Rappers are smart,” he added. “They know what status means and they know what exclusivity means. You would expect rappers to talk about Richard Mille, because it’s a young, flashy, ‘new money’ watch brand. – and rappers love that one too – but I love that they love old fashioned watch brands.
“By positioning themselves as patrons of Patek, rappers are positioning themselves in the line of elites dating back to the 19th century. That’s power.”
The brand’s place in pop culture is a far cry from its “Generations” ads of the 1990s, which featured mostly white parents and their children bonding over treasured watchmaking heritages. The memorable campaign helped establish the famous slogan: “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You just take care of 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 pleased the 182-year-old company. But, Marino said, the watchmaker hasn’t visibly repositioned its brand – nor does it have to worry about becoming too popular: “In many ways, the young audience – the hip-hop audience – may have found Patek 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 it being seen as a flash in the pan,” he said, adding, “Twenty-seven, that was ages ago in hip-hop, and people are still talking about those watches.”
A watch from the Nautilus range, which contains some of Patek Philippe’s most sought-after models, on display at the Baselworld 2019 luxury watch and jewelry show 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 customers,” she said over the phone. “But recently it’s been the whole younger generation – the second or third generation (bottom) of the first collector clients we’ve had.
“Their style of collecting and the types (of watches they are interested in) are quite different. In the past, experienced collectors sought out the more complicated versions of products. Nowadays, they tend to opt for simpler functions – something simple in appearance. or made from different materials. Whereas previously 80% of our Patek Philippe watches we sold were (made from) precious metals, today most customers ask for stainless steel watches.
“It’s rare that (watches) really pass to the next generation,” she added. “But it’s a brand that connects generations.”
More money, less hassle
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 of the Patek Philippe factory in Geneva. Credit: Archive Bettmann/Getty Images
But its most exclusive range turned out to be one of the least complicated: the Nautilus.
Designed to look like a ship’s porthole, Nautilus watches cost over $30,000 each, with aftermarket prices often significantly higher. After popular ranges like Calatrava from 1932, the collection was launched in 1976 and was worn not only by royalty and rappers, but also by business moguls, athletes and Hollywood stars.
Then, last year, the company offered an unexpected response to demand: it dropped 5711.
In the aforementioned Times article, company chairman Thierry Stern, whose family has run the watchmakers since 1932, suggested that Patek Philippe didn’t want to be seen as a one-size-fits-all brand. “We make about 140 different models at Patek Philippe, and the base reference 5711 in steel is just one of them,” he said. “We have many other models that are more complicated and arguably more beautiful.”
aura of exclusivity
Waiting lists and soaring resale prices clearly reinforce the brand’s aura of exclusivity. But scarcity can be a real matter of supply and demand. While Rolex is supposed to produce around one million watches a year, Patek Philippe’s annual production could be as low 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 a short time, they really can’t meet it. Over the past two years, my monitoring circles are seeing 10 times the normal requests for the Nautilus or the Aquanaut,” she said, referring to another popular range launched in 1997.
“It’s just my little circle, so can you imagine, all over the world, how many people are trying to get one, two or three?”
If the watchmaker were to increase production, it could come at the expense of quality, which could itself threaten the brand, added Marino de Hodinkee.
“What any elite watchmaker will tell you is that they produce as much as they can to maintain the level of quality expected by their customers,” he said. “Now, could Patek produce a ton more watches and put their name on them? They could. But then it wouldn’t be Patek anymore. Limited nature and craftsmanship is what you pay for to begin with.”